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Real Men Get The Needle


I have just come back from a busy summer working at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth on HMS Warrior “The First Iron-clad”. I had been brought in to create a suite of stories and train the staff in the art and craft of storytelling. As part of the application I wrote a bit about emotional engagement in historical interpretation:

A needle in a museum display case is often only noted for it’s surprising size and bluntness, but for large parts of history they were an essential part of an everyday toolkit carried by half the population. They were items of value, in the middle ages an entire play, “Gammer Gurton’s Needle” was constructed around the loss of one, yet they remain unexciting to the modern observer (like you, you’re not excited yet are you?) unless we can put the needle in the hands of a person with a life and a story that illustrates the importance of the needle to them. Even this may not work if we simply give the needle to a tailor and have them make a nice frock coat for Mr. Corbett to wear to the fair.

What if Mr. Tailor has a big order in but has been taken ill, leaving his poor arthritic mother to hand sew thirty naval gunner’s shirts by the end of the month?
Even then, it may be hard to grasp the real, personal hardship of the job unless we take some time illustrate old Mrs. Tailor’s struggle: What does the cloth feel like? Does the repetitive pushing of the needle through the layered seams make her shoulders cramp? Is it hard to see by the single candle which is all she can afford to use?”

Although factually inaccurate on a couple of points (as you shall see), this set me off on a train of thought: Vikings were famously well turned out, snappy dressers with a penchant for bling. They were also away from home for quite long periods of time, engaged in heavy manual labour and the occasional tussle. How did they maintain their sartorial elegance? Who sewed up the sword cuts in their expensive silk tunics? What about other travelling men? Explorers, traders, army and navy, lumberjacks? How is it that these men didn’t come home in rags and tatters?

The answer is simple: they sat down, they took out their needles and they sewed.

On HMS Warrior in the eighteen sixties this was directly illustrated by three things. Firstly, the records show that on joining the navy each sailor was given appropriate lengths of cloth and expected to make up the two pairs of trousers, shirts, collars and so forth that comprised their uniform themselves (so much for Mr. tailor’s big order!); secondly, amongst the personal items each crew member kept in their ‘ditty box’ was their sewing kit (so significantly more than half the population were carrying needles around); and finally there is a quote from a certain Mr. Dickens, an author of some repute, who visited the great vessel in 1863 which paints a picture of quiet domesticity: “some were working hearth rugs by a quilting process or embroidering pictures… We are all familiar with the British Seaman as a daring man, and a light-hearted cheery man but here we see him as a homely man, mending his clothes or shoes”. Those plying their needles in the quote above include Royal Marine Artillery Gunners who were crewing the biggest, most powerful guns yet made. It seems the rougher and tougher the job the more likely it was that a man would have to engage with the delicate art of needlecraft. If history is anything to go by, real men sew!

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