Where do your needles come from? Let’s find out!
In a new series, we'll be running our Where it Comes From column, a part of every issue of Interweave Knits, here on the blog. The article below is featured in Interweave Knits Gifts 2014, which includes over 30 projects for holiday knitting and beyond. Check out the preview here!
In a rural workshop on the scenic Mendocino coast in northern California, two people are hard at work making birch knitting needles. They are Michri and Chris Barnes, a married couple and now sole proprietors of the Brittany Company. After many years training and working under Chris’s parents, the company’s founders, the couple inherited the business in 2013.
You’re probably familiar with Brittany needles. With their signature turned ends, they can be found in yarn shops around the country, and the needles have been a staple in the market for more than two decades. Brittany started when Galer Barnes was looking for a tapestry loom, and husband, Gene, decided to make her one—and then to go into business making more. This was thirty-five years ago. Gene soon realized you could only sell a customer one loom; however, Galer’s knitting hobby inspired a more viable business opportunity—making needles and hooks. The couple got to work, establishing suppliers and customers and working out of their garage. As the business grew, they built a proper shop on their property, which is where Michri and Chris still make the needles today.
Michri had been a high-school teacher and part-time waitress when she met Chris, who was working as a sous chef as he transitioned into full-time work for his parents’ company. Chris got Michri’s attention by making her a hair stick out of a knitting needle. They started dating, then Michri went to work for Brittany one summer… and never left. They describe themselves as crafters and makers who are curious about how things work and how they can be improved. “We change our own oil, we garden, keep chickens, bees, and ducks, and are building our own house on our ‘days off,’” says Michri. They also have plans to build a shop for the business on their own property and retire the original one.
You might imagine a bustling workspace with lines of people diligently working over machines and stacks of wood, but it’s just Michri and Chris in the shop. This simple arrangement helps them keep prices low and make the needles accessible to more customers. Their friend Isaac packages all the needles in his home, which allows him to be a stay-at-home dad, and Michri’s stepmother does the hand-polishing in her home, which gives her the freedom to tend to her livestock. Michri explains, “We think she may be the only one who can hand-polish a size 0 (2 mm) needle, so we do everything we can to keep her happy!” Another member of the Brittany team is Quinn, the couple’s four-year-old son, who eagerly volunteers to adhere labels to outbound packages. His mom laughs. “More than one box has been decorated with crayon drawings and stickers.”
In a special playroom on the property, a babysitter watches Quinn as his parents go about their days. The work isn’t glamorous—Michri describes her “uniform” of sawdust and buffing compound, with a smattering of oil. And the days off are not totally off, either, because the team works on mixing compounds, answering emails, and updating social media, all while working on their new home. Owning a small business, especially a family one, is a labor of love, but a definite emphasis falls on the word “labor.” Michri says, “We are dedicated to this business. We know we’re lucky to be able to work together and don’t take for granted what we have, but friends tell us that we work harder than anyone they know.”
The Brittany story is charming, but this business is also smart and environmentally conscious. During the recession, Brittany’s domestic wood suppliers all closed shop. The company turned to a contact in the industry, who led them to a source in Lithuania for the high-quality, sustainably harvested birch they require. It’s a simple supply chain—the wood is milled close to where it grows, goes into a shipping container, and is sent directly to Brittany, reducing the carbon footprint of the product. Environmental issues are especially important to Michri. She studied environmental science in college and grew up in an agricultural area where she witnessed the effects of pesticides on the people of the community. The Brittany packaging is designed to be as sustainable and minimal as possible, and Michri and Chris use one of the main by-products—birch sawdust—in their chicken coops and garden.
Smart automation and planning, as well as frequent inspection by the owners, allows the company to keep all its manufacturing in the United States. Once the wood is on site, the couple plans a production schedule for ninety-one different needle and hook sizes. The dowels are turned in machines that Chris and his father built; it’s the precision of these machines that makes the sizing consistent in sizing and ensures the quality of the final tools. The needles are marked with their size and polished (much of this by hand), inspected, packaged by Isaac, and sent to the distributor. From there, the needles and hooks make their way into shops and into crafters’ hands. Brittany needles are known for their consistent, accurate sizing and smooth surface. Few are returned. However, Michri recounts one unusual story: “We were surprised by a customer once sending back a needle that was less than .002 of an inch out of gauge. Our goal is to be within one thousandth of an inch accuracy, which, by the way is a lot smaller than a hair.”
The company also prides itself on making the first American needles available in the “middle sizes” of 10¾ (7 mm) and 10⅞ (7.5 mm), which fill the gap between sizes 10 (6 mm) and 11 (8 mm). For knitting, the company produces straight and double-pointed needles and focuses on offering a wide range of sizes within those product lines—from 0 (2 mm) to 35 (20 mm). When asked if Brittany will branch out beyond straight and double points, Michri hints at other things under development, but says, “We won’t come out with new products at the expense of our core line.”
Maintaining that core line with its long-standing reputation for excellence, fair prices, and sustainable manufacturing, while supporting their small and creative family, is the mission of the Brittany company and the Barnes family. You can find these fine tools at your local yarn shop and online here.