Friday, January 27, 2006

Fixing Old Wheels

I have been asked, “Why are you reinventing the wheel?”, referring to my making traditional steel double pointed needles (DPN) when they are available at (, (, & ( and other places?

I am not "reinventing the wheel"; I am restoring an old wheel.

Sure, each of these vendors offers 16" steel DPN. However, for my current project, 12" needles are long enough, and ever so much easier to work with. It took me an hour to make the shorter needles (and $2 in materials). In the course of this one project, the shorter needles will save me hours and hours of work and frustration. Then, I am going to knit a similar gansey for my wife. I only learned the advantages of the shorter needles by trying longer needles and then trying shorter needles. If I had just bought the long commercial needles, then in the course of these two projects, I would waste days! (Compared to doing the project on my homemade shorter needles.) And, days wasted are the difference between finished objects and unfinished objects! If a really fat person wants a gansey, I still have that set 18" needles that will hold a round of 500 stitches. Talk about a waste of time! I think I would tell the fat one, that I will knit them a gansey when they have dropped a couple of hundred pounds!

I tried different shaped tips on my knitting needles. And, it turns out that different shaped tips have advantages for different yarns. It was very traditional, for knitters to regrind the tips of their knitting needles on a regular basis. Now, I have more understanding of the how and WHY. I have a drawer full of modern, commercial 7.5” aluminum DPN. And yet, I am currently making myself a set of 7.5” steel DPN. Why? Because for the tighter gauge that I am now knitting, I want a long, gradual taper to a finer point than I find on the commercial DPN, and the tips on aluminum DPN can not be reshaped. That long gradual taper helps avoid dropped stitches when knitting at high tension. And, the long taper helps produce a very tight fabric. I am not reinventing, I am trying to understand a tradition, and write the details down. Since much of this is experimental, I am putting some of my work up for peer review.

The colors of the modern, commercial, “5-ply British Gansey yarns" are close to boring. The traditional gansey yarns were handspun and hand dyed, even as late as 1900. Those yarns had more textural and color interest. This is one reason that I like the Cottage Craft yarns. The Cottage Craft yarns have great color interest, and they produce a fabric of the right texture on US # 1 needles. In addition, the Cottage Craft yarns have some oil in them like a real fisherman’s yarn. (As I have said before, I have no connection to Cottage Craft except that I like their yarns and their prices.) Yarns by other suppliers are wonderful, but may be a slightly different weight that will require a different needle sizes to produce a traditional gansey fabric. If you use different yarns, you will want needles that are not commercially available. I merely remind friends that is possible to inexpensively make knitters tools, and that for some projects, those inexpensive homemade tools will be better than expensive commercial products.

I also try to remember the advantages of modern commercial products. For example, circular needles are much safer. I am not sure that I would dare to use long sharp DPN in any area where there are small kids. And, in a damp fisherman's cottage, the rust problem with steel needles would be huge. I really admire those mothers of generations past, knitting for their fishermen. In those days, a warm gansey was the difference between fishing and dying of cold.

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