Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Jean Henri Fabre


"A FTER thread, come the needle and its companion the pin. I shall take up the latter first, because its manufacture will help us to understand that of the needle, which is rather more complicated.

"The things most often used by us are not seldom those of whose origin we are ignorant. What is there more convenient, more often used, than the needle and the pin? What could take their place if we were deprived of them? We should be reduced to Claire's makeshift that day we went on a picnic and she tore a hole in her apron and fastened the edges together with a thorn from the hedge. We might also, as do those savage tribes that have no manufactured articles, shred an animal sinew or a strip of bark into fine thongs to serve as thread and sew with a sharp-pointed bone for a needle. We might replace the pin by a fish bone."

"That would be a funny sort of gown," exclaimed Marie, "sewed with thongs of bark or the sinews of an ox; nor should I care much to have my hair fastened with codfish bones."

"Yet there are even to-day savage tribes that have nothing else; and often the great ladies of ancient times had nothing better; they used rude pins made of metal or little splinters of bone. Advance in the manufacturing arts has given us the pin, with its pretty round head, at a price so moderate as to be almost negligible, the needle with its fine point and its admirable suitability to our use, and thread of remarkable strength and fineness. Now let us learn how pins are made.

"Pins are made of brass, which is composed of copper and zinc. Copper is the red metal you are familiar with in copper kettles, zinc the grayish-white metal of watering-pots and bath-tubs. Mixed together they form brass, which is yellow.

"The first step is to reduce the copper to wire the size of a pin. This is done by means of a draw-plate, a steel plaque pierced with a series of holes, each smaller than the preceding. A little brass rod is thrust into the largest hole and forcibly drawn through it. In passing through this hole, which is a little too small for it, the metal rod becomes correspondingly thinner and longer. It is then thrust into a still smaller hole and again drawn out, becoming once more thinner and longer in the process. This operation is continued, passing from one hole of the draw-plate to the next smaller, until the wire acquires the desired fineness.

"While we are on the subject note this fact—that all metal wires, whether of iron, copper, gold or silver, are made in the same way: namely, by being passed through the draw-plate.

"The brass wires are now put into the hands of the cutter, who gathers several of them into a bundle, and then, with a strong pair of shears, cuts them all into pieces twice the length of a pin.

"These pieces must next be sharpened at both ends by means of a steel grindstone which has its grinding-surface furrowed like a file, and which turns with the prodigious velocity of twenty-seven leagues an hour. The man charged with this work, whom we will call the sharpener, sits on the ground in front of his grindstone, legs crossed in tailor-fashion. He takes in his fingers from twenty to forty pieces, spreads them out regularly in the shape of a fan, and brings all these branching tip-ends simultaneously into contact with the grindstone, at the same time twirling them in his fingers so that the tip is worn off equally all around and the point made even. The reverse tips are sharpened in the same way.

"But this first process merely produces points in the rough, so to speak; the sharpener retouches and finishes them on a finer grindstone. Finally the pieces sharpened at both ends are arranged several together and cut in two in the middle with one clip of a pair of shears. Each half, known as a shank, now lacks only a head in order to become a complete pin.

"This heading process is the most difficult part of the whole operation. On a slender metal shaft, very smooth and slightly larger than the pins, a thread of brass is tightly wound in a spiral, after which the shaft is removed, leaving a long corkscrew with its turns touching one another. A cutter of consummate skill in this delicate work, which demands at the same time so much precision and so much swiftness, divides this corkscrew into small pieces, each containing just two turns. Each of these pieces is a head.

"The workman who is to put them in place and fasten them takes the shanks one by one and plunges them haphazard, pointed end first, into a wooden bowl full of heads. The shank is drawn out with a head strung on it, which the operator pushes with his fingers to the unpointed end. He immediately places it on a little anvil having a tiny cavity into which the head fits; then by means of a pedal moved by the operator's foot a hammer provided with a similar cavity comes down, strikes five or six little blows, and behold the head firmly fixed.

"As a finishing touch the pins have still to be coated with tin. To this end they are boiled with a certain proportion of this metal in a liquid capable of dissolving it and depositing it in a thin layer on the brass. After being thus coated they are washed, dried on cloths, and finally shaken up with bran in a leather bag in order to heighten their polish.

"It only remains to stick the pins in paper in regular rows. A kind of comb with long steel teeth pierces the paper with two lines of holes. Work-women known as pin-stickers are charged with the delicate task of inserting the pins one by one in these holes. A skilled pin-sticker can insert from forty to fifty thousand pins a day.

"Including some details that I omit, the manufacture of a pin requires fourteen different operations, and consequently the cooperation of fourteen workmen, all of consummate skill in their part of the operation. Nevertheless the manufacture is so rapid that these fourteen workmen can make twelve thousand pins for the modest sum of four francs."