Wired: The Worshipful Company of Pinners & Wiredrawers

So… why am I focusing on a group of people who weren’t able to foot the bills necessary to remain an independent livery company all by themselves? Because the plight of the pinners epitomizes to me all of the highs and lows of trade in the Renaissance. It is a tale fraught with foreign competition driving down prices and wages, trade wars, protectionism and nationalism, and the dependency that one trade has on another.

The pinners were in many ways under the thumb of the Worshipful Company of Wiredrawers. That is to say, the makers of pins were more or less taken over by their main suppliers.  It was an alliance that ultimately failed, but it was an important one in the history of the guilds.

Stadtbibliothek Nuernberg 

Wire drawing by hand was obviously a laborious process, dragging yard after yard of flat metal strips through a tiny cone-shaped hole. Early on, this was done by hand without so much as a pair of vice grips to ease the load. I honestly did not realize how this worked until I read Chris Caple’s book “Objects: Reluctant Witnesses to the Past” and he only went into it to explain why so many pins have a faint groove down the side. It’s the seam.

Some of the most interesting stuff in books like this are the asides.

This process (along with a higher zinc content) made the brass used by Elizabethan pinners significantly stiffer than what I can find on the shelf at my local hardware store. The technical term is “work hardened”  which is difficult to repeat with modern softer brass.

So, yes, they started with flat strips of brass, and dragged them through ever smaller holes in large plates of iron as the chap above is doing. Was it always done by hand? Thankfully, for his sake, no. Sometimes they used a water wheel or similar apparatus to gain some measure of automation, or at least mechanical advantage.

Maggie Secara sent me this image of a goldsmith’s shop that she used for a scene in her book The Dragon Ring (which I admittedly designed the cover for). The kid at the left of frame is operating a wire drawing windlass, though I imagine that drawing gold would require less force, it being a softer metal. (Any jewelers out there please correct me if I’m wrong about that.)

The goldsmith obviously drew his own wire in his own shoppe, even though there was a guild devoted to drawing gold and silver wire as well as brass and copper. The implication I draw from this is that the wiredrawers lacked the power to stop him from breaking their monopoly just as the pinners lacked the funds to enforce their crown monopoly by hiring inspectors to police the ports.

And ultimately, just as they absorbed the pinners, so too were they absorbed by the Worshipful Company of Girdlers. So this too became an all but defunct entity subservient to the greater company of belt makers.

That’s what wiredrawing is. What it’s not is something I’m going to demonstrate. I might get around to making my own draw plates and accumulating enough brass to make it worthwhile, but if so I will do it at the end of the year… if I can find the time.

It is time to return to the Big List and especially The Worshipful Company of the Haberdashers. Because the Haberdashers sold small homegoods like pins and combs and thimbles and whatnot, we will do a couple of quick projects on this one and talk a bit about Tudor economics.

See you this weekend!

~ Scott

Special Thanks to:
Rachel Jardine, The Elizabethan Costuming Bees on Facebook, and Maggie Secara (King’s Raven, her new novel from Crooked Cat Books came out last month and it’s excellent. I especially like the cover!)  A writer’s only as good as his sources and his sources should never be blamed for his mistakes.

3 comments

  1. […] When last we left the Worshipful Company of Wiredrawers, I spent a considerable amount of time examining them as an economics cautionary tale, but didn’t go much into the actual mechanics of drawing wire. The tools were too specialized, too expensive, and too hard to obtain at the time, so I explained how it worked and then moved on to the next thing on my list. […]

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