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By: A.I. Makki

  Hand sewing is an art form that is over 20,000 years old. In the present days though, many of us do not realize how much the modern civilization owes to the advent of the needle. Needles may appear to many of us as commonplace articles. However, it is not hard for one to imagine of the thousand-and-one uses for which a needle is used - for sewing our clothes, our shoes, and many of our household articles, even the books we read, are all made with its aid.

  The first sewing needles were made of bones or animal horns and the first thread was made of animal sinew. Although needles have been used from earliest times, there is hardly any person who can tell you their complete history, for they have been there from remote antiquity, and commonly used that nobody thought it worth to preserve their recorded history.

  If we try to trace the early origins of needles, we will immediately come to the conclusion they were necessary even in prehistoric times, as they are to us today. Needles have been discovered in Egyptian tombs, and in ancient cave dwellings. Some of the early needles were made up of fish-bone, wood, ivory, and were thick and heavy as compared with the modern needles. Although, some of them had eyes at the end or in middle, many of them had a hook at the end. It has been discovered that in recent times the Red Indian and other primitive tribes used the slender wing-bones of birds as needles, drawing sinews through the hides to sew them into garments for the cold seasons. Until recent times, the gypsies continued to use thorns boiled in oil to harden them as pins.

  If we turn to the Bible and the Holy Quran to look for answers, we find that the two books make a mention of needles in their texts. The chapter 7:40 of The Holy Quran makes a mention of needle in this verse. According to one of the early traditions that have been quoted in Zamakhshari in his famous commentary of the Holy Quran - Tafseer al-Kashshaf - relates that Adam (as) the first human being created by man brought with him from Paradise "five things made of iron viz: an anvil, a pair of tongs, two hammers, a greater and a lesser, and a needle." According to this account, the knowledge of the use of needle was passed down from God to man along with other things, after he was first created, and he in turn must have passed the knowledge of its use to others who came after him, and from them it was carried to different parts of the earth. During the time of Prophet Mohammed (saws) the people of Arabia were familiar with the use of needles.

  During the Bronze Age, it was discovered that better and smaller needles could be made from a new material. But there were also large needles, made in Greece to fasten the flowing robes of the Greek women. The Romans in the Iron Age, and in the Christian Era used both bronze and ivory needles. It is possible that some of them may have used needles made from silver. Fine pins made of silver were found in the tombs of Peruvians who lived in the Bronze Age when they were discovered by the Spaniards.

  It is believed that the Chinese were the first to perfect the art of manufacturing a steel needle. Some researchers trace its origins to India. During the Abassid era, the Arab merchants carried an extensive trade with far-flung countries of the world to obtain scarce metals. The Abassids imported the technologically advanced alloy of iron, which was similar to steel from India, and then processed it, and fashioned them into different iron tools, and perfected the art of making needles, at the famous centers of weapons manufacture in Damascus and Toledo, the cities, which had won fame all over the world for making swords and other blades.

  By this time, the science of Arab medcine had developed rapidly. The Arab armies after Prophet Mohammed had marched into Egypt in the year 639 CE and later traversed North Africa and had conquered Spain. In the year 641 CE Alexandria was captured by the Arabs. Here, the Arabs came across a great mass of ancient medical manuscripts, which had been gathered into a library. The Muslim armies, on contrary to the general belief held by many, rescued these manuscripts from the famous library before it was burned. The Muslims had developed a passion for old classics - they had translated earlier many of medical manuscripts of the Nestorian monks into Arabic - and they were among the treasures that were carried with them to Spain. Under their rule, the city of Cordova (Qurtuba) in Muslim Spain became the principal center of medical learning in the world. One of the greatest teachers of medical sciences in those times was Abul Qasim al-Zahrawi (936 -1013 CE)  - known as Abulcasis to the West - and the author of Al-Tasrif. He was born in Al-Zahara  near Cordova, and was appointed as a Court Physician by Abdul Rahman III because of the distinction he had attained in the field of surgery. In his time, Cordova was a populous city, which contained fifty hospitals and a medical library of 100,000 volumes. Al-Zahrawi had personally collected over five hundred works on surgery and his medical courses were attended by surgeons from every part of Europe. He is credited as the first among the surgeons of the world who rescued surgery from the hands of the ignorant charlatans, and developing it into the best form that the sciences could offer anywhere in that day. Zahrawi’s  book Al-Tasrif  was a complete treatise on surgery as practised by the learned Arab doctors of Muslim Spain.

  Al-Tasrif was an encyclopedia of medicne and modern surgery, a portion of the encyclopedia devoted to surgery was published seperately and became the first independent illustrated work on the subject. It contained illustrations of a remarkable array of surgical instruments, which incuded medical needles for suturing wounds, and described the operations of fractures, dislocations, bladder stone, gangrene and other conditions. Al-Zahrawi's work was later translated by Guy de Chauliac, one of the greatest surgeons of medieval times, and in this manner, it found its way into the different libraries of Europe. His book replaced Paul of Aegina's "Epitiome," - which was used as a standard work for surgery in Europe - and it remained as the most used book on surgery for the next five hundred years.

  The next Muslim physcian to achieve distinction in the field of medicine and surgery was Abu Marwan Abd al-Malik (1091 -1161 CE) - known as Avenzoar in the West.  He  was one of the greatest physicans and  surgeons of the Middle Ages. He has been declared by historians as the greatest among Muslim physicans since Al-Razi and Galen. He was born at Seville and graduated from Cordova Medical University. After a brief stay in Baghdad and Cairo, he returned to Spain to work as a physican. Later he worked for Abd-ul-Mumin, the first Muwahid ruler as a Court Physican and as a minister. Besides excelling as a physcian, he made important contributions to the field of surgery.  He was proficient in the art of dissecting dead human bodies with different surgical instruments known in his time and knew human anatomy in detail. His operation techniques were superb. He was the first person to perfect the operation of tracheotomy and practised direct feeding into the gullet where normal feeding was not possible. Among the many books he has written Al-Teiser ("Assistance") was widely translated and had much to do, brinnging the later medical renaissance in Europe in the field of medicine, surgery, and surgical instruments.

  During the period in which the Arabs were driven out of Spain in the fifteenth century, they managed to take with them nearly all their precious books and scrolls, which contained among other subjects a wealth of knowledge relating to the fields of medicne and surgery. The Spanish conquerors who were Christians contemptouosly passed them over as a mass of waste paper and did not interfere with their transportation. The expelled Arabs, who had by then mastered the art of making needles, and their use in surgery, carried their knowledge with them to diffferent parts of the Muslim world, and these documents found their way intact into the Land of Arabia and Palestine. The art of manufacturing the present day needles contnued to be the monopoly of the Arabs, and started trading them in different parts of Europe.

  The manufacture of needles, which was brought to Europe, and Western Asia by the Arabs - who kept the art a secret until the year 1650 - began in England by the middle of the seventeenth century. At first, needles were made by hand - a laborious process - but later wondeful machines were developed to manufacture them with absolute accuracy by the millions, a process that continues at present days too. Today, the finest grade of steel, which is chemically treated by an elaborate process is employed in the use of making the world's best needles to bring in it a tough and elastic temper.

  From times immemorial, the needles were employed to hold the garments on a person in place. However, there was a disadvantage, for the needles pricked. The early Egyptians had solved this problem by making eight-inch long bronze pins with beautifully decorated gold heads. The Greeks and the Romans fashioned the heads of needles in the shape of serpents, horses or other abstract designs. They used them to hold their tunics and gowns in place, for the buttons that fit into the slots had not been devised. Everyone wore these pins in Medieval Europe, the rich according to their wealth and rank; and the poor with crude modern skewers, until the invention of the modern safety pin.

  But the "modern" safety pin was not invented until the year 1825. Walter Hunt was a New York inventor in need of some fast cash. He owed a friend fifteen dollars and decided to come up with the money, by inventing something the world needed. That something, he decided was a pin, which would hold things together, but did not prick the wearer. He drew a sketch of it in a mere three hours, and came up with the idea of a clasp pin, with a guard covering the sharp point. He also made a model of it and sold the rights of his invention for four hundred dollars. And, that was all the money he made from this million dollar idea!

  The safety-pin was not the last invention Hunt was to lose out on. In 1832 - fifteen years before Elias Howe - Hunt had invented a crude sewing machine and urged his daughter to manufacture it. But his daughter refused to have anything to do with a machine that would put thousands of poor seamstresses out of work overnight. Her father finally agreed with her and promply dropped the idea!

  The first possible patent connected to mechanical sewing was a 1755 British patent issued to German, Charles Weisenthal. Weisenthal was issued a patent for a needle that was designed for a machine, however, the patent did not describe the rest of the machine if one existed.

  The English inventor and cabinet maker, Thomas Saint was issued the first patent for a complete machine for sewing in 1790. It is not known if Saint actually built a working prototype of his invention. The patent describes an awl that punched a hole in leather and passed a needle through the hole. A later reproduction of Saint's invention based on his patent drawings did not work.

  In 1810, German, Balthasar Krems invented an automatic machine for sewing caps. Krems did not patent his invention and it never functioned well.

  Austrian tailor, Josef Madersperger made several attempts at inventing a machine for sewing and was issued a patent in 1814. All of his attempts were considered unsuccessful.

  In 1804, a French patent was granted to Thomas Stone and James Henderson for "a machine that emulated hand sewing."  That same year a patent was granted to Scott John Duncan for an "embroidery machine with multiple needles." Both inventions failed and were soon forgotten by the public.

  In 1818, the first American sewing machine was invented by John Adams Doge and John Knowles. Their machine failed to sew any useful amount of fabric before malfunctioning.

  The first functional sewing machine was invented by the French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier, in 1830. Thimonnier's machine used only one thread and a hooked needle that made the same chain stitch used with embroidery. The inventor was almost killed by an enraged group of French tailors who burnt down his garment factory because they feared unemployment as a result of his new invention.

  In 1834, Walter Hunt built America's first (somewhat) successful sewing machine. He later lost interest in patenting because he believed his invention would cause unemployment. (Hunt's machine could only sew straight steams.)  Hunt never patented and in 1846, the first American patent was issued to Elias Howe for "a process that used thread from two different sources." Howe's machine had a needle with an eye at the point. The needle was pushed through the cloth and created a loop on the other side; a shuttle on a track then slipped the second thread through the loop, creating what is called the lockstitch. However, Elias Howe later encountered problems defending his patent and marketing his invention.

  For the next nine years Elias Howe struggled, first to enlist interest in his machine, then to protect his patent from imitators. His lockstitch mechanism was adopted by others who were developing innovations of their own. Isaac Singer invented the up-and-down motion mechanism, and Allen Wilson developed a rotary hook shuttle.

  Sewing machines did not go into mass production until the 1850's, when Isaac Singer built the first commercially successful machine. Singer built the first sewing machine where the needle moved up and down rather than the side-to-side and the needle was powered by a foot treadle. Previous machines were all hand-cranked. However, Isaac Singer's machine used the same lockstitch that Howe had patented. Elias Howe sued Isaac Singer for patent infringement and won in 1854. Walter Hunt's sewing machine also used a lockstitch with two spools of thread and an eye-pointed needle; however, the courts upheld Howe's patent since Hunt had abandoned his patent. If Hunt had patented his invention, Elias Howe would have lost his case and Isaac Singer would have won.

  In spite of the progress made by the sewing machines in stitiching our clothes, the use of the needle still continues to be used in modern times for a wide variety of purposes!


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