The number describing a pin size is the length of the pin in sixteenths of a inch. Thus a #17 dressmakers pin is 17⁄16, or 1 ¹⁄16 inches long. The diameter of the pin depends on the type.
Pin sizes are at least a couple of centuries old. An English author writing in 1804 states:
Pins are distinguished by number; the smaller are called from No. 3, 4, 5, to the 14th, whence they go by twos, viz. No. 16, 18 and 20, which is the largest size. Besides the white pins there are black ones, made for the use of mourning, from No. 4 to No. 10.¹
1. Benjamin Tabert.
The Book of Trades, or the Library of Useful Arts. Part III.
London (1804 or 1805).
Reprinted Jacob Johnson, Whitehall (Philadelphia), 1807. That edition was reprinted as Early Nineteenth-Century Crafts and Trades by Dover Publications in 1992. The passage quoted occurs on page 42.
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Last revised: 1 February 2010.