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Forge Mill Museum in Redditch and the Art of Needle Making

I had always connected the city of Redditch as the hometown of ENTACO Ltd,  the last of the Hand Sewing Machine needle company in England. It was only recently that I learnt that Redditch was the epicentre of all the dramatic developments in hand sewing needle making for hundreds of years beginning 16th century.

The western religious texts supposedly mentions needle as one of the five tools brought to Paradise by Adam! The trend for grand personal adornment by garments was quite the rage in 16thcentury and needles were in demand. Around the 1600s it was an exotic and rare object. A silver or gold needle was considered a splendid gift amongst the wealthy. Needles were such a useful and indispensable tool that an anecdote circulating in 1850 was that needles can be exchanged for a wife in Sudan! North Americans supposedly bartered land for pockets of needles.

Forge Mill Museum, Redditch

The Spaniards were reportedly the masters of needle making, passing their skills on to the British in early 16thcentury. Prior to Spanish needle workers arriving in England, needles were crude and rough in manufacture, typically carried out by a blacksmith. The English needle makers began importing the specially drawn wire from Spain and Germany, who excelled in drawing wire, and final fabrication of the needle was further developed by the English. The small town of Redditch went on to become world famous for its high-quality manufacturing of handmade sewing needles. The use of water power to polish the needles since the early 1700’s, had given the Redditch area a technical advantage over the competition. At its peak, Redditch produced 90% of the world’s Hand sewing needles.

Forge Mill Needle Museum in Reddich, England, tells the fascinating and sometimes gruesome story of needle making in Victorian times.  It was a cold Thursday morning on 3rdApril 2019 and I decided to visit this museum. An hour’s train journey from London to Birmingham, followed by a 20-minute travel by local train and a short taxi ride took me to its doorstep.

Forge Mill Museum, Redditch

The museum comprises two blocks of historic red brick buildings.  You can step back in time and experience the largely unchanged atmosphere of an original Hand Sewing Needle factory- right down to machines, tools, wire of that era and even factory grime and cobwebs added by the museum for effect. Much of the original Victorian water powered machinery remains and visitors get to see a demonstration on Tuesday afternoons and on weekends. There was more than one TV screen where movies are broadcast starring actors playing parts of factory workers dressed in period costumes. There were also phones which, when lifted and placed to the ear, tell stories relating to the factory. The stream which provided the water was once known as “Red Ditch”, from which the town got its name. It was called Red Ditch because it stained the grounds with a thick red clay (iron particles?).

Needle manufacturing process was long and the best paid job was also the most dangerous operation of Pointing of needle. Slivers of metal could fly up and blind the worker. Or the grindstone itself could shatter and cause fatal injuries. Furthermore, to impede rust, needles were rolled in asbestos powder. A typical working day lasted 13 hours and six days of the week. It is not surprising that the life expectancy of a pointer was no more than 35 years.

Another floor entirely related to commercial aspects of the business – varieties of needles, applications, marketing, history of big names in the business.

Forge Mill Museum, Redditch

The variety of hand sewing needles displayed boggles the mind- long, short, thick, thin, straight, curved, sharp, blunt, flat, pointed… the variety is endless. They found applications not just in sewing clothes. Embroidery, pins, fishhooks, fishing tackle, harpoons, sail hooks, sailors’ palms, sewing machines, knitting pins, and bodkins, surgery, fishing… Each company of those times had arranged the needles artistically in a large picture frame to visually bring out the range and quality. These frames were taken out for display in world exhibitions in Europe and Americas. Gold, silver and bronze coins were awarded at these exhibitions depending upon utility, innovation, quality etc., These coins form the subject of several displays. When they are not touring around, the needle displays were brought back to head office and kept in board room. These are priceless and amazingly carefully preserved and the companies were generous enough to give it to the museum for display.

But, Redditch seem to have missed getting on the Sewing Machine needle bandwagon. In 1850s Singer, Elias Howe and some others invented sewing machines and did a fantastic job of marketing them. Businessmen in Aachen, Germany, spotted this opportunity. They designed needles for these machines, pioneered die press and other critical operations for fast production, high quality and similar challenges that sewing machine demanded. The pioneer among them was Leo Lammertz whose technology and machines are now used by Beissel in the Chennai factory in India. But that is another story for another time.

There were more than 100 Hand Sewing Needle companies in 19thcentury which amalgamated with each other mostly through marriage. One of the stellar names was Henry Milward and Sons which began in 1730 and  lasted four generations. The other was Abel Morrall started in 1785.  At its peak, 15,000 persons were employed in the factories.

During the World War II, the companies in the region diverted their energies into supporting war efforts. Men and women in the factories joined the armed forces. When the war ended and factory life returned to normalcy, there were inevitable changes. Companies consolidated and they morphed into different avatars including changing from family to corporate ownership.

Eventually, there would be only two companies – ENTACO Ltd. and Needle Industries Ltd. The latter started a factory in Ooty, India, and is now a 100% Indian owned company. Their Home sewing needles, marketed under brand “Pony”, is prized for quality around the world. ENTACO, which was owned by Coats, was subject of a management buy-out. But, their factory no longer operates in England. They outsource Hand Sewing Needles from another country and sell under the name “John James”.

Similarly, manufacture of Industrial Sewing Machine Needles grew phenomenally in Aachen, Germany, and was the only source for quality Needles worldwide. But, today no Sewing machine needle is manufactured in Germany. Our company was the first to buy machines of LeoLammertz and began manufacture in 1997. This was followed by other German companies moving to India. Therefore, India has now become the centre of both Sewing Machine and Hand Sewing Needles.

Redditch also was the home of two other household names in India – Royal Enfield which was eventually bought out by the Indian partner, saw revival first as a retro and now as high performance motorcycle. Another was Guest Keen Williams (GKN) which made a fortune selling humble safety pins. This company is now extinct both in India and England.

The museum has a shop which sells a large variety of memorabilia – books, DVDs, needles, fridge magnets etc., I bought as many as possible. The entrance fees is just 5.80 Pounds but entitles three repeat visits in a year on this single ticket. There are events through the year relating to sewing and art. There is a nice café too.

Forge Mill Museum, Redditch

The curator of the museum, Ms J Gloger, was kind enough to personally welcome us. There is a special bond between needlephiles and spent considerable time with us filling up with stories and patiently answering all questions. Ms Gloger took the trouble to retrieve from archives a write-up on Leo Lammertz and generously gave a printout. The other memorabilia we were gifted are similarly priceless and should be the beginning of our own collection.

There are two more needle museums in the world,  one in Stolberg, Germany, near Aachen. The other is by Bohin of France in Normandy, the scene of d-day landing during World War II. I have seen the one in Stolberg but the Bohin museum is still on my bucket list.

While reminiscing the day’s experience on the train returning to London, I realised the enviable (or unenviable)  position me and my colleagues are in by being part-inheritors of this glorious legacy.  Will we be up to the challenge of adding to the technological prowess in making this vital tool whose contribution to day-to-day living is too small to notice but too big to ignore?

S Ganesh

Managing Director, Altek Beissel Needles Limited

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