HOG BRISTLE NEEDLES

     © Jack C. Thompson 

    Illustrations by Carl Furfaro

    It is not uncommon to find rather large holes at the sewing stations of medieval books. These holes are sometimes described as "V" cuts. In my experience, the cuts are generally slits which have been enlarged by passing a bodkin through the slit and pushing one edge inward and away from the plane of the slit.

    For some years, I was puzzled as to why a binder would go to the trouble to prepare sewing stations in two distinct operations when one would do. I assumed that a metal needle was used. When I began to question that assumption and search the bookbinding literature I found few references to needles, and those all refered to metal needles. Books about needles and needle making concentrate on metal needles, perhaps because that is the sort of needle which has survived into our time. However, as Sylvia Groves points out in her History of Needlework Tools, the loss of the only needle in a well-to-do household formed the plot of the 16th century comedy, Gammer Gurton's Needle.

    The next step was to examine the literature of other leather working trades. In a shoe repair manual from the 1930's, I found an illustration and description of what is called a "waxend," a needle threaded by braiding a length of linen thread onto a hog bristle. Subsequently, I found a variation on the threading of this needle in another shoe repair manual; Allan Thenen located an illustration of the same needle in Diederot's Encyclopedia. Jim Croft found the needle illustrated in a book called China At Work. George Rioux, who apprenticed as a shoe maker during the 1930's, showed me how he was taught, and how he still threads this sort of needle today, when working on heavy work boots. A local leather store still carries bristles in stock for shoe repairmen. These bristles, sold in packs of fifty, or so, average 8 inches in length and come from China.

    The hog bristle needle is surprisingly strong and quite effective; I have sewn fabric with it, and closed holes in parchment which I have made. It does,however, have one serious shortcoming. The method of wrapping thread around the stem of the bristle before braiding leaves a shoulder of thread which must be protected or the needle will quickly unthread itself. 

    In use, the needle whould be passed through the sewing station with a twisting, or, rotary motion. If the sewing station has been enlarged this will be easy to do. If not, the twisting motion may carry the needle through a few stations, but will soon become undone.

    I do not know for certain that the hog bristle needle was used to pass thread through the gatherings of medieval books, but it satisfies my curiosity about the "V" cuts along the spine of early manuscripts.

    The following illustrations show a method of threading this particular type of needle which I have found to be easy and strong.

    In the illustration at right, the linen thread is shown untwisted, with many fibers drawn out until, after waxing, the end of the thread should come to a fine point. The flag, or split end, of the hog bristle must now be split along most of its length. This may take a little practice. If the bristle begins to split out to one side, increase the angle on the other side and the split will travel back toward the center, as it does when splitting paper or long cedar shakes. If the splitting begins more or less in the middle of the shaft and the tension of pulling from each side is equal, the needle will split evenly.

    The fine point of thread is now laid into the bottom of the fork and the ends are held closed by the thumb and fore finger of one hand while the thread is wound evenly a few turns toward the bulb of the needle.

    The point at which the thread is turned back toward the flags is important. The shoulder should be as thin as possible. When the thread has traveled a few turns past the point of beginning, begin a three strand braid, with the thread as the middle strand and the split ends as the other two strands.

    The illustration shows my method of holding the needle while braiding; others, possessed of a better bite, prefer to pinch the bulb end in their front teeth to maintain tension while braiding. After four or five turns of the braid have been completed, pass the point of the needle through the center of the thread to form a locking stitch, twist the thread snugly back to where the point passed through, and continue braiding for another four or five turns and make a second locking stitch.

    The needle is now threaded. All that remains is to roll the needle between thumb and fore finger, or against a hard surface, to make the needle and waxed thread a compact unit. With practice, threading a hog bristle needle takes only a few minutes. 

Thompson Conservation Laboratory
7549 N. Fenwick
Portland, OR 97217
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