The Thread and the Needle. Two elements that accompany our evolution.
To face a brief history of the evolution of man on earth in any of its aspects, is an exercise of a documented imagination where we intend to introduce the reader into that world with serious information without departing from the reality that means the timeline in these stories. If for a moment we were to reach that one-meter-long timeline, the First Industrial Revolution that took place in the late 18th century, which was born under the cover of a liberal government of Britain and oblivious to the other European monarchies.
The Second Industrial Revolution was developed in Manchester, England, from the introduction of pressure water vapor as a driver of machinery that until that time was moved by man with or without the help of some domesticated animal. It was the railway and the introduction of steam to move the industrial looms the two fundamental engines of that revolution as a result of the invention of James Watt just beginning in the nineteenth century. In that imaginary timeline we would locate the Industrial Revolution in the ninety-six centimeters and the emergence of the first computer, also developed in England as it averaged World War II and its subsequent evolution towards the current race of screens, cybernetics in general. And computing, applied to science and technology we should place it in a fraction of a millimeter before completing that imaginary linear meter that is today.
Science demonstrated a few decades ago that the human brain draws on the experiences of its ancestors transferred from generation to generation through mitochondria that are small intra-cellular particles that the mother transfers to the child during gestation without modification. With proper licensing we could qualify the mitochondria, which can participate in each cell from one to thousands, transferring the energy necessary for the survival of the same cell and also participates in the transfer of genetic information from one generation to the next. They behave like small sources of energy. That is why the characteristics of new beings generally have greater characters of women than of men.
Having made this consideration it is easy to understand that the first generations had very little information to transfer, with instinct being the greatest contribution to human reactions on the night of time. Put in colloquial language, they had a pretty empty hard drive. Today I will dwell on a couple of elements that constituted two tools associated with humans since the dawn of history. Knowing the history of the thread is a simple search exercise on Google, but I want to take a step further, get into our evolution and its tools until I reach the necessary complement for its use, the needle, whose history is as exciting as the first. It is impossible to analyze the history of the yarn without mentioning the evolution of the tools that allowed the human race to access and use the yarn as a necessary complement to the skins and tissues that protected themselves from the inclement weather and other elements that were adverse to him. To do this we must go back about two million years to find the first manual tools that predate the last glaciation.
The lack of strong tusks and claws forced these inhabitants to resolve their limitations with elementary tools to complement their weaknesses. They were obviously stone and were wanted those with at least one sharp profile. The most appreciated were granite or quartz for their hardness.
What for? It is hypothesized to skin carnivorous animals and separate their skin from the body by achieving food and clothing. Ahead in time, we go to the after glaciation, about 10000 years BC in which man manages to master fire and enters new eras, those of stone, bronze and iron that extend to about 5000 years more, perfecting up to about 1000 years BC. The stone-age passes through all the others in its natural evolution and bronze having a melting point lower than iron made that task easier for them to handle metals. Nothing they knew about alloys, so they were supposed to get the copper and tin together and when they melted they got – unknowingly – the bronze. During this long transition they managed to manufacture parts in different ways and also learned to polish them.
For the anxious of the 21st century who imagine everything for yesterday, it is worth reminding them that the first axes of polished stone strung on a wooden gallows with a look somewhat similar to the current ones, but very rough came to civilization approximately 2,500 BC and it took 1,000 more years to fix the stone to the wood with leather lindens. With these tools they could cut down forests, transform the wood according to their needs, fight enemies and conquer territories. It’s unimaginable to think of a Viking without his axe and a shield.
At the same time with the development of metallurgy they understood that the seeds resulted, after about six months new plants, which brought man from his nomadic to sedentary status in order to wait and take advantage of the appearance of a new crop. It was the vegetable fibers that were the first strands to join several leathers and complement the clothing beyond the tail cap. Hemp and sisal were the most sought after elements for their resistance, but not everywhere there was, so they had to resort to what nature lavished them in each region. Today no one disputes that the amino made its appearance in Africa and then over the centuries it was adapted in different regions to different means throughout our house, the earth.
Among the fibers of plant origin are those that are extracted from the hairiness of some seeds, such as cotton, from the stems, such as flax and hemp; of foliage such as sisal and shell fibers, such as coconut. With the mastery of hunting and domestication they were able to resort to animal fibers such as wool and hair, and secretions, such as silk, which was much later in history. Silk was almost exclusive domain of the Chinese.
In these circumstances, fibers with a short length, especially animal fur, were available, but experience taught that the fibers wet and subjected to torsion, when dried, retained the interlacing of them. Today it is done in the same way, but it proceeds to the washing of natural fibers, which for those times I doubt would be done for that purpose.
When long fibers were obtained, it was difficult to maintain them without them getting tangled. That’s how the spindle appeared, a simple piece of wood rounded with a stop or knot at one end to run over the fibers without being knotted. A good branch was enough. The bones of selected fish and birds, provided them with elemental needles with perforations that allowed them to use natural fibers without treatment as ancestors of the thread as mentioned above. Probably the intertwined fibers of bird nests were the first masters that in the hands of humans gave rise to basketry dating back to 5,000 BC, but that is another story.
The weather has always been the enemy of the conservation of textile fibers, however there are fabrics recovered from Egyptian tombs, but most likely their origin is even more remote, as is the dyeing of them. Nature was always the resource to begin any work, including mineral debris and even animal excrement are used today for this purpose in the Middle East and among different Aboriginal peoples.
There are records of the use of cotton, wool, silk and linen in India from 3,000 BC. All this without the use of needles because it was the manual interlacing of fibers. Precisely from the fabric of them with warps, carpets are still knitted knotting small short fibers and dyed of different colors to configure very sophisticated drawings. Today the quality of a Persian carpet is measured by the number of knots/cm2 with which the different tapestries were manufactured. This is a tradition that dates back to the 8th century with the conditioning imposed by Muhammad that forbade the representation of the objects of nature and the human figure, because they were all the work of God.
Each people added the knowledge acquired through generations to turn them into their different crafts that in some cases were taken from them by the industry that multiplied these cultural expressions by thousands. One of the most vivid examples of human ingenuity is found in the Aztecs that had maguey, a plant of fleshy and lanceolate leaves about seventy centimetres tall whose leaves end in a rigid spine. Thus they took advantage of the spine as a needle and the central rib of each leaf, associated with it as a thread with both elements for sewing. The maceration of the leaves in turn allowed them to make pulque, a popular drink in Mexico with high alcoholic content.
Meanwhile, with the increasing demands of navigation, the number of fibers multiplied to meet the greatest tensile strength needs and thus the capes and ropes that were also used to handle large loads were born. Galileo is credited with the phrase “Aqcua alli cordi!“ seeing the ropes grind as large stones were rising rubbing the ones already installed to build the obelisk in Rome. This phrase introduced the concept of lubrication between contact surfaces. Until now the needle had not evolved because textile work did not require more of them. With basic elements such as wood and certain osamentas replaced what metallurgy was later able to give.
Crochet needles — usually carved in bone — that were used for rudimentary forms of the fabric today called crochet hook needles are, together with the spindle the ancestor of the tip needle that is now used in two for the manual fabric. The conditions were already given to build with a few woods a manual loom that is still used by the original peoples who survived the “cultural” ambitions. The oldest needle that has been found was in Slovenia and is 41,000 years old but it is unknown if it was used for sewing. It is believed that about 1,000 years ago the Chinese already used metal needles and these came to Europe much later. In 1730, the first steel needle factory as we know them today was installed in Nuremberg, Germany. Until the eighteenth century the manufacture of fabrics was done in the homes by hand until the invention of the manual straight loom, and then machined it.
In 1733 the flying shuttle was invented and greatly accelerated the speed of the fabric in the straight looms to pass the spinning from one end of the warps to the other. Already at the dawn of the industrial revolution appear the first industrial looms that were multiplying their size and with the advent of electricity began the first looms moved by that energy. Undoubtedly it was the nineteenth and twentieth centuries where the largest advances had the textile industry. There, the increase in the speed of the looms also required the threads, more and better features to attend to the above evolution. One consequence of the above was the appearance of circular looms.
By the middle of the twentieth century, threads with synthetic fibers were introduced achieving better physical characteristics with lower thicknesses. First the rayon and then the acetate, the acrylic, polyester and more, allowed with their extraordinary resistance to be incorporated pure or in mixtures with natural fibers to homogenize the stresses, produced in the fabrics during the mechanical process. I mentioned that in 1844, the hollow needle was invented and in 1853 Dr. Alexander Wood invented the hypodermic needle. So he could inject his wife — who suffered from cancer — morphine directly. It was the first time he had injected the drug through that medium. It was only in 1885 that the first machine was built to stamp the needle eye.
Not all needles are straight nor threads are the same in surgery, surgeons use them in the form of a crescent to access the tissues, facilitating access to them. In a surgical act, to access the desired organ you usually have to cut beforehand other tissues, usually muscle. After the act itself, the affected tissues must be reconstructed, for this purpose, catgut threads that come from the bovine intestines or sheep, as needed. They have the property of being absorbed by the body between 15 and 20 days. In that period the tensile strength of the yarn decreases. In contrast for external sutures it is preferable to do so with nylon thread that maintains its resistance until the surgeon removes it after healing.
Today, from the sewing of a simple button, the haute couture to the supports of a suspension bridge are the fruits of an evolution dictated by human ingenuity. Finally I challenge the reader to find the enormous amount of tasks that require the thread in its different forms to achieve satisfactory results, to which we must add the tregged metals and fabric that are nothing more than “simple transformations” of those natural fibers that have been accompanying us, since our appearance on the face of the earth.
Information is shared from a contribution by Norberto Hernán Linzuain, ”The Thread and the Needle”, published on June 16th, 2020. Image Credit: TQM Archive, 2020.