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A History and Development of the Needle Case

By Lady Blitha of Wolfhou (Barbara Miller)


October 2008

I. Introduction:

It is such a small useful thing, the needle case. Used to carry needles; keeping
them handy to use, safe, and secure. Needles made from metal or bone have been found
at sites from the late Iron Age on. Wood, thorn, fish bone and other degradable materials
probably also were used to pull thread through fabric, however, these have not turned up
in archaeological digs. Metal needles of copper, iron, or bronze were very valuable.
Larger needles would have been used with an awl to make a hole through leather or
coarser cloth for the thread to pass through. Smaller needles, particularly the metal ones,
are best suited for sewing fine cloth or for embroidery. Bone needles, both large and
small, with rounded or wider eye-ends, were used in single-needle knitting (nalebinding),
pattern weaving, sewing or darning coarser thick fabrics, and a great many other uses.
The longest needles may have been used as garment fasteners rather than as a sewing
implement. The needle case, or needle box as it sometimes is called, was created to
protect this small tool. Needle cases made of bone, wood, ivory, leather, fabric and metal
have been found. They have been designed to be worn on the person, carried in a pouch,
or stored with the other sewing supplies.

The needle cases found throughout history are interesting glimpses into a
culture’s fashion and practicality. There are needle cases and needle boxes. Pins can
likewise be stored in their own pin cushions or pin cases, or stored jointly with needles.
Many early cases have been found in funerary urns of the Angles, Saxons, Frisians,
Anglo-Saxons, and early 1st-5th century peoples in northern Europe. Suspension methods
are not evident, so they may have been carried in a pouch, kept with sewing work, or
suspended by a cord or ribbon tied around the middle or strung through the center.
Needle cases, needles, scissors, and other textile tools were important enough to be
buried with the remains, presumably to be used in the afterlife.

Needle cases with needles, scissors, knives, and other domestic tools are found in
abundance in Viking and Norse graves in the northern latitudes from about the 8th to the
10th century. They are usually found in positions where they were worn hanging from a
brooch in the clavicle area of the dress. Women’s dresses had a pair of brooches in this
area, from which many small domestic tools, keys, beads and ornaments were worn
suspended by chains, cords, or ribbons. Many of the needle cases have survived from this
culture because they were part of the attire, an important domestic tool, and thus were
buried or cremated with the body.

Fashions changed in Europe, Scandinavia, and Greenland by the 10th century.


Needle cases and many domestic tools were not worn as part of the attire. With the influx
of Christianity, grave goods did not accompany a person after death. Thus, needle cases
and domestic tools are seldom found in graves. It becomes more of a chance that they
have been found in homes, workshops, and surrounding archaeological excavations.
Fewer needle cases have been found, but that did not mean this safeguard of needles and
pins were used less or were less important.

From the 13th through 16th centuries, needle cases seem both to have been
suspended, and not. Some needle cases and needle boxes have been found without the
means to hang them, so these must have been stored with the sewing work. Other needle
cases have been found with caps or missing caps, which when strung, would have
encouraged the closure of the needle case when suspended from a belt or sewing frame.
Plain utilitarian needle cases that doubled as bobbins for thread have been found. There
are a few remaining beautifully decorated metal, leather, bone, and embroidered needle
cases. Gifts of needle cases are noted in personal letters, and needle cases by the gross are
noted in merchant ship manifests. Sewing items were found in chests of personal
belongings of sailors on the Mary Rose. In homes, they may have been kept in baskets or
boxes with the sewing and mending and other sewing supplies. Small chests and boxes
with multiple drawers seem to have been used for sewing tools in the 16th century.
Needle storage existed in a variety of forms, but are not as archaeologically numerous.

Thus, now we look at specific needle cases and mentions of them found through
out history. To better understand the tool in a culture, a bit about the culture and other
items a case has been found with is mentioned. Hopefully this gives a more rounded view
of the needle case in its society.

II. Needle cases in History:

Egyptian:

One of the earliest examples of a needle case was found in Egypt and dates from
th
the 12 Dynasty (Middle Kingdom). It was found in the town of Kahun, south of Giza
and Saggara. Kahun was the town for the artisans and laborers who worked on King
Senwosret II’s pyramid complex (1897-1878 BC). The town was deserted after about 100
years1. This needle case (Kahun Gallery, EGY97) is made of a hollow bird bone, and a
piece of reed bound on by a bit of cloth. A threaded copper needle and a wooden pin or
bodkin was found within the bird bone. It measures 150 mm. (Fig 1) There were 5 other
copper needles found at Kahun.

Fig.1 – Bird bone needle case from Kahun, Egypt, 12th dynasty. It measures 150 mm.2

1
http://kahun.man.ac.uk/gallery_artefacts.htm
2
Drawn from a small photo found at http://kahun.man.ac.uk/gallery_artefacts.htm, so I may not have the fabric binding
drawn exactly right.
Roman:

The Romans had bronze needles. Some had multiple eyes, possibly to prevent the
thread from slipping off the needle.3 Romans used needle cases to protect the needles
from loss. One find was a cylindrical bone tube, 57 mm long, dating from the 1st-3rd
century AD.4 Another, more elaborate bone needle case had been squared inside and out,
with incised crosses. That one dates from the 2nd-3rd century AD, and measures 76 mm
long.5 (Fig. 2) Roman needle cases have also been found in excavations at Chester,
Carlisle, and Vindolandia, England.

Fig 2 – Two bone Roman needle cases from between the 1st and 3rd century AD. The dotted lines denote
my conjecture of the complete needle case, since the photos I drew from were incomplete.6

Angle, Holstein, Frisian, and Saxon:

In about the 3rd century, the Anglo-Holstein tribes of people from Denmark were
moving east and into the Elbe River valley in current day Germany. Saxons were shifting
south and across the Elbe River about the same time. Along the Elbe River, the 2 groups
of peoples starting mixing. Sometime in the middle of the 4th century, the Angles and
Saxons truly mixed in the area of the Lower Elbe from Cuxhaven to Hamburg, and they
can truly be called “Anglo-Saxons”.7

Some examples of needle cases and items thought to be needle cases have been
found in Saxon, Angle, Jute, Frisian and Roman grave sites and excavations in the
Lowlands of northern continental Europe, in current northern Germany, northern Holland,
Denmark, and northeastern Europe along the North Sea. From these excavations, there
are many similarities in culture with what is found in Birka and Norse settlements. They
shared a Germanic language, northern gods and legends, aspects of dress, and certain
burial practices.8 Based on the archaeological record, women fashionably wore gowns or
over dresses with a pair of brooches near the clavicle area of the body, and long pins.
Small domestic tools were often suspended from one of the shoulder brooches, or kept in
a waist pouch.9

3
Graves, The History of Needlework tools and Accessories, pg 18.
4
http://www.ancienttouch.com/1111.jpg
5
http://www.ancienttouch.com/1095.jpg
6
Top case drawn from a photo found at http://ancienttouch.com/1111.jpg , and bottom case drawn from a photo found
at http://www.ancienttouch.com/1095.jpg
7
Owen-Crocker, Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, pg 10-15.
8
Owen-Crocker, Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, pg 11.
9
Owen-Crocker, Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, pg 19-20.
In northern Germany and northeastern Europe, early 1st through 5th century grave
fields contain urn, cremations, and skeleton graves. Urn burials are where a body and
grave goods were burned, gathered up, and deposited in special pots, and then buried.
Cremations are where the body and grave goods were positioned in a spot, in a coffin, or
in a pit and set on fire. It was then covered with dirt or stones. Many of the earliest
burials were cremations, so what a person was buried with was damaged or destroyed by
the fire. Some metal, glass, and bone objects may survive. Occasionally, items found are
not fire damaged as if they were added to the burial later. Skeleton graves are where the
body was buried with the grave goods, often in a coffin, or wood or stone lined pit, and
then were covered with dirt or stones. Some shifting of objects can be expected with
decomposition. Many early cultures built mounds over burials. Pagan burials often
included grave goods of what the person used, or may use in the afterlife. The goods
found in a burial may be an indication of status, occupation, gender, and useful tools in
the culture. When Christianity came into an area, burials did not include grave goods
other than what a person wore. Thus, between the 8th – 11th centuries or later, as an area
became Christianized, fewer needle cases and domestic tools are found in graves.

Several needle cases with needles were found in the Anglo and Holstein urn grave
fields of Oberjersdal Kreis Hadersleban, in Germany. One needle case was found in the
broken urn burial 38 (KS 5922). It is a damaged roll of bronze with an iron needle, 110
mm long, still within. (Fig.3- top and center) Also found in this grave were the damaged
parts of three bronze fibula brooches, an iron belt buckle, and 120 mm long sickle style
iron knife blade. In the decorated urn of Grave 45 (KS 5929), a hollow bone tube
contained two bronze needles, measured 105 mm long. (Fig 3- bottom ) These seem
rather long to sew with, but may have been easier to make. This grave also had an iron
sickle shaped knife blade (120 mm long). It is interesting to note that scissors were not
among the finds at Oberjersdal Kreis Haderseban, but in women’s graves, many had short
fat sickle-shaped knives.10

Fig. 3 – (top and center) The front and back of the metal needle case with iron needle from urn grave 38.
(bottom) The bone needle case with 2 bronze needles from urn grave 45 at Oberjersdal Kreis
Hadersleban.11

10
Tischler, Beiheft zum altas der urgeschichte, Das Graberfeld Oberjersdal Kreis Hadersleben, pg 5-6, Tafel 12 & 14.
11
Drawn from the archeological report, Tischler, Beiheft zum altas der urgeschichte, Das Graberfeld Oberjersdal Kreis
Hadersleben., Tafel 14 and Taf 12. Descriptions translated from Pg 10.
The hilly land along the banks of the Alster River has been occupied since the
Iron Age. The population by about the 2nd century may have been around 3000. Both iron
ore and salt found here may have been the economic catalyst for the population and why
other cultures moved in. At the urn grave yard at Hamburg-Fuhlsbuttel, Germany, the
earliest burials are Friesian and Saxon styles. By the 4th century, the urn burials are
culturally Anglo-Saxon.12 Two rolls of metal, thought to have been cases for needles,
were found in damaged urn grave 326 (Hamburg, 1892:200). They measured about 106
mm and 76 mm, and were about 6 mm to 10 mm diameter. The shorter one had some
lines scratched into it for decoration. (Fig 4)

Fig 4 - At the urn grave yard at Hamburg-Fuhlsbuttel, 2 rolls of metal, thought to have been needle cases
were found in Grave 326.13

At the urn cemetery of Altenwalde Kreis land Hadeln, in the damp sandy soils
near Altenberg near Cuxhaven, Germany, is an old cemetery used from the 1st through 5th
c. Many of the urns were of Saxon style. Some of the buried urns contained squared bone
needle cases. One even had an iron needle within. Urn 8065 contained an iron scissors,
glass beads, a small strip of oxidized bronze, half of a spindle whirl, an iron ring, and
parts of a squared hollow bone case (Hadeln 8069/70). It measured about 84mm long x
8mm to10mm wide. The bone needle case had a line of 4 circle decorations. (Fig 5- top)
An iron needle was inside, about 60 mm long. Urn 8059 had the remains of two armed
fibula brooches, melted glass beads, undetermined iron pieces, and a broken bone case
(Hadeln 8064) that measured about 10cm long x 12mm wide. This bone case was
decorated with three crosses and two pairs of circles. (Fig 5- middle). The Urn IX 190-
196 contained two iron keys, a straight iron knife with long tang, glass slag, bits of iron, a
smaller pot, and a squared bone needle case (specifically called a Nadelpose) (Hadeln
119c) decorated with a line of eight circles. (Fig 5- bottom)14

12
Tischler, Beiheft zum altas der urgeschichte, Das Graberfeld Hamburg-Fuhlsbuttel, pg 5-8.
13
Drawn from the archeological report, Tischler, Beiheft zum altas der urgeschichte, Das Graberfeld Hamburg-
Fuhlsbuttel, Tafel 37.
14
Waller, Beiheft zum atlan der urgeschichte, Das Graberfeld von Altenwalde Kreis Land Hadeln, pg 1,12.
Fig 5 – Squared bone needle cases from Altenwalde Kreis land Hadeln. (Hadeln 8069/70, 8064, 119c)15

Near Wehden, Germany, on hills along an inland lake that in the past was a wide
bay opening into the Elbe River and the North Sea, stone burial chambers from the
Bronze Age and Urn Burial Fields from the 1st to 3rd centuries have been found. Over
600 urn burials have been found from the Migration Period (mid 5th-6th century). Needle
cases were found at the Saxon style urn grave fields at Wehden.16 Decorated bronze rolls
were found in cremation graves 314 and 447. In cremation grave 314, a bronze needle
(Wehden, 314a) (62mm long) was found in a decorated bronze rolled tube (Wehden 314c)
that was 70mm long. (Fig 6- top and middle) An iron knife, parts of bronze brooches, and
glass beads were also found in this cremation. A similar decorated bronze tube (Wehden,
447c), 97mm long, was found in cremation grave 447. (Fig 6- bottom) Rivets and bronze
slag were also found with it.

Fig 6 – Needle cases from Wehden: Top- Bronze needle, 62mm long (top) found in the bronze tube from
cremation grave 314. Center: Decorated bronze roll needle case, 70 mm long, from grave 314. Bottom:
Decorated bronze roll thought to be a needle case found in cremation grave 447.17

15
Drawn from the archaeological reports of Waller, Beiheft zum atlan der urgeschichte, Das Graberfeld von
Altenwalde Kreis Land Hadeln, Tafel 6&14.
16
Waller, Der Urnenfriedhof in Wehden, pg 3, 9-10.
17
Drawn from the archaeological reports, Waller, Der Urnenfriedhof in Wehden. Tafel 46 (Wehden, 314a, 314c, 447c).
Anglo-Saxon in England:

The Angle and Saxon cultures blended both in northern Europe and in England.
The Anglo-Saxons were known as seafarers on the North Sea, attacking or trading with
the Gauls and Britons. The Roman army employed some Angle and Saxon mercenaries at
it’s forts in England. When the Roman army left England in 410 AD, the remaining
Romano-British peoples may have invited more to migrate in and help defend the country.
In the 5th century, the North Sea was rising and flooding the lowest lands along the coast.
It is thought that this sparked some migrations into eastern England, recently vacated by
the Rome.18 Anglo-Saxon influences are found in southern and southeastern England. In
the 6th century, more Anglo-Saxons arrived in England’s north coasts, with cultural
influences from Denmark and Norway. The Anglo-Saxons, from northern Germany area,
brought their language, religion, building styles, fashions, habits of wearing small
domestic tools, and burial practices. 19

In the 5th-6th centuries, Anglo-Saxon women seem to have been wearing a pair of
brooches at the shoulder or clavicle area to hold in place a peplos style tube dress or
overdress. Beads seem to have been worn between the shoulder brooches, in the hair, or
other unspecific locations. Small pouches of items seem to have been hung from the neck
or the belt. Domestic tools like small knives and spindles may have been tucked into belts
at the waist. A ring of keys, small picks, an ear spoon, small tubes, tweezers, shears, and
fire-steels have been found in some graves as if these items were hung tied to a belt or in
a pouch at the hip. Also, pouches sometimes contained cowry shells (indicating trade
with the Mediterranean), Roman coins, animal teeth, pieces of broken glass and iron or
bronze rings.20

Of the tubes found in Anglo-Saxon graves, only a few can definitely be identified
for needle storage. Tubes have been found made of bone, antler or sheet bronze. Some
are tapering tubes with a ring through the narrower upper end, and open at the slightly
wider bottom. Most of these tapering tubes have been found empty. It is likely that these
tapering tubes were for cosmetic brushes, based on finds of bristles in a tube at
Watchfield Grave 315. Some of the tapering tubes carved on bone or antler may have
been amulets. Speculation still exists whether these were just amulets or if cloth could
have been secured inside and needles may have been stuck into the cloth.21 Grave no. 15
in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, England was of a wealthy Anglo-Saxon woman, 20-21
years old. She was buried with a pair of broaches on her upper chest that must have held
her dress together. Beads were found where they would have hung between these 2
brooches. Fragments of an antler amulet or needle case were found in this area also.
Furthermore, she had a large pin that may have fastened a cloak, another pin, an iron
plate, 2 other annular brooches, and a knife.22

18
Owen-Crocker, Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, pg 10-15.
19
Cotswold, Anglo-Saxon Gallery text.
20
Owen-Crocker, Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, pg 35-71, 84-90.
21
Brown, So called “Needle Cases”
22
http://anglosaxondiscovery.ashmolean.museum/Life/clothes/clothes_women_g15.html
The clothing fashions in Kent are slightly different. This area has more
pronounced Jute, Friesian, and Frankish influences. More often than the shoulder
brooches, are a vertical line of brooches as if they are fastening a vertical garment closure.
Tools like knives, keys, coins, rings, and such were hung from a belt. Other larger grave
goods buried with the body could include domestic tools like weaving implements and
glass vessels.23 A grave of a woman wearing a case with needles was found in the 6th
century grave field in Kingston Down, Kent, England. The cylindrical open ended tube
(Fig 7) was found in female grave 222. The bronze (copper-alloy or brass) tube (2.M
6336) was engraved with lines around, with zigzags, and with a band of knot work. It
measured about 95mm long and 15mm diameter. This contained two bronze (copper-
alloy or brass) needles that were about 45mm long. And the archaeological report
mentioned that it had “a small piece of linen cloth, which had served to keep the head or
lid of it the tighter on, was found fresh, white, and strong”. A larger brass cylinder with
cap and chains, thought to be a small work box, an iron bell, other small chains, a key,
and a box containing a brass ring were also found in this grave.24

Fig 7 – Bronze 6th c needle case from Kingston Down, Kent (2.M 6336)25

“Butler’s Field” is an early urn, cremation, and grave field in the Thames Valley
The oldest graves and cremations date from the late 5th c- the 7th centuries and have many
Saxon and Anglo-Saxon influences. From the 7th and 8th century, there are more Christian
style burials and influences. In the earliest 6th century phase of Butler’s Field, women are
buried with Saxon style saucer brooches worn in pairs in the clavicle area. Some women
were wearing Romano-British style brooches. Some even were wearing both style
brooches. By the later phase of the 7th and 8th century, fashions must have changed and
women were not wearing the pairs of brooches.26 In a skeleton grave 18, a lady about 25
to 30 years old was buried in a coffin that was surrounded by stones. It is from the 6th
century phase of the grave fields. She was buried with numerous items, including a pair
of silver coated copper tubes along with a small iron ring (Butler Field, 334,342). Strung
together on a cord or strip of fabric looped on the iron ring, it is possible these may have
been cases for needles. The tubes measured 37mm and 37.5mm long. They each had 2
pairs of three lines encircling each end. The iron ring was about 20mm diameter. (Fig 8)
They were found in close association with iron fragments, like pins or nails corroded
together, and iron picks. They were in the mid torso, between and lower than the oval
turtle brooches, where needle cases have been found before.27

23
Owen-Crocker, Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, pg 90-102.
24
“Kingston Down Grave 222, Novum Inventorium Sepulchrale: Kentish Anglo-Saxon Grave Goods in the Sonia
Hawkes Archive.
25
Drawn from picture and sketch found in “Kingston Down Grave 222, Novum Inventorium Sepulchrale: Kentish
Anglo-Saxon Grave Goods in the Sonia Hawkes Archive.
26
Cotswold, Anglo-Saxon Gallery text.
27
Boyle, Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Butler’s Field, Lechlade, and Gloucestershire, pg 61-63.
Fig 8 - Pair of silver coated copper tubes, cross sections of the tubes, and small iron ring from Grave 18,
Butler’s Field (334, 342).28

Viking and Norse:

The Viking culture from the 8th through 10th century is well known for its
numerous needle cases. It was fashionable for women to wear a pair of brooches in the
clavicle area near the shoulders. It is accepted by fashion scholars that these pinned
together the straps of an overdress. Domestic tools like scissors, small knives, whet
stones, needles in needle cases, and items for hygiene like tweezers, ear spoons, and
combs, and ornaments like beads, spiraled wire, and pendants were suspended from a
brooch.

Needle cases made of bronze, bone, and iron have been found in Norwegian
excavations of settlements and grave fields. From Meloy, Rodoy, Nordland, a 9th c needle
case (Historisk Museum Bergen, B5393) (Fig 9) was found in a rich female grave. It was
a cylinder of sheet bronze, open at both ends, and had a ring in the center. It measures 57
mm long.29

Fig 9 – Bronze needle case from 9th c Norway. (Historisk Museum Bergen, B5393)30

Birka, on Bjorko Island, was a Viking trading town from about 750 AD until it
was virtually abandoned about 975 AD31. During the excavations at Birka from the
Black Earth, where peoples lived and worked, 140 needle cases were found. Four were
bronze, and the remainders were made from hollow long bones. They ranged in length
from 40-80 mm with most of them 50-70mm long. From the excavations of the graves at
Birka, 67 cases were found in women’s graves and 2 were in men’s graves. Forty-nine of
these were made of bronze, 2 of silver, 6 of iron, and 12 of bone. Thirty-eight of the
needle cases found in the graves had one or more bronze or iron needles inside. Many
cases had indications of textile fibers in the needle case. Notice that bone needle cases
were more prevalent in the Black Earth excavations where people lived and worked,

28
Drawn from Archaeological report, Boyle, Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Butler’s Field, Lechlade, and Gloucestershire,
Figure 5.45, grave 18.
29
Roesdahl and Wilson, From Viking to Crusader: The Scandinavians and Europe 800-1200, pg 241.
30
Drawn from photo in Roesdahl and Wilson, From Viking to Crusader: The Scandinavians and Europe 800-1200, pg
241.
31
Anderson, Tools for Textile Production, pg 70.
while metal cases were more prevalent the in the graves. This seems to indicate that the
bone ones were more common for use everyday, while the metal ones showed wealth and
status.32

Of the bone needle cases, many were about 55 mm to about 63 mm, and were
about 6 to10 mm diameter. They were made from hollow long bones of birds. Most, but
not all, had holes in the center for a suspension loop. Many of the bone needle cases had
decorative lines around one end, both ends, or around the middle decorated some of the
bone needle cases. Many had iron needles and fabric fibers within the case. The bone
needle case found in burnt grave 188 is typical. This bone needle case measured 57 mm
long and 6 to 8.5 mm diameter. It had a bronze loop in the middle, and one line groove
decorating the narrow end. (Fig.10 -top). The bone needle case in skeleton grave 1067
has several line decorations engraved around it. It was found near the right oval turtle
brooch on the skeleton, over the right side rib cage. This one measured 49mm long. There
is a hole in the center for suspension, but no metal ring. (Fig10 -center) The bone needle
case from skeleton grave 607 was of a young woman, buried in a short coffin with her
legs tucked up in fetal position. Close to her oval bronze turtle brooches was the needle
case, along with a horn comb, glass beads, iron scissors, iron knife, and iron needle. It
had carved lines encircling it. It was 63 mm long and about 10mm wide. However, no
holes or loops are apparent to suspend it by. (Fig 10 -bottom)

Fig 10 - Bone needle cases found at Birka. Top: Needle case from grave 188, has a bronze ring. Middle:
Needle case from grave 1067, with a hole, but no ring. Bottom: Needle case without a suspension hole from
skeleton grave 607. 33

Needle cases made of bronze, iron or silver were found in the graves at Birka.
Some were simple rolls of metal, others had additional bands of metal at the ends, and
some were fancier with caps. Most had loops in the middle, or near the middle of the
rolled case. Of the ones that had caps, a chain connected the cap to a ring in the middle of
the case. A ring was inserted in the middle of this chain and an additional chain was
added to suspend the case by.

32
Anderson, Tools for Textile Production, pg 87-88.
33
Drawn from Arbman, Birka I, Tafel 167.
The damaged needle case found in burnt urn grave 456 was a simple roll of
bronze plate. It measured 89 mm long x 7 - 8 mm diameter. It was decorated with
crossing lines. (Fig 11- top) Fragments of a bronze chain, bronze brooches, a folding
knife, another knife, glass beads, and fragments of another bronze tube with silver melted
into the lines decoration around it were also present in this urn. A similar bronze tube
needle case (not pictured) was found in cremation grave 345, only it was shorter,
measuring 52mm long.

A bronze or iron tube with bands on the ends and a band in the center that formed
a wide loop was often seen among needle case styles. In the cremation urn burial 935, the
tube was 55mm long and had remnants of an iron needle inside. (Fig.11–second down)
Also in this urn were fragments of an iron key on an iron ring, small iron knife, iron nail,
rivets and burnt bone. The needle case in skeleton Grave 983 (not pictured) was like the
above mentioned one, but it was 60mm long, made of iron, and had an iron needle inside.
Also in this grave were a pair of 2 oval turtle brooches, another bronze brooch, an iron
knife with bronze sheath, and the iron needle case in the chest area, and a silver round
brooch with 3 silver and bronze sheet metal dangles and 29 glass beads around it at the
neck area. Iron scissors, iron keys, and round iron weight were at the hip area.

The bronze needle case found in skeleton grave 649 was interesting. There was a
four legged animal on top of the needle case barrel. The surface is badly damaged, but the
iron needle remains in the case. The case measures about 60mm long, and the animal on
top measured 24 mm long x 6-9mm wide. (Fig 11-third down) It was found bunched in
the neck/upper chest area with a necklace of 22 glass beads, several glass beads on silver
rings, fragments of a silver brooch, and fragments of a round bronze brooch that had
silver plate and red glass pieces alternating with round globs of stuff though to be an
enamel. A long bronze chain suspended an iron knife on what would have been the left
side of the body. Fragments of an oak bucket with iron and bronze sheet bands were at
the feet. And a green glass beaker cup was placed over the head.

A fancy bronze needle case with the bronze spiraled decorations was found in
skeleton grave 517. It was 5 cm long. Inside was a mass of thread with iron needles. (Fig
11- bottom) It was a fairly rich grave judging by the other items. It included a pair of 2
oval turtle brooches, 3 bronze brooches, a circular brooch, a silver cross pendant, 16 glass
beads (1 with gold foil, 3 with silver foil, 1 clear, 1 amethyst colored, 6 dark blue, one of
yellow glass, and 3 blue faience), fragments of an Arab silver coin, iron scissors, a worn
silver finger ring engraved “Allah”, and an iron knife. The bronze needle case and the
scissors were attached to an oval brooch by a chain.
Fig.11 – Metal needle cases from Birka. Top: Simple roll of bronze sheet decorated with lines from urn 456.
Second down: Bronze tube with bands on the ends and the center from urn 935. Third down: Bronze needle
case with animal decorating it, from grave 649. Bottom: Fancy bronze needle case with bronze spiral
decorations, from grave 517.34

Some needle cases have caps on them. A silver one from female skeleton grave
550 had a silver chain attached to an eye in the middle, and to the loop on the top of the
cap. This part of the chain was 90 mm long. The chains joined at a ring, which also
connected with the longer chain it was suspended by. The long part of the chain was 225
mm long. The needle case itself was 50 mm long, not counting the eye loop. It had
grooves decorating it near the top. (Fig 12-top right) The needle case, chain, and glass
beads were found grouped between and hung lower between the oval turtle brooches,
about in the sternum area. She also had iron scissors, an iron knife with the remains of a
leather sheath, a fragment of an Arab coin, and other bronze brooches. A bronze needle
case which had a similar lid and chain arrangement was found in skeleton grave 637. It
was made of thin bronze plates. It measured 58 mm long by 6 – 10 mm diameter. The
branched chain is bronze. (Fig12- bottom right) Inside the case was a pack of needles.35

An unusual object found in grave 464 at Birka was first described as a needle case
of Persian manufacture. There is an interpretation that it could have been a locket or
cover for a small bag made in the area of the Volga, Bulgaria, Eurasian steppes or the
Caliphate.36 This object was made of 2 silver bell shaped plates that were 82 mm long
and 8 mm thick. A beaten bronze strip was around the outer edges of the 2 plates. The
bottom was open. A bronze knob-like ring was at the top, and traces of silk ribbon were
in the ring. The plates were decorated with a Tree of Life engraved in matt gilt. Wool
material, for a small bag or for needles, was between the plates. It seems that there were 2
34
Drawn from Arbman, Birka I, Taf 168.
35
Translated from Arbman, Birka I.
36
Roesdahl and Wilson, From Viking to Crusader: The Scandinavians and Europe 800-1200, pg 257.
silk strips attached to the wool that slid through a bronze ring.37 Similar objects have been
found in the Volga-Bulgarian state in the women’s graves, worn on the side of the
breast.38 This one from Birka was found in the grave of a female, judging by the grave
goods since only the teeth remained, who was buried in an oak coffin held together by 31
iron nails. She had 2 turtle brooches that were 197 mm apart. They would have been
worn about at the clavicle area of the upper chest. On the turtle brooches were silver rings
and a silver chain 495 mm long that connected the brooches. A third brooch, in a
Carolingian style, was connected by a worn bronze chain. An iron knife with partial
leather sheath was connected to a turtle brooch by a 300 mm long bronze chain. A pair of
scissors and the possible needle case was hung by silk ribbons. There also were 53
carnelian beads and 19 rock crystal beads, and a green glass funnel shaped beaker cup.39
(Fig.12-left)

Fig.12 – Metal needle cases from Birka. Left: Possible silver needle case found in grave 464. Top right:
silver needle case with cap and silver chain is from grave 550. Bottom right: Bronze needle case with chain
from grave 647. 40

Of the six metal needles found in the graves at Birka that were complete enough
to be measured, five were 40-50 mm long and one was 105 mm long. Most were made of
iron, with the remainder made of bronze. They were about the size and shape of our
modern sewing needles, and were best suited for sewing finer woven cloth and
embroidery. The bone needles found at Birka ranged in length from 30mm to 210 mm.
Most were between 70-110 mm long. They ranged in width from 2 mm to 15 mm. Most
37
Arbman, Birka I: Die Graber, pg 132-133.
38
Roesdahl and Wilson, From Viking to Crusader: The Scandinavians and Europe 800-1200, pg 257.
39
Arbman, Birka I: Die Graber, pg 132-133.
40
Drawn from Arbman, Birka I, Taf. 167, images 1, 2, and 3.
were 4-5 mm wide.41 All of the metal needles, except the longest, and some of the
smallest bone needles easily would have fit into a needle case.

During excavations of other towns and farms near Birka (Pollista, Sanda, and
Saby), three bone needle cases were found. In excavations of a post-built house that was
carbon 14 dated 680-1000 AD in Saby (Norrsurda Parish, Upland), a decorated bone
needle case was found with a loom weight. Other articles found in Saby, which is near
marshy land suitable for growing flax and hemp, indicate linen production.42 When
needle cases discovered at Birka and surrounding hinterland sites were not found in
graves, they often were found in conjunction with metal needles, bone needles, scissors,
spindle whorls, and loom weights: all tools of the textile industry.43

Hedeby was a Viking Age trading site from about 808 AD to 1066 AD, located on
what is now the Baltic Sea coast of Germany. Fragments of two iron needle cases have
been found there, but no bone needle cases have been identified. Many bone needles
were found, but no metal needles have been found.44 The site conditions at Hedeby are
not conducive to the preservation of iron, but the lack of bone needle cases has been
noted. One theory is that the people in Hedeby dressed differently than those in Birka,
and that they did not carry around their needles in cases hanging from their brooches.45 If
needles, cases, and other domestic tools were not buried with a person, the archaeological
evidences are scarcer to find.

Excavations at Jarlshof, on a thin strip of sheltered land beside the sea on the
southern tip of Shetland, have revealed a long history of settlement. It is situated between
the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. This site had been inhabited from the Late Bronze
age through medieval times. Sometime late in the 8th century or early 9th century, Viking
raiders settled on this spot made higher by drifts over earlier settlements. They were
mostly self supporting, with imported luxuries like combs and glass beads. They farmed
the upper lands, raised sheep, cattle, some pigs, ponies, ducks and geese, and believed in
the Norse gods until Christianity was introduced in the 11th century. By the 13th century,
this spot developed into a medieval farmstead, and then declined until it was abandoned.

Several bone needle cases and one bronze one was found at Jarlshof. Among the
clay, stone, bone, antler bronze and iron finds from the earliest Viking era house,
outbuildings, and middens were many tools associated with fabric production and sewing.
An antler heckle and iron heckle tooth, many stone spindle whorls and loom weights,
bone awls, pins of various sizes, a perforated bone (4 ¼ inch long) that may have been a
thread reel or bobbin, and 3 bone needle cases were found. These needle cases were
found in an upper slope midden, thought to date from the early 9th century. One was 2 ½
inches long with an iron plug at one end and beveling at the other end. (Fig 13- top) One
bone needle cases was 2 ½ inches long, perforated with a hole through the center. (Fig

41
Anderson, Tools for Textile Production, pg 83-87.
42
Anderson, Tools for Textile Production, pg 107-108.
43
Anderson, Tools for Textile Production, pg 104-105, 105-106, 107-108.
44
Anderson, Tools for Textile Production, pg 130.
45
Anderson, Tools for Textile Production, pg 147-148.
13- bottom) A third needle case was broken. It was described as being 3 inches long, with
a hole in the center, and had 2 slightly converging lines engraved on the outside.46

Fig13- Two of the bone needle cases from the excavations at Jarlshof. Top: is a hollow bone needle case, 2
½ inches long, plugged at one end with an iron plug. Bottom: is a bone needle case 2 ½ inches long. Both
are from a layer thought to be from the early 9th century.47

Other needle cases were found at Jarlshof. They were described, but not pictured.
From a layer thought to date from the middle of the 9th century, a hollow worked bone
tube, 2 inches long, thought to be an unfinished pin or needle case, was found on an
Outhouse floor level.48 Later Viking expansion at Jarlshof occurred toward the end of the
9th century and early 10th century. A third farmstead with outbuildings was added. They
were still farming the nearby fields, raising sheep and cattle, but based on the increased
numbers of fishing weights, sinkers and bones, fishing and hunting seal became more
important to their economy. Tools for wool processing, fabric weaving, and sewing were
still found in the communal middens. There were stone loom weights, spindleworls, bone
pins, awls, stone hones, remains of an iron pair of scissors, bone needle cases and a
bronze needle case. Needle cases include a 2 ¼ inch long bone with a hole in the center
for suspension, found in the upper midden level, and a broken perforated needle case, 3
inches long, found in the middle level midden. A small bronze tube with a ring attached
in the middle, described as a needle case, was found in an upper level midden.49

The Vikings raided along the coasts of Ireland from about 7th through the 12th
century. The Celtic native peoples unsuccessfully defended their lands, fled inland, and
often became slaves or wives of the Norse raiders. About 876 AD, King Hafdan started
encouraging trade and settlement over just raiding. Dublin, Ireland, had been a Celtic
settlement, then a fortified Viking camp. It became a trading settlement by the mid 9th
century and further developed into a trading center.50 The Viking cemetery there is at
Kilmainham-Islandbridge, about 2 km west of Dublin. Graves can be dated from 841 to
902 AD. Among the finds is a needle case. It is a tinned copper-alloy cylinder with a hole
in the center to hang it by. (Fig 14)51

46
Hamilton, Excavations at Jarlshof, Shetland, pg 122-123.
47
Drawn from Hamilton, Excavations at Jarlshof, Shetland, figures fig 57-5 and fig 57-3 on pg 122.
48
Hamilton, Excavations at Jarlshof, Shetland, pg 133/136-137.
49
Hamilton, Excavations at Jarlshof, Shetland, pg 146 and 148.
50
Konstam, Historical Atlas of the Viking World, pg 64 and 146-147.
51
Roesdahl and Wilson, From Viking to Crusader: The Scandinavians and Europe 800-1200, pg 320.
Fig 14 – Late 9th c metal needle case from near Dublin, Ireland.52

The Vikings sailed and settled in Iceland about 860 AD when King Harald
Harfagri was controlling the area of Norway, and in the words of the Icelandic Sagas,
“He made everyone do one thing or the other; become his retainers or quit the country”.
About 400 settlers with their Celtic wives, slaves and cattle were first to settle in Iceland.
Autonomous farmsteads were built. By about 930, when the first Althing was held and a
form of communal government developed, the population had grown to over 20,000.
Winters were hard on this island, but the volcanic activity made warm springs and rich
meadows. From the farm of Stöng in the valley of Thjorsandalar a needle case was
excavated. This farm was thought to have been destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mt
Hakla in 1104, but recent excavations find it was still inhabited into the early 13th century
when repeated eruptions, erosion, and climactic changes caused the settlement’s end.
Among the finds were imported pottery, soapstone objects, an ivory comb, locally made
objects, and a needle case. It is in a style similar to that from the 11th -12th century found
in eastern Scandinavia. It is a cast cylinder, 45mm long, with 3 additions around the ends
and the middle. These metal ribs have ends hanging down like teeth, and are decorated
with dot and circle impressions. (Fig 15)53

Fig 15 – Cast metal needle case found at Stöng, Iceland, circa 860AD to early 13th c.54

The Vikings settled Greenland toward the end of the 10th century, and the Norse
habitation there ended in the 15th century. AD. Bone and wood needle cases have been
found when excavating many Norse farms in western Greenland. Many did not have any
hole indicating they would have been worn. In Greenland farms, most weaving rooms
were sunken and located in the north-eastern most part. Warp weighted looms, weights,
spindle whorls, and other weaving and sewing tools are often found there.

Three wooden boxes thought to have been for storing needles were found while
excavating the “Farm Beneath the Sand”. This large farm was settled and inhabited from
about 1000 AD to about the 13th century. It was preserved under permafrost and sand
washed from the ice sheet and Lake Isortuarsuk. There were 6 phases of growth and 44
rooms excavated, though not all the rooms were existing or in use at any one time. The 2
52
Drawn from Item #R2410 in the National Museum of London, Dublin, found in Roesdahl and Wilson, From Viking
to Crusader: The Scandinavians and Europe 800-1200, pg 384.
53
Roesdahl and Wilson, From Viking to Crusader: The Scandinavians and Europe 800-1200, pg 384.
54
Drawn from Roesdahl and Wilson, From Viking to Crusader: The Scandinavians and Europe 800-1200, pg 384.
wooden boxes not pictured measured 120 l X 24 h X 20 w mm (GUS x6206) and 49 l X
20 h X 14 w mm (GUS x1753). The box pictured (GUS x1013) (Fig. 16- top) is the
middle sized box that measured 92 l X 33 h X 25 w mm. These are thought to have been
needle boxes.55 The farm “Sandnaes” was the largest Norse farm in the Western
Settlement, and was settled about 1000 AD. Tools for making and working textiles found
here were made from bone, wood and soapstone. A needle case (Sandnaes, D11715.348)
made from a 112 mm long bone was found. The opening at one end was closed by a
wooden peg. No needles were within, but it is still thought to have been a needle case.56
(Fig 16- bottom)

Fig 16 – Norse needle cases from Greenland, circa 11th-13th c. Top: One of the 3 wooden needle boxes
(GUS x1013) without a lid. Bottom: bone needle case from Sandnaes (D11715.348).57

English and European 12th-15th century:

Early needles in England were made of bronze, copper alloy, and iron by
craftsmen. They took a length of bronze wire, flattened one end, drilled or punched a hole
for the eye, filed the hole so it would not abrade the thread, and sharpened the tip end.
Often a slight groove was filed down both sides of the eye to accommodate the thickness
of the thread when sewing. Some medieval needles had a kink midway between the eye
and point to prevent the needle slipping out of the sewing project when it was set down.
The craftsman would then sell his needles to the pack peddler, who would carry them for
sale to the smaller town’s markets and fairs.58 In London, a bundle of 20 or more needles
were found rusted together (MoL BWB83), but with the imprint of tabby woven fabric
that had been wrapped around them. It is thought that the needles may not have been
finished.59 Needles may also have been bundled in cloth and carried for sale.

Needle cases of bone, leather, and metal have occasionally been found in
archaeological excavations. In paintings and illuminations, when a lad or tailor is sewing,
a small basket or box is nearby often showing scissors and thread. A needle case for pins

55
Ostergard, Woven Into the Earth, pg 30-31, 112-113.
56
Ostergard, Woven Into the Earth, pg 29-30, 112-113.
57
Both are drawn from a photo found in Woven Into the Earth on pg 112.
58
Groves, The History of Needlework tools and Accessories, pg 18-19.
59
Egan, The Medieval Household Daily Living c. 1150-c.1450, pg 269-270.
and needles could have been in there too. Mentions of needle cases appear in writings and
legal documents. They were made commercially for trade, and in the home for domestic
use. Needle cases of the durable materials have survived better than those made of fabric.
In the 1471 will of Henry Holme, a townsman in the town of Beverley, England, among
the items he bequeathed, a needle case of red velvet was given to Alice St Quintin, the
testator’s sister.60

Needle cases and pin cases were an item of trade, and imported into England.
Sailors on ships were often given a small space to carry their own trade goods for their
own sale and profit. Among the Petty Custom Accounts recorded in London from 1481,
on July 21, was John Yoman’s ship, John of London, with a crew and cargo. James Bolle
brought in a hogshead filled with 3 gross needle cases along with 6 gross of thread laces,
6 gross hatbands, 8 daggers, 3000 thimbles, 18 gross knives, 1 gross marking irons, 1
gross spectacles, 30 marks of scissors, 1 dozen tailors’ shears, and 1 gross pin-cases, all
valued at 8 Pounds.61 Cornelius Joosson sailed in on July 21, 1481 on Peter Jacobisson’s
ship Trego of Amemuiden. He brought a chest and a hogshead with 6 gross needle cases,
40 dozen pins, 10 gross inkhorns, 9 gross pen-cases, 3 gross spectacle cases, 2 ½ gross
small glasses, 10 gross boxwood beads, 2 gross imitation chalcedony, 4 gross small locks,
and 2 gross small bags all valued at 10 Pounds.62 Looking at these two ships, there was
trade between the Netherlands and England. When looking at needle cases found in
England and the Netherlands, note the similarities.

A bone needle case has been found in the London digs along the Thames River
from the late 12th century pit. It could have been older before it was thrown away. This
needle case was made from the long bone of a bird (MoL acc no. 84.206/3). It has 2 pairs
of holes in the center for metal rings to suspend the needle case when it is worn. It is 53
mm long and 10 mm in diameter.63 (Fig 17) The grooves on only one end may indicate
the possibility of a cap or plug on this needle case, but since it is not there, one cannot say
for sure.

Fig 17 – Bone needle case found in London, late 12th c. (MoL 84.206/3)64

From the Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval excavations at York, England, four


lathe-turned bone thread-reels, or bobbins were found. One is solid, and certainly was did
not double as a needle case. But two of these are hollow all the way through, and one was
60
“Medieval Beverley: the townspeople”, British History Online, http://www.british-
history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=36410&strquery=needlecase
61
“Petty Custom Account 1480-1:Imports-July 1481 (nos 158-156)”, British History Online, http://www.british-
history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=36076&strquery=needlecase
62
“Petty Custom Account 1480-1:Imports-July 1481 (nos 158-156)”, British History Online, http://www.british-
history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=36076&strquery=needlecase
63
Egan and Pritchard, Dress Accessories, pg 384-385.
64
Drawn from the drawing in Egan and Pritchard, Dress Accessories, pg 384-385.
hollow most of the way through. These three are thought to have doubled as bobbins,
made to carry sewing thread wound on the outside, as well as needles in the hollow
center. There likely would have been plugs or fabric within to hold the needles. Find
number 6690 (Fig 18-top) was found in Coppergate and dates from the mid 13th century.
It is hollow the whole length through. It measured 57.3mm long by 9.6mm diameter. Find
number 8021 (Fig 18- middle) is also hollow the whole length. It was found in The
Bedern. Find number 6691 (Fig 18-bottom) is hollow most of the way through. The
narrow tip is solid. It measures 56.5mm long and 7.9mm diameter. It too was found at
Coppergate, but dates from the 14th century. Similar bobbin-like objects have been found
in other sites in England dating between the 12th and 14th centuries.65 Except for lacking a
screw top, they are very similar to later bone and ivory needle cases of the 17th through
19th centuries (fig 29).

Fig 18– Bone needle case bobbin combinations found at Coppergate and Bedern, York, England and date
between the mid 13th to 14th c. Top two cases: bone thread-reels, Numbers 6690 and 8021, are hollow.
Bottom: bone needle-reel 6691 is mostly hollow for needles.66

Other than the one bone needle case noted in figure 17, the other cases found in
the London digs along the Thames date from late 13th to late 14th century deposits. The
needle cases found are made of leather, and of metal. They are suspended upright, and
would have had caps which would have been connected by the thin cord from which they
are hung. These needle cases could have been hung from the waist belt for convenience,
or as a show of wealth and status, or a bit of both.67

A leather calf skin needle case was found in a late 13th to early 14th century
deposit in London. It was made of 2 rectangles of leather, one inside the other. The
inside lining piece was taller to enable the fitting of a cap over it. The outer layer was
shorter, and had a slot on each side for the hanging cord. The missing cap probably also
had corresponding slots keep it in place. It was engraved with a quatrefoil and lines. It
measures 58mm long and 10mm wide inside.68 (Fig 19)

65
MacGregor, Bone, Antler, Ivory, and Horn from Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York, pg 1968-1969.
66
Drawn from sketches in MacGregor, Bone, Antler, Ivory, and Horn from Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York, pg
1968-1969.
67
Egan and Pritchard, Dress Accessories, pg 384.
68
Egan and Pritchard, Dress Accessories, pg 384-386.
Fig. 19– Front and Back of a leather needle case found in London, late 13th c to early 14th c.69

A very similar rectangular shaped leather needle case was found in Dordrecht,
Netherlands. It was 25mm wide by 65 mm long. Birds and foliage were shallowly
engraved on the leather sides. Slits for a narrow cord were on the sides. (Fig 20- top)
Another narrow leather case was also found in Dordrecht. This one was cylindrical, made
of leather, had slits on the sides for a cord, and measured 25mm by 65mm. (Fig. 20-
bottom) Both of these date from the 15th century. They were made out of hardened leather
and put together by gluing rather than by stitching.70

Fig 20 – 15th c leather cases found in the Netherlands.71

Three metal needle cases were found in late 13th to late14th century deposits along
the Thames River in London. They were made of thin sheets of brass, gun metal, and
copper. The sheets were folded or rolled, with flaps at the bottom to taper in the end, and
soldered to prevent any needles from getting out.

The brass needle case measures 59mm long and 6mm in diameter. It has a band of
incised chevrons on the tube and cross-hatched bands soldered around the top and just
below the middle. At the bottom is a narrow band of crosshatching decoration. This
needle case does not have loops on the sides, but the top is also broken. If it did not have
loops, it may have been meant to be carried in a pouch.72 (Fig.21 - top)

69
Drawn from the drawing in Egan and Pritchard, Dress Accessories, pg 384-386.
70
Goubitz, Purses in Pieces, pg 85-86, 101.
71
Drawn from sketch in Goubitz, Purses in Pieces, pg 101.
72
Egan and Pritchard, Dress Accessories, pg 384-386.
The gunmetal needle case is folded into a rectangular tube and soldered. A band
is soldered on along with loops for a ribbon or thin strap to pass. The cap is missing, but
it too probably had a cap with corresponding loops for the ribbon or strap. It measures
61mm long and 6-7mm in diameter. It would have been large enough to hold 6 needles.73
(Fig 21 - second down from top)

The copper needle case is a cylindrical roll with a second tube inside. It too has 2
loops added near the top for a cord to pass and hold in place the cap. The needle case
measures 55mm long and 2mm in internal diameter. (Fig 21 - third down from top) This
needle case contained an iron needle made from drawn wire with the eye flattened and a
hole punched in. The needle is 35mm long and 1mm in diameter.74

A needle case similar to this last copper needle case is a 14th century tin one found
along the Thames riverfront at Billingsgate. Its side slots had a trace of linen cord
preserved. That one measures 805mm long, 5mm inner diameter, and had a smaller tube
soldered along its edge that measures 52mm long and 2mm inner diameter. The smaller
tube enabled 2 sizes of needles to be carried. There was also a cross hatched band
soldered onto the bottom of the needle case.75 (Fig 21- at bottom)

Fig 21 – Four metal needle cases found in London and Billingsgate, late 13th c to 14th c.76

In Amsterdam, a 15th century pin case with its cap and eight brass pins with
pewter heads were found encrusted in the mud. The cord that held the cap onto the base
had decayed, but one can better understand how many leather and metal needle cases had
their caps attached and how they would have hung. The blackened hard leather was glued

73
Egan and Pritchard, Dress Accessories, pg 384-386.
74
Egan and Pritchard, Dress Accessories, pg 384-386.
75
Egan and Pritchard, Dress Accessories, pg 384-386.
76
Drawn from drawings found in Egan and Pritchard, Dress Accessories, pg 384-386.
into shape. It was decorated with a double row of impressed circles. It measured about
100mm long. 77 (Fig. 22)

Fig 22 – 15th c pin case with 8 pins found in Amsterdam.78

Devotional needle cases have been found in England and the Netherlands. There
is a mention in Marie of Sully’s inventory of 1409 of a silver pin case with religious
motifs.79 This one may have been similar to metal needle cases from the 15th century that
were cast or constructed metal tubular boxes, with inscriptions to Virgin Mary, the
Mother of God; to the 3 wise men, Jasper, Melchior, and Balthazar; or to the 3 Kings of
Cologne. The slush casting technique uses a cold mold. Almost pure molten tin is poured
into it, sloshed around to coat the inside, and quickly the still molten interior metal is
poured out leaving a hollow interior.80 These, like some of the metal cases found in 12th –
15th century London, were hung vertically from cords that ran through rings on either side
of the case up through corresponding rings on the cap. These could be hung from a
belt.81 A tin case (MoL, 86.202/2) found at London’s Bull Wharf (Fig 23-top) has written
on it in Latin, “mother of God, remember me” and “Jasper, Melchior, Bal (thasar)” on the
back side, and “Agnus Dei” written on the bottom. It measured 85mm long.82 A tin
hanging needle case (Fig 23 – bottom) in the shape of a tower was found in Schatten,
Netherlands. It measures 97mm long by 26 mm wide. A similar 16th century tower
shaped needle case (Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, F7614) measured 103 mm long,
was made of copper, and 2 needles were found within it (F7598 and F7609)83

77
Goubitz, Purses in Pieces, pg 100.
78
Drawn from photo found in Goubitz, Purses in Pieces, pg 100.
79
De Holacombe, A period Workbox.
80
Spencer, Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges, pg 11-12.
81
Egan and Pritchard, Dress Accessories, pg 385-386.
82
Spencer, Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges, pg 12.
83
Molen, Huisraad van een Molenaarsweduwe, pg 120.
Fig 23 – Top is a 15th c tin English devotional needle case.84 Bottom is a 15th c tin devotional needle case
from Schatten, Netherlands, 97mm X 26mm.85

English and European in the 16th century:

Steel needles are thought to have originated in China, and eventually the craft of
making them came to Damascus in Spain by the Moors. Cordoba was an early great
needle making center. During the Tudor times in England, steel needles were prized over
bronze ones. Katherine of Aragon brought steel needles, call “Spanish Needles” to the
English court to embroider with. John Stow, a tailor during his youth, wrote the Survey of
London and Westminster in 1598 that mentioned needles. He wrote, “In Mary’s time
there was a Negro made fine steel needles in Cheapside, but would never teach his art to
any”. “The making of Spanish needles was first taught in England by Elias Crowse (or
Krause), a German, about the 8th year of Queen Elizabeth.” As steel needles replaced
bronze ones, they needed a different storing technique so they would not rust.86

Once one had bought needles, one did not wish to loose any of these needles. In
London, fine needles were being made, and so presumable could be replaced for a cost.
But in smaller towns and rural areas, one bought metal needles and pins from traveling
pack traders, so replacing a needle may only have been done when the trader happened to
be in the area. A 16th century comedy, Gammer Gurton’s Needle, has a plot around
Gammer Gurton’s only needle that got lost.

Ladies often carried small pouches, sewing tools, pomanders, fans, mirrors, and
even small books from their waist belts. The more decorative and showy items sometimes
were worn from a belt end over the outer dress, but the more practical items could have
hung from a belt over an under dress. They had decorative needle cases, flat lozenge or
rectangular needle cases, and small pin cushions. Pin cushions may have been used for
pins in the 16th century, but may not have been as useful for needles since without a head,
needles could get lost within the cushion. A 16th century bronze needle case in the shape
of a fish was lifted up its suspension cord to reveal the needles stuck on a bit of cord. (Fig

84
Drawn from the photo of one found at Bull Wharf, London, as pictured in “Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges”,
pg 12.
85
Drawn from a reproduction made by Billy & Charlie, http://www.billyandcharlie.com/misc.html
86
Groves, The History of Needlework tools and Accessories, pg 19-21.
24-left) A jeweled one pictured in the British Museum “Guide to Medieval Antiquities,
1924”, was made of two jeweled metal plates with fabric in between. This silver nielloed
and parcel-gilt jeweled item, known as the “fermail de St Louis”, was thought to have
been an open ended needle case that was meant to hang.87 (Fig.24 - right) During Tudor
era in England, rectangular needle cases were preferred over lozenge shaped ones.88

Fig 24 –Left: 16th century fish shaped bronze needle case. Right: “Fermail de St Louis” thought to have
once been an open-ended needle case.89

Fine needlework was a pursuit of Ladies. Making and gifting embroidered needle
cases has been noted in letters. Recorded in the letters and papers at the time of Henry
VIII, in March 1536, Anne Basset wrote to Lady Lisle to thank her for her kindness, and
to ask for some cloth for shirts, hose, a little money for devotions, and that her Lady
would like some needle-cases. In the reply letter, Lady Lisle wrote that she was sending
money to buy smocks, and hose cloths, and “I have sent my Lady a needle-case; but as I
had no time to work it, I trust she will “take it gree”, and I will send a better.”90 In
another letter of this same time, Mary Basset wrote to Lady Lisle that she sends a needle-
case and a gospel to carry with her paternosters.91 These letters were going back and forth
between Abbeville to Pont de Remy.

87
Groves, The History of Needlework tools and Accessories, pg 19.
88
Groves, The History of Needlework tools and Accessories, pg 19.
89
Drawn from Groves, The History of Needlework tools and Accessories, Plate 1 and 2.
90
Henry VIII: March 1536, 21-25, Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, http://www.british-history.ax.uk/report.
aspx?compid=75422&strquery=needlecase
91
Henry VIII: March 1536, 21-25, Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, http://www.british-history.ax.uk/report.
aspx?compid=75422&strquery=needlecase
A 16th century Venetian Italian needle case was covered with exquisite
embroidery of flowers, a peacock, and other decorations over a hard painted tube. 92 It
appears to have been silk embroidery on a purple ground. Tiny seed pearls are sewn on. It
is worked over a lacquered and painted hard case. It seems to have been made to hang.
(Fig.25)

Fig 25 – an Embroidered 16th c Italian needle case.93

In a wall niche in the Buurkerd church in Utrecht, Netherlands, a small 16th


century leather case was found. It measured 20mm X 80mm and did not have a cap on it.
It had 3 inner compartments as if for different size needles. The compartments were made
first and tied together in two places. An outer casing was wrapped around and glued
together. The ridges from the tying of the inner tubes show on the outer surface, but there
was no further decoration. Nor were there any slits for string to pass through to hold on
the cap or suspend the case. 94 (Fig 26)

Fig 26 — 16th c leather case thought to be a needle case with 3 compartments from the Netherlands.95

In July of 1545 AD, the English warship, Mary Rose, sank. The excavations of
her provide a unique time capsule of items used in the mid 16th century, and the site
conditions have preserved much of what would have decayed in other conditions. Thirty-
eight sewing implements have been found and identified. It is thought some of the 114
male crew members had personal sewing kits since the implements were found in
probable sleeping areas, close to the carpenter’s cabin on the main deck, and in storage
areas on the orlop deck. Some were found unassociated with personal items, but most
were found in among destroyed chests or other personal goods.

An item thought to be a needle case was found on the upper or main deck, and
was not associated with any other sewing item. It is a hollow slightly tapered tube with
one end open and one end closed.96 (Fig. 27- top)

92
“Italian States, Needle case (Venice)”, Historical Needlework Resources,
http://www.photo.rmn.fr/LowRes2/TR1/FMOSV/99-016971.jpg
93
Drawn from photo and close-ups found at “Italian States, Needle case (Venice)”, Historical Needlework Resources,
http://www.photo.rmn.fr/LowRes2/TR1/FMOSV/99-016971.jpg
94
Goubitz, Purses in Pieces, pg 100.
95
Drawn from drawing found in Goubitz, Purses in Pieces, pg 100.
Four hollow wooden bobbins were found. They surely doubled as needle cases
since being hollow, solid at one end and open at the other end, needles could be stored
within. Three of the bobbins had wooden stoppers. One had the remains of pins and
needles inside. These were carved of ash, willow or alder, scots pine, and willow. The
bobbins had raised collars on the ends and in the middle to allow for the winding of two
threads. One bobbin seems to have been painted. (Fig 27- middle) A fifth larger, more
decorated wooden item may also have been a bobbin. It was found in a chest with other
personal items, including a thimble ring and thread. This one was about 110mm long and
30mm wide. There were 3 hexagonal collars, at each end and in the center, that were
decorated with a checkered pattern of raised and lowered squares. Hexagonal lines are
carved into the ends. This item is hollow most of its length, with a hole at one end smaller
than the holes of the other four needle case bobbins.97 (Fig 27- bottom)

Fig 27 –Needle cases found on the Mary Rose which sank in 1545 AD. Top: Possible needle case Middle:
hollow bobbin with a wooden stopper. Bottom: possible hollow bobbin with carved hexagonal collars98

In 16th century English shop inventories of 1587 and 1589, needle boxes are
mentioned. The various spellings include neel box, nedell boxe, box with needles, box of
needdels, and box for needles. They are described as made of ivory, painted, and as small
or large. Often in the inventories they are listed as numbers of dozens.99 A box would not
have been carried, but would have stayed in the work box or on the work table. These

96
Before the Mast: Life and Death Aboard the Mary Rose, pg 328.
97
Before the Mast: Life and Death Aboard the Mary Rose, pg 328.
98
Drawn from drawings found in Before the Mast: Life and Death Aboard the Mary Rose, pg 328.
99
Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities, 1550-1820, URL: http://www.british-
history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=57149
may not be recognized as needle cases or boxes even if they were found in archaeological
excavations.

III. Conclusions:

Thus, one can see some of the developments of the case to protect sewing needles.
Early needle cases were kept with other textile working tools or were worn for
convenience or status by early people of the north. These were often hung from brooches
worn at the clavicle area, from a belt, or carried in pouches. They were made of bone,
which was readily available and easy to fabricate, or of metal, which was a more
expensive material that required more skill to shape. Most were tubular in shape, open at
both ends, or plugged and capped. There are several variations and theories on how they
were suspended. But since parts of the early needle cases may have deteriorated over
time, there may be other interpretations of how the Viking and Norse needle cases were
suspended and used to protect needles.

For a possible methods of suspending and protecting needles, one can look to
more recent bone needle cases that have been found among the North American Inuit and
the northern Laplanders. One found in excavations of an Inuit hut floor was made of a
hollow bird bone, with pairs of incised lines carved around each end and the middle.100
(Fig 28- left) This style is very similar to the needle cases found among the early northern
cultures. A needle case from Lapland was made from a hollow bone that slid up a cord to
reveal a piece of leather for the needles and pins. Bone rings at the top and bottom
prevented the hollow bone cover from coming off.101 (Fig 28- right) While made of more
primitive materials, it works the same way to protect the needles as the 16th c bronze fish
shaped needle case, and possibly in the same manner as hollow tubes found without signs
of plugs or methods of suspension.

Fig 28 – Left: Inuit bird bone needle case of unknown dimensions.


It may have been suspended by tying a string to the middle band.102
Right: A Laplander needle case made from a bone that slid over a
leather strip that held the needles. It would have been suspended by the
upper ring, and the lower ring kept the cover from slipping off. Its
exact size is unknown. 103

100
Nadlok and the Origin of the Copper Inuit, http://civilization.ca/archeo/nadlok/nasewe.html
101
Groves, The History of Needlework tools and Accessories, Fig 1.
102
Drawn from a photo found at Nadlok and the Origin of the Copper Inuit,
http://civilization.ca/archeo/nadlok/nasewe.html
103
Drawn from Groves, The History of Needlework tools and Accessories, Fig 1.
Fashions changed and needle cases and other domestic tools were not worn as an
accessory. With Christian burial practices, items a person used in life were not buried
with the person, so the easiest source of archaeological record disappeared. But the need
for a case to protect needles still existed. Sewing and mending was a constant job.
Needles were needed kept safe close at hand with other textile working implements in
small boxes or capped tubes. Sometime in the 12th to 13th c, the capped needle case,
suspended vertically became the style. Most likely, they were hung from the belt. The
archaeological finds may have been accidentally lost or damaged and thrown away. They
were made of leather, which was easily fashioned with minor sewing skills, or made of
metal, which took more skill to make. Metal techniques improved from forming and
soldering cases, to casting them. Needle cases of other materials like wood or fabric may
have been used, but they have not survived. Other containers and pin cushions may have
been used and kept safe in a work basket, bag, or box. Without items purposefully buried
with a loved one, or saved, archaeological evidence is slim.

In the 16th century, needle cases are still needed and used. The technology of
making needles was changing, but one still did not want to loose any needles. As seen by
the ones from the Mary Rose, needle cases are single objects or combined with bobbins
making a multi use tool. Wood is being used by ordinary folks. Metal, bone, and ivory
were being used. Decorated needle cases could have been suspended from a lady’s waist
belt for accessibility at home, or kept in a container like a box, bag or basket along with
other sewing items like thimbles, scissors, bobbins of sewing thread, and pins.

Early in the 17th century, needles and pins were being made by machines. Drop
style “engines” brought complaints from needle makers in London who complained that
the machine made needles were inferior and depriving them of their livelihood. Thus,
legislation forced needle making factories out of the area of the tailor and draper shops in
London and into towns like Long Crendon in Buckinghamshire. By the 18th century,
water powered the machines. 104

A case to keep needles safely in were still needed. In 1625, Sir Ralph Verney
wrote from France where he had fled, back to relatives in Buckinghamshire, for them to
send his “Black leather needle case with great gold Bodkin, Paper of Pinns, Blew thread
shirt buttons, and old White round buttons, Cap Strings and Tape.” By the reign of Queen
Anne in England, needle books, often with embroidered covers and flannel “pages” were
popular, even though the flannel trapped the moisture and caused the needles to rust.105

Needle cases continued as a way of not loosing the pins and needles. There were
many fancy and elaborately turned and carved bone and ivory examples that protected
steel needles better than fabric and pin cushions. They often had screw top lids. (Fig. 29)
Larger cleverly made containers could combine thimble storage, pins, needles, bobbins of
thread and a tape measure into one container. Victorian needle cases could even be in fun
shapes like umbrellas and fisher folk. But it all comes down to the fact that the small little

104
Groves, The History of Needlework tools and Accessories, pg 20-21.
105
Groves, The History of Needlework tools and Accessories, pg 23.
thing, the needle case or needle box, has been useful in the past, and continues to be
useful right on to the present for storing and keeping safe the needles needed for sewing.

Fig 29 – Carved bone needle case with screw top and needle, c1880. 106

Note

I have drawn the illustrations from drawings and sketches and photos found in books, on the internet, and
in archaeological reports as footnoted. I have tried to do them all to the same scale for your comparisons.
The measurements taken in most archaeological data is in metric. The measurement bar on the illustrations
is marked in centimeters. Measurements in the text are in millimeters so decimal points are not as likely to
be lost. In the needle case quest, I have translated the reports from Birka, and northern Germany
archeological reports with as much accuracy as possible thanks to Google translations, a German-English
Dictionary, and grammatical advice from friends who actually have taken some German. Thanks also go to
my son, Ringer du Chester (Ryan Miller) for his technical help. Permission to reproduce this is permitted as
long as it is for educational purposes and not for profit. If you find additional needle cases or sewing
implements, I am open to more information! You may contact me at TheWolfhou@aol.com

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