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Inventing Interchangeables

The Denise Interchangeable Knitting Needle kit was invented by Lorraine and Bob Linstead.  Here is a little of their remarkable story as I began to write it down in 2008.

-Emily McKeon

Linda's original Denise kit from the 1980s

 Original Denise kit

Not being a mechanically inclined person, it always amazes me to look at an object that fulfills its given purpose with grace and simplicity and realize that this thing didn't just appear.  Behind every human-made object is - surprise - a human!  When Mom dialed the number she found in an old Denise ad and found herself talking to the woman who invented interchangeable knitting needles and the Denise kit, our family's understanding of how the world functions undertook a subtle change.  I will never know the stories of most of the objects that pass through my hands or aid me in my daily endeavors, but I have had the honor and privilege of spending time with Lorraine Linstead and her husband, Bob, before they passed away.  I am deeply grateful for the stories they shared with me.   

On my last visit with Lorraine in 2008, I asked where the idea for an interchangeable knitting needle originally came from.  Here is what she told me.

"It must have been 1952, maybe '54.  A neighbor was going to have a baby and I thought, 'I can't afford to buy her anything.'  But I had yarn.  So, I thought maybe I'd crochet her an afghan, but it turned out I didn't have a crochet hook big enough to work with the yarn.  I did have knitting needles, but they were straight, 14" needles.  That meant I'd have to make strips.  It takes more time to sew them together than it does to knit them, so I had Bob take the knitting needles and cut the knobs off.  They were maybe #10 or 10 1/2 needles.  I had him make some grooves on the cut end, and then I took some plastic tubing, attached it to the needle and tied it in those grooves with silk thread.  I took off all the edging pieces with manicure scissors. 

"There was my first long circular needle, and I made the afghan all in one piece.  I was done in two days.  The kids were in school so I had lots of free time, and it didn't take long on those big needles anyway. 

“After that I had Bob cut all my little 8" double pointed needles and put threads in them [to attach them to a cord].  That's how I got started.  He cut the needles in half, and the other half of every needle went to my twin sister.  After that, people would see one or the other of us knitting with them and they would get really interested and want some too."

While Lorraine was knitting with her home-made interchangeable knitting needles, Bob was working for a company that made toys formed from sheet metal.  Someone would bring in an idea for a toy truck, a train, a dump truck, a bulldozer, and Bob would create a design out of metal and make sure it'd work in assembly.  Lorraine said Bob always just had a knack for fixing things.  He didn't go to school to learn what he did.  He started young, making his own ice skates when his family couldn't afford to buy a pair for him.  He made things to fit needs. 

The first kit Lorraine and Bob designed together (Lorraine as the generator of ideas and Bob making them come to technical fruition) was made from anodized aluminum.   Plastic cording with metal screw tips fastened into the needle with a tightening tool.  It came in a shallow box the size of a record jacket with a molded plastic liner that held each of the parts in place.  They called it "The Countess."  Lorraine tells us only about 300 of the Countess kits were made before the Boye company picked up the design, altered it slightly to add smaller sizes, put it in a more portable fabric case, and renamed it "The Needlemaster." Lorraine was an avid knitter, though, and found for herself that while the concept was excellent, the design had some flaws.  The anodizing on the aluminum gradually wore off, and because of the naturally circular motion of knitting, the screw-in connection had a tendency to gradually unscrew.  She began thinking of ways to solve these problems. 

In the early '70s, at Lorraine's instigation, Bob built a number of prototypes for a new type of interchangeable knitting needle that locked into place rather than screwing onto a cord and was made from molded plastic rather than metal.  This, they decided, would be their product and theirs alone.  They would manufacture and market it themselves and wouldn't sell it to another, bigger company, even if the offer was made. 

After much testing and tweaking, they felt they finally had the design just right.  Lorraine applied for a patent and told Bob if it was accepted, he'd have to quit his job and work for her. And that's precisely what happened. 

Bob built a small factory, buying the vacuum machinery that would form the cases and heat seal the cover to the interior, and the machines that would heat plastic granules until they flowed molten to feed into the cavities of the molds Bob built for forming needles, cord tips, end buttons and extenders.  Everything else needed in the assembly process he built himself. 

We still use the wooden hopper Bob constructed to hold the US #5-10 1/2 needles and feed them in pairs, all seven at once, into the tray of a case.  We still use the wooden arm he built to whack those needles down into place, and the trays that hold the #11, 13 and 15 needles to pack by hand.  Until a few years ago we were using the little lever machine that pushes the cord tips into the tubing to assemble a cord.  Dave needed a couple extras of those, so he dissected the original and rebuilt them exactly according to Bob's design.

When we talk about all these simple, extremely functional tools still in use, Lorraine smiles widely.  For almost 20 years, she and Bob worked side by side, making cases, making needles, assembling cords, filling kits, taping boxes, and shipping the completed Denise Interchangeable Knitting Needle kits around the world. 

In 1993, doctors found a tumor in Lorraine's brain.  She told us the only symptom she had from it was that she'd be walking down a hall thinking she was going straight and then bump into one of the walls.  She went through a successful surgery, but after that she couldn't work like she used to.  Packing boxes took too long, and filling kits was a challenge.  Bob and Lorraine sold their shop in 1994.  "After that, we just sold kit parts to people until we ran out in the basement.  We had maybe 15 or 20 thousand down there."

I ask her if it was hard to see the company go, and she says, "We missed it.  We missed the people and the coming and the going, but we couldn't do it anymore.  People would still come by and need something done, and Bob would always find something to do in the basement."  The phone number on the P.G. Roberts paper insert that was included with every Denise kit the Linsteads made is still their home number.  "When was the last time someone called?" I ask.  "About two weeks ago," she says, and we all laugh.  "I always tell them where you are and how to get in touch with you."  I tell her how glad I am that she kept that phone number because if she hadn't, we wouldn't be sitting in her living room talking to her.  We wouldn't have ever found out the company was for sale. 

Lorraine passed away in the summer of 2016.  She inspired us, she encouraged us, she shared with us the company she and her husband lovingly built from scratch, and she gave the world interchangeable knitting needles.  Thank you, Lorraine!  We will miss you!