Clothes before sewing
When people first started to wear clothing, about 60,000 years ago, they didn’t sew it at all: they just wrapped leather or furs around themselves. Probably they soon began to tie their clothes on with string or leather cords. People continued to wrap their leggings on this way for thousands of years, and some people still do.
Sewing with awls
But about 45,000 BC, when people first began living in Central Asia, where it was colder, they wanted warmer, stronger clothing, and they began to use sharp pointed sticks or stone tools called awls (pronounced OLLS) to poke holes in their clothes so they could run the cords through the clothes instead of just around them. They used the awls to poke the end of the cord through the holes, too. Both Neanderthals and modern people used awls this way.
Bone sewing needles
Then maybe around 40,000 BC, still in Central Asia, somebody had the idea to make a hole in the end of the awl and thread the first needle. This made sewing a lot faster and easier, and soon the new idea spread to other cold places like northern Europe and North America. People made these early needles out of bone and ivory, like awls.
Spinning thread – bronze needles
Around 9000 BC, people in West Asia began to spin thread out of wool or linen and weave cloth out of it. It was much easier to sew cloth than to sew leather, so people began to do more sewing. When people began to use bronze, about 3000 BC, they soon started to make sharper, lighter needles out of bronze. The earliest ones are from Tepe Yahya in Iran. Probably people used leather scraps as a thimble. But these needles still weren’t thin or strong enough for fine sewing.
It took so long to spin and weave a piece of cloth, that people generally didn’t want to cut the cloth up: it was too valuable. Plus, bronze needles were too thick and bendy to do fine sewing with. Most people wore the whole piece of cloth, wrapped around them as a sari or a shawl or a cloak or a toga. To make a tunic, Egyptians and Greeks wove a tunic-shaped piece of cloth and just sewed the sides together. But in Central Asia, where people rode horses, they sewed their cloth into pants. It was cold, too, so they sewed thick quilted jackets and coats.
Iron sewing needles
By about 100 BC, people were using iron needles at Manching in Northern Europe (and maybe in the Roman Empire too), but these iron needles, like the earlier bronze needles, were too weak and thick for any fine sewing. In the Roman Empire, people kept on wearing tunics with cloth loosely wrapped around them.
You Can Weave!: Projects for Young Weavers, by Kathleen Monaghan (2001).
World Textiles: A Concise History, by Mary Schoeser (2003). For adults.
Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years : Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber (1995). Not for kids, but an interested high schooler could read it. Fascinating ideas about the way people made cloth in ancient times, and why it was that way.