How do you date knitting needles?

I have a bit of mystery. A few years ago a friend’s mother died and since there were no women in the family I was given her bundle of old knitting needles. I was delighted to receive them. Their bright colours of various lengths immediately reminded me of the click clack of a knitters life. Although I did not know this woman the needles bent with wear evoked the years she must have spent knitting garments for her family. I wondered what stories of the joys and heart aches these needles could tell. Most of them are plastic and often old and I have found to my dismay some are very brittle plastic. Some however were like these.

Now these needles are an absolute dream to knit with. I have given a pair to Annie Whitsed and she is equally enamoured of them. They just feel great in the hands and there is something about how the wool slides over the needle that makes the whole process sensuous. I am wondering if anyone can tell me what sort of plastic they are made of. They could be described as faux tortoise shell. Does anyone know? If I hold them against my cheek they are cool but not as cool as the other plastic needles.

Some needles possibly of the same vintage as they came in the same bundle have the word ‘shellonite’ on them I have done a search on shellonite but with no luck and I am not a knitting expert but I was wondering if anyone would know.


17 Comments

  1. I have only just read this website and some of your comments are quite old. However my understanding is the “tortoiseshelly” looking needles are indeed tortoiseshell or that was always my understanding. There is no reason that they wouldn’t be as tortoiseshell was used extensively in my Mother’s and Granmother’s day. I love them for knitting as the wool just glides over the needles and they get better with age. The thing that keeps them in pristine condition, I believe, is the lanolin in wool. They will dry out and become brittle if they are not knitting wool. Plastic deteriorates with age the tortoiseshell just gets better for knitters. If you are storing your tortoiseshell needles rub each one individually with pure lanolin. And wrap in wool or cotton fabric. This is how I keep my needles from becoming brittle. I scoure op shops all the time for tortoiseshell.
    One of the other reasons on the argument of authenticity of “tortoiseshell” is that you will never find these needles in large sizes as there wouldn’t have been enough thickness for a thicker needle. Anyway enjoy and use them, whatever they are they are far superior to any other knitting needle, even bamboo.
    Cheers Jane Oborn

    Jane Oborn
  2. FYI regarding Robyn’s post, do NOT store anything you value in foam. The foam deteriorates over time and will stick to the object. My father purchased a beautiful cast bronze and gold plated “Soaring Eagle” that was shipped in a box with foam formed to fit the eagle. He never displayed it. After he passed away we looked in the box and discovered the eagle has melting with age foam all over it that cannot be removed without destroying the gold plating. It does NOT wash off. I have taken it to a jeweler who could give me no advice.

    Brenda
  3. As a jeweller I have handled tortoiseshell, and as a knitter I have knitted with and have a collection of “tortoiseshell” needles. I can assure that the natural tortoiseshell is a large flattish curved plate which comes off the shell – now a banned international trading product. It was never used for knitting needles, but was a popular material used for toiletry sets in Edwardian times. To give a luxury look to knitting needles, a tortoiseshell styled man-made material was used to produce knitting needles. They date roughly from the 1920’s and were still being made in the 1960’s, possible the 1970’s. They will become brittle with age, and need to be treated carefully. I have mine in a padded fabric knitting wrap, separated into sizes. Don’t store with metal, as it is a harder material and can wear on the “plastic” of the tortoiseshell needles.

    Rowena
  4. I was able to purchase tortoiseshell needles new as late as the mid 1990’s, but they disappeared soon after. If you have them , try looking up the website of Swallow needles for care info. Don’t let them dry out or they’ll become brittle & fracture. Like good old china they require some moisture … & I PLEAD with you NEVER put sticky tape on knitting needles. It is HELL to remove, I have broken a few I’ve bought trying to remove it & clean the gummy residue.Left on for a very long time it will ‘eat’ into the needle. Best bet( if you MUST join them) is tie them together with wool ( perfect match ) or a loose rubber band, (don’t let it perish )or some shirring elastic .

    Robyn H
    1. I found that one good way to remove sticky residue was to rub with a barely damp cloth dipped in salt. It’s messy but didn’t use any solvent which could potentially “melt” the plastic. I “melted” a princess phone (did I just let on how old I am) this way by cleaning it with solvent. I’ve tried this on a number of surfaces and haven’t noticed any scratching but I’d still try a very small area first.

      Brenda
  5. I think that tortoise shell knit the best baby clothes, and I
    am searching for them as well. As to dating them, I have not
    seen them for a very long time for sale, so I would put them
    as pre 1950.

    Gai Sutcliffe
  6. Use the hot water test. Place a needle in very hot water for a minute or so and then smell the needle. If it is bakelite it will smell of phenol, a slightly sweet chemical smell. Casein will smell like wet wool, and celluloid will feel slippery and smell like camphor or pine. Later plastics like lucite or acrylic will have no odor.

    Candace
  7. I’ve had some needles like this. A friend who collects Bakelite told me they were either Bakelite or another early phenolic plastic, also in a tortise shell color (very common).

    I wasn’t able to date them very well beyond “before WWII,” but I can offer a caution. These early plastics get brittle over time. Even if they look and feel strong enough to knit with, resist the temptation. My pair cracked across when I was foolish enough to use them.

    More on Bakelite: http://www.deco-echoes.com/bakelite.html

    And a hint of the variety of trademarked names for plastic in use by 1939: http://classicradiogallery.com/plastic.html

  8. Sharon, my mother had needles like this and always referred to them as
    tortoiseshell and I assumed that what’s they were made from. Lots of things
    used to be made from tortoiseshell, including hair combs, so I don’t see why
    they wouldn’t be real tortoiseshell. I still have some at home and enjoy
    knitting with them. They are not the same as the casein ones. I’d buy more if
    they were available.

    Monica
  9. I notice the name on the yellow ones “Shellonite”. I’m infering from that name that the needles are some sort of synthetic. When I first saw them, they looked like bakelite to me. But I don’t know how you’d test for that. Weight?

  10. Okay – I am a bit confused here. I THOUGHT the fake tortoishell were Xylonite, but they are not. I am still working on them. You get tatting shuttles of 1940s in them.

    The Shellonite ones, however, look like Xylonite.

    How do I know?

    First I went to

    http://www.plastiquarian.com/xylonite.htm

    Then later to the home and played around, and found some stuff on viscose rayon, would you believe. Nice website, but I am no closer to those tortoiseshell ones. They are one of the 1930s-1950s form of plastics, well-known to antique dealers.

  11. What about a knitter’s guild? Perhaps they might have some sort of archive that might be able to date these needles. The same thought was in my mind as julia s ‘s concerning the tortoise shell needles.

    Sharon Hunting
  12. Its possible they are not fake tortoise shell but are real.I know that in the 1920s and 30s many house hold items were made from tortoise shell. However, Im not sure how you tell the differnce between that and plastic

    julia S

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