Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The Need of the Idle

Our parents sewed out of economic necessity, to 'make do and mend'. but today handmade goods have become outrageously expensive, as needlework and other crafts that were traditionally practised by housebound housewives have been transferred to a few artisans who know how to market their wares to wealthy middle class consumers increasingly sceptical of mass production. At what point did handmade items become so much more costly than things bought in shops? Discussion of this topic is best left to sociologists and economists. I want to talk about 'needle threaders'.

Every sewing kit includes a needle threader – a tiny tin plate with a diamond-shaped wire loop attached. You poke the loop of wire through the eye of the needle, thread the cotton through the loop, then drag the cotton back through the eye. Almost invariably, the needle threader is embossed with the image of a face in profile – usually a woman in a helmet (though occasionally a man wearing a laurel wreath). No matter what make of sewing kit, the same face is there. The designs are not identical, but they're similar. Here are two needle threaders that I have. Note the subtle differences. Click on them to see them up close.

Wikipedia says that the design of the needle threader is Victorian and that the face is that of Queen Victoria herself. Other online sources repeat this claim unquestioningly, though it is obviously false. It doesn't look like Victoria. It looks like Minerva, or perhaps Marianne, the emblem of France.

Who is she and what does she symbolise? Was she once the trademark of a single sewing company, so successful that it has been copied universally? Are all needle threaders manufactured in one place – in China? – according to a limited range of tin stamps, before being shipped in their millions, or billions, to sewing companies across the globe? I want to know the answer to this riddle, as it seems important. One day the face will disappear entirely.

As the years pass, the face of the needle threader loses its identity. We may never know who it is or whose trademark it originally represented. It is an orphaned signifier, yet it persists, like the memory of an embroidery dream. It is the face of mass-production, of uniformity, and although it is minuscule, cheap, fragile and faded, its eye has been seen in every country in the world, and it is an imperial gaze that stares back ruefully at those who squint over their domestic needlework.


  1. I think it is the face of Theseus, from Greek Mythology fame. Ariadne gave him a ball of thread, allowing him to retrace his path out of the maze.

    Not all needle threaders have that image, which I didn't realise until I searched it on google images. Some are of Ariadne herself, occasionally the Minotaur's horns, and other vaguely relevant images are used instead, generally according to what type of needles the threader is meant to thread.

    1. The idea that it is Theseus is a great one! And I like how different faces thread the eyes of different needles.

  2. It could be Arachne who had a weaving completion with Minera.