Sewing with a Bone Needle (Yes Again)

About a year or so ago, maybe a year and a half I read an article (which I have been trying to find again but can’t recall the name or author) detailing a particularly well preserved Dublin Hood. Preserved well enough to measure the space between needle holes as roughly 3mm. So fairly fine even with a modern needle. The common assumption I’ve run across is that you’ll never get stitches that fine using a bone needle, therefore metal needles had to have fully replaced bone and hawthorn as soon as they were reliably available.

Guys?

stitches

THOSE ARE 3MM STITCHES. CONSISTENT 3MM STITCHES. And the needle I used to make them. Thereby proving it’s possible to make stitches that small without the use of a metal needle. Which means we can not accurately date when metal needles almost fully replaced bone, horn, and wooden needles based on stitch length and needle hole size.

That also means that this dress will be as period as I can possibly make it shy of spinning the thread and weaving the fabric myself. That’s next. After I have the space and money for a warp weighted loom. Then, oh then, I will make myself something from start to finish. Oh yes. *Ahem* right. Moving on.

Doing this I figured out a trick for getting the stitches so little. In normal hand sewing I tend to judge the distance between needle holes and aim for a consistent length in order to get even stitches. Here that resulted in big, ugly, suture like stitches of uneven length and a seam so gross looking I pulled the thread out and started over. Then I figured out why. In normal hand sewing with a modern metal needle the needle passes through the fabric, cutting threads, but leaving the weave generally smooth and undisturbed looking. Sewing with the thicker bone needle shoved the threads out of the way and left a large hole in the weave, while leaving the individual threads intact. So when I was eyeballing distance I wasn’t taking into account the added threads that would normally be in the space that is now the needle hole. So when the threads started to fill the hole back in suddenly there was more fabric between the stitch holes, and you end up with uneven ugly wonky stitches.

So how do you fix it? Count threads. Seriously. Eyeball the number of threads between the needle holes you want to make, not the distance they’re covering. 4 threads are 4 threads whether they’re spread out over 3mm or squashed into 1mm. Added bonus to doing this? You end up pushing the threads back into their original place with the new needle hole, healing the previous one, without having to rewash the garment.

Note: This only really works to heal the previous needle hole if you’re using the stab stitch method I talked about last time I discussed how to sew with a bone needle. Otherwise it won’t shove the threads back into their appropriate place in the weave of the fabric when you pull the needle through AND counting threads becomes a massive pain in the butt with a lot of fabric flipping to see both sides of the seam.

Using this method I got the stitches you see above, small, consistent, neat, with a stitch length roughly consistent with what I get out of my normal hand sewing with a modern needle. It does take a little longer, but not so much so that I’m willing to rule out “new skill slowness” as the cause.

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2 thoughts on “Sewing with a Bone Needle (Yes Again)

  1. I’m guessing the information you saw came from one of these.

    Heckett, Elizabeth Wincott. 1987. “Some Hiberno-Norse Headcoverings from Fishamble Street and St. John’s Lane, Dublin.” _Textile History_ 18, no. 2, pp. 159-174.

    —–. 1990. “Some silk and wool head-coverings from Viking Dublin: uses and origins- -an enquiry.” _Textiles in Northern Archaeology_, ed. Penelope Walton and John- Peter Wild, pp. 85-96. North European Symposium for Archaeological Textiles, Monograph 3. [NESAT III.] London: Archetype Publications.

    —–. 2003. _Viking Age Headcoverings from Dublin_. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2003.

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