Wednesday, January 18, 2006

My Best Wooden Knitting Needles

When I was in school, I had a chance to touch and feel a set of knitting needles made by Faberge. With their rubies and emeralds set in gold, they were more fashion accessories for a noble woman, than practical knitting tools.

Rosewood, ebony, and black walnut have, more recently, been popular woods for knitting needles. I have used knitting needles made of these woods, and they are nice. But, when I want to invest in a really fine set of wooden knitting needles, I make myself a set of needles from flowering dogwood.

Dogwood was considered by most Native American tribes to be the wood of choice for arrows. It will take substantial flexing without damage, and is easily steamed straight. You can step on them or sit on them, without a problem – for the needles. Settlers preferred dogwood for yarn/wool contact parts for spinning wheels, looms, and of course, knitting needles. Dogwood is easily worked either with or against the grain without forming snags that will catch yarn fibers. The real disadvantage of dogwood is that its small size does not lend itself to commercial lumbering and milling activities.

I cut dogwood branches between ½ and 1 inch in diameter in the winter, selecting straight sections. Note that I just use clippings; I’m not cutting the whole tree or bush down. I cut the branches into lengths slightly longer than the needles I am intending to make. Then I peel the bark and split the wood in quarters or eighths depending on the diameter of the branch and the size of the needles that I intend to make. The needles that I make from dogwood are US size 4 to 8, because those are the sizes of wooden DPN that I like for making boot socks.

Now, I have needle blanks with a triangular cross section. With a needle gauge, close at hand, I carefully whittle the blanks to a uniform circular cross section, somewhat larger than the intended needle. Then I tie them into bundles and allow them to dry for a few days. As they dry, I check them every day and any blanks that are not straight are bent (with steam as required) back to being straight, and tie the bundle back together. After a week or so, the wood will be much dryer and firmer. Then I chuck each needle blank into my screw gun (battery powered electric drill) and rotate the blank against coarse sandpaper, I taper and form the tips, and let the blanks dry for a few more days. When the needles are quite dry, I sand and polish them with steel wool to a very smooth surface. On dogwood, I use a beeswax finish - no varnish needed.

There is something about dogwood needles that just feels so nice.

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