Cutting Edge: How Hiroshima Needles Went Global
The humble sewing needle, originally used by samurai heading into battle, is now synonymous with the modern city of Hiroshima. Mazda Stories discovers more about this fascinating origin story.
When a samurai headed into battle, he would carry with him one item you might not expect: the humble sewing needle. While not as grandeur or fearsome as the samurai’s famous sword, a needle was indispensable in emergencies and would be kept close at hand to repair a rip or close a wound. Originally, it also was the samurai themselves who crafted the needles.
During Japan’s feudal period, the Hiroshima area, where Mazda is based, was ruled by the Asano samurai clan. Taking advantage of the plentiful supply of iron within the domain, and to keep their samurai employed in times of peace, the clan adopted needle-making as an official industry.
Manufacturing a needle entirely by hand was complex and meticulous work, requiring 28 different steps. The clan quickly developed a reputation for quality, and Hiroshima needles were traded widely across Japan. Mechanization began in the 19th century, after the fall of the feudal system and the introduction of Western technology, but the focus on excellence remained. Soon, Hiroshima needles were being exported around the world.
It’s believed that the needles’ popularity stemmed from the Japanese steel industry developing the tatara method, which was considered technologically advanced for its time. An ancient Japanese practice, tatara ironmaking in Hiroshima and the surrounding regions is believed to have played a significant role in Japan’s production output.
Eventually, this would inform the craft philosophy of monotsukuri—a term that encapsulates the union of prowess, know-how and spirit in Japan’s passion for craft and manufacturing—and it was quickly popularized across other industries. This high-quality steel was used to produce files, saws and needles, with the enduring monotsukuri spirit eventually passing to shipbuilding and automotive industries in Hiroshima and the surrounding areas.
Even after the devastation of World War II, the Hiroshima needle industry recovered fairly quickly, in part because of the strong demand for needles as people sought to replace lost household items and clothing. Efforts to rebuild also benefitted from Hiroshima’s unusually good access to skilled labour.
“Because of the long tradition of steelmaking in this area, as well as shipbuilding in nearby Kure, it was possible to recruit experienced machinists to custom-build the specialized machinery needed to make needles,” says Kazuyasu Harada, Executive Director of Tulip, whose grandfather established a needle factory in 1948 in Hiroshima City. Today, the company supplies Japanese schools with the needles for home economics classes, as well as professional needleworkers and hobbyists around the world.
“The needle is such a familiar item that people may mistakenly regard it as a simple tool.”KAZUYASU HARADA
“The needle is such a familiar item that people may mistakenly regard it as a simple tool,” says Harada. “But the manufacturing process is both complex and sophisticated, requiring many different technical processes including cutting, stamping, grinding and electroplating. Hiroshima manufacturers have worked continuously to improve each process, and to create innovative needles to serve varied needs.”
As when making a fine sword, the steel is quenched and tempered, so the needle will be strong and flexible yet resistant to bending and breaking. The eye is polished inside and out for easier threading, and the point undergoes a high-density abrasive polishing treatment to ensure sharpness.
Even when a needle breaks or its tip becomes dull, it isn’t simply discarded. By long tradition, needles and pins that have outlived their usefulness are taken to temples or shrines. To ensure a “soft landing” on their way to retirement, the tiny tools are placed point-down into a smooth cake of tofu. Then, in a ritual called hari kuyō, they are thanked for their service. The custom began some 400 years ago and is still observed at certain temples and shrines around the country, usually on February or December 8.
“A quality needle is much more comfortable, allowing you to sew for hours without fatigue,” says Mutsuko Yawatagaki, a renowned professional quilter and needlework instructor. “You get better results, too. Good tools make for good work.”
Words Alice Gordenker
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