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Needle Books

Georgia Kerby, Curator Exhibitions

One of the most overlooked yet essential of current day items is the humble needle. It is most likely responsible for the very clothes you are sitting in, and has possibly saved your pants’ button and socks once or twice. Needles are tiny tools that every household used to possess but now are becoming rarer at home thanks to the magic of specialisation and factory labour.

A small collection of beautiful needle books bursting with colour were donated to Whangarei Museum last year. The donor’s mother Betty Taylor used these needles to sew uniforms for soldiers serving in WWII. The designs of this collection speak of the 1940s to the 1960s, likely as Betty used up some and bought new ones to replace them.

During the Second World War penny pinching and rationing placed strict rules on fabric use and availability. Garment producers around the world developed ‘Utility’ fashion lines that used less fabric. Home sewing and alterations became even more crucial than in the 1930s to ensure Kiwi soldiers had adequate uniforms and also Kiwis at home had clothes that fit them and were somewhat fashionable.

Following the war, with many women returning to roles maintaining the home, people had more time to sew and had to keep up with rapidly changing fashions. Home sewing was both a hobby and a necessity. The fun and family oriented designs on these needle books reflect the following decades where people, mostly women, were encouraged to enjoy sewing.

Mid-Twentieth Century needle books are usually made from paper with shimmery foil inserts resplendent of Christmas. Contents included needle threaders and needles for dressmaking, canvas, darning, and sometimes saddles. The first needle book in Betty Taylor’s collection (pictured to the back) is branded ‘Akra’ and appears American in origin, depicting an American Indian male on the cover. ‘Akra’ however made needles in the Czech Republic from the 1960s and was acquired in 1993 by successful needle producer Groz-Beckert. The second book was made in Japan and is fan shaped in shades of green, blue and yellow. Needle books decorated like these were produced in Japan for the European market during and following Allied occupation during WWII (1945 – 1952). It originally contained 63 “gold-eye” needles, which meant the eye section was plated to make them easier to see and smoother to thread. The remaining needle body consisted of nickel plated iron.

The third book is German made, trademarked ‘Wittekind’. Soft pastel imagery shows the marketing audience to be mothers and girls. Girls happily sewing dolls clothes adorn the front while inside reveals a novel feature, a small pop up scene of young girls playing in a toy shop. Pop-up needle books were quite common in this era and both Akra and Wittekind produced several examples, regularly with themes around children and family. Sewing in the 1950s was evidently intended for women and was considered a social activity as many needle books are adorned with groups of happy women crowding around fabrics. Lastly, the fourth needle book is the epitome of 1950s young fashionable sewer. The ‘Happy Home’ needle book is delightfully figured in green, yellow and red and contained “rust proof”, “nickel plated, 70 assorted gold-eye needles and threader”.

Fortunately for us sewing is now popularised for a more diverse crowd than in the Fifties. Vintage needle books however are becoming popular items of novelty ephemera to collect. I’m sure many modern day sewers would love to take these vibrant needle books home as mementos of a different era and inspiration for projects to come.