Pins and things…

This has been a cold and blustery week on the Thames Foreshore and one where I was pleased to be able to make two unscheduled visits for a spot of mudlarking. Storm Dennis was beginning to blow itself out, Storm Jorge not yet unleashing its fury so I was pleased that some good finds were made, including a very special early medieval dress pin from approximately 1000-1200 AD. It’s the oldest pin I’ve ever found and was literally thrown at my feet by the wash from a passing Thames Clipper. This sort of magic happens rarely, but it does happen. Oh yes. And it’s magical when it does.

Made from lead or pewter (see the photo below) and approximately 4 cms in length, it has a bobbly, globular head that’s beautifully tactile to the touch. Whoever lost it would have been very cross and, as I hold it in my hands, can only speculate as to its background story. Who owned it? What did they pin with it – a veil, a shawl, a linen headdress, a jewel? I’ll never know, but nearly a thousand years later I was the lucky finder as it was flung from the river, and this is definitely a keeper. After all those years, I’m amazed it’s still in one piece. Strong and sturdy in design though, it still has a great deal of wear left in it.

Medieval pin b & w
Early Medieval dress pin, made from pewter or lead, with a bobbly, globular head, circa 1000 to 1200 AD.

I love pins – fat pins, thin ones, thick ones, shawl pins – the more the merrier. I dream of finding a gold one, and maybe I will one day. Pins are a staple of a mudlark’s collection and I suspect many of my fellow foreshore foragers probably don’t even bother to pick them up any more, or at the very least, only take away the bigger, heftier ones. But not me. I’m drawn to their ordinariness, their functionality, longevity, uniqueness and the fact that for centuries they literally pinned working Londoners into their clothing. I can’t get enough of them and however many I pick up, thousands more appear on the foreshore the next time I visit, seemingly multiplying as they erode from  the mud. Pins are literally the gift that keeps on giving.

And they continue to have their uses even now. After cleaning mine up I’ve used them to pin up curtains and hems. A Scottish mudlark I know, who often mudlarks late at night due to work commitments, once told me he has a collection of Thames pins pinned to the underside of his jacket collar. A few years ago he was the victim of an attempted mugging in a dark and narrow alleyway leading down to an isolated spot of the foreshore and, fortunately for my mudlarking friend, as the mugger grabbed hold of his collar he ended up with a fistful of sharp pins embedded in the palm of his hand. Yelping in pain he ran off into the night hopefully having learnt a lesson. Who knew you could use Tudor pins as self-defence?

Dress pins are ubiquitous on the Thames Foreshore. The vast majority seen poking out of Thames mud are 14th to 18th century, made from brass, and found in their hundreds of thousands, probably millions. I’m indebted to Geoff Egan and Frances Pritchard and their book ‘Dress Accessories: 1150 – 1450’ for filling in so many gaps in my knowledge of pins and the pin making process. They’ve studied various archaeological sites from the 14th and early 15th century and confirm that deposits of pins from these sites is extensive. The abundance of pins is not surprising especially when considering the trousseau of Princess Joan, daughter of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, who was contracted to be married to Pedro of Castile in 1348. The trousseau included ‘12,000 pins for her veils alone, while the cargoes of two Venetian galleys calling at Southampton in April 1440 on their way back from Flanders included 83,000 pins, which was the merchandise of seven merchants.’ Sadly, Joan never made it to the marriage ceremony as she died en route in Bordeaux of the Black Death.

Dress Accessories

Egan and Pritchard have also traced the changes in manufacturing methods that lead to a transformation in the size of pins from the 12th century onwards and which continued into subsequent centuries. The pin shank became finer due to a greater availability of drawn wire and the head, made separately from the shank, was made smaller and soldered on at the final stage of the pin making process. The decrease in size affected how the pins were worn and reflected changes in dress and fashions during this period. Pins could now be used to hold together more delicate materials such as silks, linen headdresses or to secure transparent veils to the hair or around the shoulders, and there are many examples of this shown in 15th Century art.

Triptych Stefan Lochner 1440 Cologne
Triptych c 1440 from Cologne by Stefan Lochner, showing ladies wearing pins in their hair and dress

It’s thought that brass pins were first used in the late 13th century, the quality and fineness of the metal making it particularly ideal for the fashion of fine veiling. High status women from the period also wore pins where the heads were made from coral or coloured glass. Black glass pinheads, similar to onyx, have been found at archaeological excavations complete with matching finger rings popular in this period.

In the days before buttons were widely available, or indeed affordable, both rich and poor were literally pinned into their clothing. The pins would frequently come loose, drop into the gutter and be flushed into the Thames, which is why so many of them turn up in the river. Hand made, often by children, the 14th century saw a huge expansion in the pin making process.

14th to 18th century handmade brass pins (from my own collection)

Wealthy women might even have pins made from silver or gold. Some were beautifully elaborate, including Tudor ball-headed pins with filigree decoration, while others were plain. Each pin was unique.

The phrase ‘pin money’ originated from Tudor times and refers to the small coins that a man might give his wife in order to treat herself to a little luxury now and then, money that ensured she could buy herself some pins to hold her clothing together. By and large, poorer working women needed far fewer pins than their high status counterparts.

In the Tudor period there was no more high status a woman than Queen Elizabeth I. It would take over two hours for the Queen to be pinned into her clothing every day. Several maids were necessary to assist with the process of dressing the Royal Personage, pinning the Queen into her kirtle (garment worn over a chemise and under a formal outer garment), farthingale, petticoats, overgown, stomacher and detachable sleeves. It would take almost as long to unpin the Queen at the end of the day, her servants needing to take care not to actually touch the Royal body as they did so.

The Queen’s pin maker was a man called Robert Careles. In 1565 a Royal Inventory of 20th October shows he supplied the Queen with the following:

‘xviii thousande Great verthyngale Pynnes, xx thousande Myddle verthyngale Pynnes, xxv thousande Great velvet Pynnes, xxx and nine thousande Small velvet Pynnes; ix thousande Small velvet Pynnes; xi thousande Small helde Pynnes.’

Careles delivered a Royal Order of ‘Pynnes’ like this to the Queen’s Household every six months and the sheer quantity of pins used was staggering. His pin inventory to the Royal Household is frequently quoted in many a posting about Thames pins and yet, while I’ve been doing further research, there’s often very little mention of pins in articles about clothing or costume, especially considering they were needed to keep everything in place including ruffs, cuffs, veils and jewels. And although Careles supplied the Queen with a large collection of pins I’m surprised Her Majesty’s household didn’t need more. The fact that they didn’t is probably indicative of the fact that the Queen was careful with her expenditure and pins would have been looked after, casual loss of them would have been frowned on.

When not in use, pins were removed from clothing so as not to rip the precious fabric, or stain it through oxidisation. They were straightened if they got bent and were periodically sharpened. Pins not in use were stored in pin cushions. Not Liberty print as below from my own collection, but in similar designs probably using off-white silk in a satin weave or undyed linen in a plain weave and embroidered in fine silk floss or a metallic wire. Pin cushions were given as gifts and often carried on the person in order to carry out emergency repairs.

14th century to 18th century brass pins from the Thames Foreshore displayed in a Liberty print pin cushion

Pins came in different lengths with little consistency regarding their size. I’ve found both small, thin and delicate pins suitable for pinning more fragile fabrics, as well as thicker, sturdier, hefty pins used for pinning thicker, coarser fabric. Made with a drawn wire shank and, separately, an attached ball head that came in two different types – solid or wound-wire -then melted and soldered to the head of the shank. According to Egan and Pritchard, pins with wound-wire heads appear to have been introduced into London at a similar period to those with solid heads and to have been made in very large numbers. Some of the more solid headed pins are round, while others from this period are flatter in shape. Later 15th century pins have been found that have been highly decorative, including those found with the head in the shape of an acorn, but these more decorative pins are usually made of gunmetal rather than brass and they are rare finds.

Length of pins
Selection of brass pin finds showing a variety of length, width and different types of ball head

Favourite pin finds of mine include the very thickest varieties, their thickness, width and heftiness indicating these may have been used as shawl pins.

Shawl pins 14-18th century
14th to 18th century possible shawl pins, also showing a variety of different design of the pin head

Last year when returning from a mudlarking trip to the Thames Foreshore I walked back through London Bridge station. There are now a number of display cabinets in the station, near Accessorise and The Body Shop, showing a variety of finds discovered by archaeologists during the recent renovations of the station in 2016. Of particular significance to the pin lover is a case showing some fine examples of pinning tools. These were made from the leg bone of a cow, shaped and cut in half, and with grooves on the cut end deliberately fashioned in order to hold a pin for sharpening.

LB display
Examples of pinning tools found during recent archaeological excavations at London Bridge station

This method of sharpening and making pins by hand was in use from the 14th century till at least the end of the Tudor period in 1603. When The Mary Rose was discovered in May 1971, and finally raised from her watery grave in The Solent in 1982, among the finds extricated from the wreck of the ship were some fine examples of pinning tools (similar to above and below) and a large number of pins, all beautifully preserved in the Solent’s anaerobic mud.

Pins and bone
Broken fragment of cow bone with groove, possibly used as a pinning tool

Pin makers, known as pinners, would attach lengths of copper alloy wire to cattle bones and sharpen them with a file. Small grooves in the bone would show where the handmade pin sat so the point could be filed sharp by the pinner. After the pins had been sharpened, tiny coiled heads of twisted copper alloy were soldered on in a ball shape. Each pin was unique, as was the ball head.

Pinners often shared workshops with aiglet makers (aiglets being the metal sheaths worn at the end of lace to stop it from fraying) and also jewellers as they shared the same tools for the job.

Towards the middle to end of the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution was under way and pins were no longer handmade but produced in factories instead, the mechanisation ensuring that, sadly, the pinners’ skills were no longer needed.

Pin ties in different shapes and sizes, a common find on the foreshore

And no blog about pins would be complete without mention of pin ties, the twisted bits of brass that once bound groups of pins together in varying sizes, prior to them being sold. When I first started mudlarking and finding pins I’d frequently spot these pin ties without being sure what they were until another mudlark was kindly able to identify them for me.

14th to 18th century pins in their pin ties, from my personal collection

The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) has numerous examples of pins recorded on their database spanning millennia of history. From Roman through to Anglo-Saxon (these being particularly rare finds on the Thames Foreshore), early to late Medieval and unusual pins from the Tudor period, all found among the rubbish deposited by the Thames at low tide. Pins will always be a joy to find.


12 thoughts on “Pins and things…

  1. Awesome information, as always. Thank you for sharing this story with us 👌I still have the pins you helped me find on the Thames shore two years ago when we were out with FROG. They are a wonderful part of our history.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your lovely comment. I really enjoyed the FROG training and meeting new people. Have made many friends because of it. Marvellous (and so glad to hear you still have your pins.)


  2. What an interesting story about pins, both the finding and the use. I must admit I’ve never given a thought to how people’s clothes stayed on their bodies centuries ago. The numbers delivered to Queen Elizabeth are truly staggering!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is such a great article. I only just started visiting the river, but this certainly got my interest going looking for pins. After looking through a bunch I found one that is a bit different. Most are as you describe with wound, globular or flattened heads. But I found one relatively small copper-alloy pin (35mm long x 1mm shank) with a barrel shaped head with little raised dots. I was just wondering if you have any thoughts about this? I put a picture on FB Thames Foreshore Finds but no positive ID from the community as yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment. Difficult to say without seeing it but I have found a similar pin with little raised dots, although globular rather than barrel-shaped, made from lead not the usual brass, and it was from the Medieval period. It sounds from your description as if yours *might* be from this earlier period too. A really useful reference tome re finds is a book called ‘Finds Identified’, by Kevin Leahy and Michael Lewis from the British Museum Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS.) I think it’s about £40, not cheap, but I’ve found it so useful re IDs and other information and beautifully illustrated. Perhaps one to put on the Christmas list to Santa 🙂


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