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A brief history of Sewing Threads
 Alex Askaroff

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  Alex I Askaroff

Alex has spent a lifetime in the sewing industry and is considered one of the foremost experts of pioneering machines and their inventors. He has written extensively for trade magazines, radio, television, books and publications world wide.


            How old are your reels of thread?





Have you ever wondered how long sewing threads have been around?

The answer is almost as long as man has walked on two legs. The first threads would have been little more than thin leather, animal tendons, sinew or twine. Many ancient tribes knew which local plant or tree gave the best thread such as honeysuckle, reed and cactus. Clematis or Old Man's Beard was used for centuries as twine. It has amazing strength.

As the centuries went by we learned how to twist materials into thread such as fine wool and silk and then cotton, History of Cotton. Finally we mastered nylon and polyester or just synthetic threads.

The first needles or bodkins were animal bone and wood, later bronze and eventually steel so fine that they could pierce the most delicate silk without a mark.

Even today you can cut a thorn from a blackthorn or hawthorn bush and make a perfect needle that will pierce leather! Holly was a favourite with sewers as it has supple strength and ideal for small needles. Net makers used them right up until the 20th Century.


Today some of the traditional net maker still use wooden needles made from the holly tree which has remarkable abilities to keep its point and not break. 

For centuries the centre of the needle industry for the entire world was Redditch producing the best needles on the market such as Milward's and Able Morrall's.

Perivale Pure Silk Thread.


The Forge Mill next to Bordesley Abbey, Redditch, is well worth a visit. The museum provides a fascinating insight into the early working life of the industrial revolution where children as young as 4 worked for a living! 

The Redditch needle industry kept the secret of  fine needle making closely guarded. There secret was in the endless polishing of the needles with fine grinding powders. The water powered machinery proved so successful that it was used for generations. 

Birmingham & Redditch were the centre of the needle industry

In 1806 nasty Napoleon (where the name Bogey Man originally came from, Bonepart--Boney--Bogey, the Bogey man is coming over the water to get you! What horrible parents eh!), made a blockade around the coast of Britain.

The defeat of his fleet at Trafalgar left him embittered and out for vengeance. This stopped almost all but the most ardent smuggler from bringing goods to England. All ships were prey to the French fleet.


Heminway silk threads

In turn the silk sewing threads became scarce and incredibly expensive. A reel of silk thread would cost two days pay.

As sewing machines became more and more common Clark & Co took pains to advertise that their cotton was okay to use on the new fangled machines.

Only skilled smugglers managed to break through the blockades in the dead of night. Their vessels often painted matt black and set with sails at both ends to move silently in and out of moonlit bays.

The cost of threads rocketed as did tobacco and booze. Great years for the smugglers! Brandy for the parson and silk for the lady!

Years later all that changed as Huguenots fled from persecution. Many focused themselves around the Brick Lane area of London.


I love this silk thread advert. How to catch your man on a Leap Year!

By 1851 Britain had over 100,000 silk weavers. Today there is only one working silk mill left in England at Whitchurch.

A saying emerged around that time. 'We are all born Adam's children but silk makes the difference'.


However we are jumping ahead, stay with me now! Britain is being blockaded and silk, the normal sewing thread is a silly price.Hanks of silk from China cannot get to England and the price soars! An alternative was needed and fast!

Patrick Clark and George A Clark came to our rescue inventing a method to twist cotton threads together to produce an excellent sewing thread for most applications. Cotton was still available and could be recycled from fabric so there was no shortage.

           Clark & Co Anchor Mills Paisley

Clark opened his factory in 1812 in Paisley, Scotland, and never looked back. His son's opened the Coats factory a few years later and so two of the biggest names in thread were established and all because of the Bogey Man.

By the 1890's they had become one company again, Coats & Clark.

An early advertising card showing Gulliver taking thread to the Lilliputians.

The original two, three and four cord hand sewing thread was not strong enough for sewing machines so later George Clark, one of the grandson's, invented a thread specially designed for these new fangled gadgets. 

O N T Our New Thread but why 1812? There were no sewing machines then...

The six-cord soft thread sewed very well and helped the sewing machine industry flourish compared to the wiry old hand-sewing stuff. The new Extra quality thread sewed on hand or  sewing machine! 

Clark sewing thread circa 1860

This thread was labelled and each reel was marked with the initials "ONT" Our New Thread. Simple eh! I would love to find one of these reels as it would date it to around 1850.

By 1860 the Clark's factory at Paisley was booming. They won awards for their six cord threads at London and Brussels. They won gold at the Exposition Universelle in Paris.

Clark & Co became the unrivalled sewing thread for machines and smoke from the great factory darkened the Paisley sky. It was called Anchor Mills.

Anchor Mills, Paisley. Home of Clark & Co

Silk threads were around years before Clark and Coats so look carefully in your sewing box, you may have an ancient reel of thread in there.

1855 Clark's ONT Our New Thread

Our New Thread was specially designed for the new fangled gadgets of the age called sewing machines. However they were careful to market the thread as suitable for old fashioned hand sewing as well.

The earliest real of thread I have come across so far is a Barbour thread of 1783.


Well, that's it folks, I hope you enjoyed the info, do let me know if you have found this useful: alexsussex@aol.com

News Flash!

All Alex's books are now on: www.crowsbooks.com

Both books, Sussex Born and Bred, and Corner of the Kingdom
 are now available instantly on Kindle and iPad.


Fancy a funny read: Ena Wilf  & The One-Armed Machinist

A brilliant slice of 1940's life: Spies & Spitfires

Alex's stories are now available to keep. Click on the picture for more information.

Dear Alex,
Thank you for your very informative excellent in depth research. I read it with pleasure as I am very interested. My husband George Clark is descended from the Clark Thread Manufacturing family.

His great, great grandfather was George Clark who married Ann Henry in Paisley 12 Jun 1802 at Low Church Paisley. Their eldest son George born about 1823 in Paisley married Catherine Dunlop Ballantyne 13 Jun 1855 in Edinburgh.

His father was listed as George Clark, Designer and Thread Manufacturer, deceased. I know he was not a direct descendant of the original owner of the factory. Family history has it that the eldest son in this family is always called George with no second name. This makes tracing George Clark's line further very difficult.  He called his eldest son George and his second daughter Jane Rae Clark.

Using Scottish naming history this should give his parents but there are so many George Clarks in that period I have had no luck. He named his second son John and eldest daughter Rachel Barclay Clark and this exactly matches Ann Henry's parents.

George Clark born 1823 was a manufacturer of sewed muslins, George Clark & Co. in Glasgow. I have records from 1851 up to 1872 when he died leaving three young sons.

Bev Clark

Dear Alex,

I am a member of an antique club and will be responsible for a lesson on antiques in March or April. I will be sharing your article about the history of thread with the other members. Thank you for making it available.


Hi Alex
I loved coming across this information.  I have family History connected to this family.
Thanks for publishing it.
Barbara Simmons











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