Tools, clockwise from lower left: large awl, sewing awl, rivercane needle case, bone toothpick, sewing needles in center.
I do quite a bit of sewing and I feel it is an essential skill for nearly everyone. My sewing includes new buckskin trousers, cotton shirts, shoes, a few leather bags, backpacks, and repairs to clothes to name just a few projects. All this has caused me to think about sewing without manufactured goods. Over a few evenings I decided to make a better primitive sewing kit. Although I can’t say that bone could fully replace the smallest steel needles in my day-to-day sewing basket, I have been able to make some very small ones indeed from some deer legs I have lying around.
This 7 centimeter (2 3/4 inch) needle, dated to approximately 50,000+ years before present, was made and used by our long extinct Denisovan ancestors, a recently-discovered hominin species or subspecies. the material is bird bone. Photo: Siberian Times (click the image for the full article).
I’ve learned that very small holes can be made with a largish stone flake or knife if it has a sufficiently acute point, drilling from one side and joining it with a hole from the other. From a sewing perspective, the smallest hole possible will provide the strongest needle. during the finishing on the smallest needles, I had a 50% failure rate splitting out the eye. It isn’t generally a total loss since the needle can be shortened and the hole drilled again. I actually found that using the flake like a knife (as opposed to a drill bit) was the best way to start a tiny hole, scraping a small slit until a significant indent is made. As with all new skills, knowledge and experience were gained along the way.
Eyed needle from the burial at Horn Shelter, Texas (links to overview of this remarkable shelter). Click the image for and article explaining the needle context specifically.
Despite their fragility, bone needles are found far back in the archaeological record of Europe, Asia, and North America. Small, eyed needles are generally considered, in the Anthropological community, as proxy evidence for tailored clothing or, in a few cases, surgical or first aid related. Unfortunately, needles don’t often survive and, no doubt, many small and broken fragments have been lost through the screen during excavation.
Awls are essentially a small spike used to pre-punch holes in tough or thick materials. Both the awls shown here are also based on archaeological examples; the awl being a universal tool in human communities. The metacarpal “knob” on the sewing awl still needs a bit of refinement but the round handle works well for repeated stitching in buckskin. Bone (and antler) can be made surprisingly sharp and hold an edge reasonably well.
Storing the Needles
Needles are sharp and dangerous to leave lying around so the next obvious step was to make a case to hold them. This is a simple affair made from rivercane with a yucca stem stopper. The cordage strengthens the tube and prevents splitting and the whole thing was rubbed down with pine tar for preservation (hence the dark coloration of the cord).
In use on buckskin lacing project.
Finally, with a thin scrap of bone I ground out a bone toothpick to keep in the travel kit as a toothpick is always a handy thing to have in the bush.