Sunday, February 7, 2016

Needles, Hands and Embroidering in the heat

Cape Town has had an unusually hot summer with temperatures frequently over 30 degrees C. I would rather have hot weather any day but it does pose some challenges for embroidery where the average home does not have air conditioning.

At our February Guild meeting this week we had a ceremony like the Japanese Hari Kuyo, broken needle festival, to say goodbye to our spent embroidery needles. Each member thanked her trusty needle for its friendship and work and then placed the needle in the traditional block of tofu.  We agreed that the old needles would then be gently wrapped up and finally safely buried.

This little ceremony got me thinking about my needles. I had noticed that a number of needles in my needlecase were looking dull or even a little black. I am quite happy to throw out pins that are blunt or beginning to corrode and leave a nasty black mark on fabric, but my embroidery needles, even those that are past their best, seem to go back into the needlecase and stay put, especially my favourite ones.  Somehow no two needles are exactly the same. There are those that thread smoothly and easily and those have just the perfectly shaped tip for the task at hand. They are the ones that stay.

Stitching in hot weather usually leaves you with hot, damp hands. Not only can the naturals oils from your skin be deposited onto your embroidery and attract dirt, but the natural acids on your fingers interact with the metal needle and begin to wear away its shiny, smooth surface. A dulled needle causes unwanted resistance to your fingers when you slide it through the fabric and it can also leave a tiny deposit of corroded metal on the fabric that may only become obvious over time. So, today was the day.

I went through my needles and sorted out those that have done their job and bid them farewell. Those that remain are nice and smooth and shiny.

I keep my old pins and needles in a little container hoping to find the best way to recycle them. Throwing them out with the rubbish conjures up awful images of the waste pickers who mine the refuse dumps accidentally picking up or standing on a wad of old needles. I have still to work out how I should safely dispose of them. What do you do with your old needles?

Another question is how do you keep your hands dry in the heat so that the natural moisture and oils are not deposited on your fabric or needles? Frequent washing is the usual answer. It doesn't however prevent your hands from quickly become hot and damp again.

I seem to remember that the embroiderers who worked on Kate Middleton's wedding dress washed their hands every half hour and used chalk dust to keep their hands dry. The other interesting thing I remember reading was that their spent needles were retired every three hours.  No-one was taking any chances there. Mary Corbet and the mother-daughter team, Bronwyn and Sanch, at Red Brolly also recommend the use of wet wipes to keep hands clean for embroidery.

I have yet to try French chalk and wet wipes, but I do have nice shiny needles to use. I might just try some baby powder too in place of French chalk. Damp hands aside, may our gorgeous summer weather long continue and happy stitching wherever you are.


  1. I remember as a child sitting every now and then, going through all my mother's pins, testing them for rust by punching them through a piece of waste cloth. Those rejected were stuck into pieces of paper and placed in the rubbish bin. I still do something like that, but try to do it as I work rather than as a special event. I place the paper with the pins (or needles) in the recycling bin. I figure it is a form of metal recycling.

    I must raise the issue at the Guild - see what others do and if there is 'best practice disposal'. Thanks for raising the matter - it's interesting.

  2. Rather than just tipping them loose into the recycling bin, I like the idea of sticking the pins or needles into a sheet of paper before disposing of them. Thanks for that idea.