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A needle lost in the ‘haystack’ of the V&A

March 4, 2017

‘What is the smallest object in the V&A?’ turned out to be a tough question for the qualified staff of the world’s leading museum of art and design to answer. Several curators from different departments suggested me looking for tiny things in the jewelry or silver collections but searching for something that does not ensure to satisfy my aim felt like ‘trying to find a needle in a haystack’.

Bingo! This displeasing sense initiated my interest to find out more about the needle because of its small size and significance to the world’s history. Dating back for more than 25 000 years the first needle made out of bone and used for sewing textiles and netting has evolved and now widely applied in knitting, medicine, music, cooking, fishing and warfare.

“This small and simple tool has been an important part of human evolution for thousands of years.”1

Wendy Cramer, Workshops and Accreditation Coordinator

for Fine Cell Work

Culturally speaking, sewing needles held a very important position amongst the society. It was a valuable item, which indicated handcrafting skills and even the gentility of women in the 19th century2.It was also a great indicator of wealth and social status and due to the expensiveness of metals sewing needles were often inscribed and valued as precious personal items.

Similarly to ladies, men of the 18th century were appreciated for their netting skills and techniques3. As netting became popular for amateurs the needle-making industry started to grow. Manufacturers replaced the local craftsmen who were making copper-alloy needles individually and the needle industry has expanded to the warfare, medicine, and cooking.

Considering the significance of needles in the history of design, I was staggered by the way V&A takes it into account and displays only one needle in such an improper manner. To my astonishment, it took me more than an hour to find the place where the sewing needle was exhibited. After a long walk around the museum and almost having my heart sunk to find this object, one curator suddenly remembered where it was placed (British Galleries, Room 120). Unexpectedly, the small cut bone box with some steel needles was not even in the cabinet, it was laid in the bottom drawer, which could not be opened by the visitors as it was protected by the electric power. That meant I would have never found the needle in the V&A without the help from the staff.

Nevertheless, this task to question the collection made me look at the V&A from a different perspective. I was left disappointed by the museum’s neglect approach to the tool, which has considerably contributed towards the society, culture technology and the design we have today. Even the curators who were satisfied to share their knowledge about the history of needles with me were surprised how the museum as an educational institution leaves the small significant objects behind the big ones. Thus, I drew an inference that the Museum presents the front stage of design by hiding its background in the small hidden drawer.

Guoda Sulskyte

References:

1. Finecellwork.co.uk. (2017). A brief history of the sewing needle. [online] Available at: http://www.finecellwork.co.uk/news_and_events/blog/483_a_brief_history_of_the_sewing_needle [Accessed 28 Feb. 2017].

2. Beaudry, M. (2006). Findings. 1st ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 45.

3. Collections.vam.ac.uk. (2017). Box with netting tools | V&A Search the Collections. [online] Available at: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O78816/box-with-netting-unknown/ [Accessed 2 Mar. 2017].

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