A needle in the haystack: Finding the Worshipful Company of Needlemakers

I said at one point that I hadn’t been able to ascertain who made the needles in 16th Century London. There was a reason for this… everyone was doing it.

Well, sort of.

The supply of [needles] for the English market seems to have been dominated at first by German merchants until 1563 when the Importation Act attempted to check this trade.

By the late 16th and early 17th centuries needlemaking was carried out in various areas of London.  Many workshops were to be found in the buildings on London Bridge and around the bridgeheads, others were on the outskirts of the City, particularly Whitechapel, but the craft was still not organised on a guild basis.

Nevertheless, it was a rule of the City that all who wished to trade or manufacture within its limits had to be Freemen of the City and one qualification for that was the freedom of a livery company, so we find needlemakers joining companies including the Blacksmiths, Drapers, Merchant Taylors, Dyers, Tallow Chandlers and Ironmongers in order to gain the Freedom of the City. However, this was not entirely satisfactory for they were in a minority in these Companies and it was impossible to control the quality of workmanship or materials, to restrict the number of apprentices or the importation of needles from abroad.

The Worshipful Co of Needlemakers| Our History
(emphasis mine)

Ständebuch Jost Amman - Der Nadler
“Der Nadler” aus Eigentliche Beschreibung aller Stände auf Erden (1568)

So all the cool kids were doing it. Pretty much anyone who could get their hands on some steel wire were going to make some needles with it at some point. The Blacksmiths and Ironmongers make perfect sense — we were talking about steel after all — but I was especially intrigued to find that the Drapers and Merchant Tailors were trying to fold needlemakers into their ranks. It gives me flashbacks to the pinners being worked over from both ends of their supply chain. I’m surprised the Haberdashers stood for it, since they would normally be the middlemen for getting those smallgoods from the craftsmen to the tailor.

Noticeably absent from that rollcall, the Wiredrawers, who worked so hard to back the the pinners into a corner. I wonder why they didn’t do the same with the needlemakers.

Anyway, a formal company wouldn’t be granted letters patent until after the Civil War, when they were granted Freedom of the City in their own right by Oliver Cromwell, 10 November 1656.

So the craft was alive and kicking in the period we’re looking at, it just wasn’t well-organized. Kinda like me.

More later,

~ Scott

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