Knit Stix, patented

Well. Kudos to Helen Jost. Not only did a design patent issue last month for a species of knitting needle with a measuring scheme marked on it, but earlier this week the USPTO saw fit to issue a patent for a craft needle with measuring capabilities and method of use of same.

Here are the broadest claims that issued. Yes, they’re long. Read them anyway. You may find that some figures will help:

1. A method for measuring the dimensions of a knitted work-piece during the fabrication thereof, said method comprising the steps of:
      obtaining a pair of identical knitting needles, a first needle and a second needle, each of said needles comprising
           an elongated member substantially circular in cross section and having a proximal end and a distal end, the proximal end being substantially pointed;
           head means permanently disposed at the distal end of the elongated member, said head means being larger in circumference than the elongated member for preventing stitches held on the elongated member from sliding off the elongated member at its distal end;
           at least one measuring scale permanently applied longitudinally to the surface of the elongated member, said at least one measuring scale having as its zero point the distal end of the head means and being marked in equidistant intervals numbered consecutively toward the proximal end;
      obtaining necessary yarn and instructions to construct the work-piece;
      casting on the requisite number of stitches and proceeding to knit a portion of the work-piece;
      completing a row so that the first needle holds the entire work-piece and the second needle does not hold any stitches; spreading the work-piece evenly along the first needle;
      maintaining the first needle in a horizontal orientation;
      holding the second needle in a vertical orientation with the proximal end pointed downward and bringing the distal end of the second needle upward to the first needle until the distal end of the head means touches the first needle and the second needle is adjacent to and parallel with a vertical edge the work-piece; and
      measuring the length of the work-piece using the at least one measuring scale on the second needle.

I broke up this first claim with carriage returns to try to make it a little easier to read. This first claim appears to be directed to the method of measuring the length of the work as it hangs from the needles: the first needle, holding the “entire work-piece”, is held in a “horizontal orientation”, and the second needle, which “does not hold any stitches”, is held in a “vertical orientation with the proximal end pointed downward and bringing the distal end of the second needle upward to the first needle” until the distal end of the head of the second needle touches the first needle, and the second needle is “parallel with a vertical edge of the work-piece”; then a measuring scale on the second needle is used to measure the length of the work, since the “zero point” of the measuring scale is at the distal end of the head.

4. A craft needle for use in the fabrication of a work-piece from a continuous filament, said needle comprising: an elongated member substantially circular in cross section and having a proximal end and a distal end; and at least one measuring scale, taken from the group consisting of the metric scale and the English scale, permanently applied longitudinally to the surface of the elongated member, said at least one measuring scale having as its zero point one end of said elongated member and being marked in equidistant intervals numbered consecutively toward the opposing end, head means permanently disposed at the distal end of the elongated member, said bead means being larger in circumference than the elongated member for preventing stitches held on the craft needle from sliding off the needle at the distal end; a depression in the distal surface of the head means, said depression conforming to the shape of the elongated member and capable of receiving the elongated member, and the low point of said depression representing the zero point of the at least one measuring scale, whereby the craft needle may be used to measure the dimensions of the work-piece as it is being fabricated.

6. A pair of identical knitting needles for use in the fabrication of a work-piece from a continuous filament, each needle comprising: an elongated member substantially circular in cross section and having a proximal end and a distal end; head means permanently disposed at the distal end of the elongated member, said head means being larger in circumference than the elongated member for preventing stitches held on the elongated member from sliding off the elongated member at the distal end; and at least one measuring scale permanently applied longitudinally to the surface of the elongated member, said at least one measuring scale having as its zero point the distal end of the head means and being marked in equidistant intervals numbered consecutively toward the proximal end; whereby the knitting needles may be used to measure the length and width of the work-piece as it is being fabricated.

Two things spring to mind when reading this: first — and please don’t think that I’m construing these patent claims or providing a legal opinion, here — it seems that these claims specifically exclude circular needles, which of course have no head means, and secondly, the zero point has to be aligned with a specific position on the needle, such as that shown here:

or in Figure 10, at that “low point” of the depression.

For interest’s sake (because of course I am interested by this sort of thing), I took a peek at the claims that had been rejected by the Examiner. Here are some examples:

The original claim 1, as filed, read:

1. A craft needle for use in the fabrication of a work-piece from a continuous filament, said needle comprising:
      an elongated member substantially circular in cross-section and having a proximal end and a distal end; and
      at least one measuring scale permanently applied longitudinally to the surface of the elongated member, said at least one measuring scale having as its zero point one end of said elongated member and being marked in equidistant intervals numbered consecutively toward the opposing end;
      whereby the craft needle may be used to measure the dimensions of the work-piece as it is being fabricated.

This seems a little more familiar, doesn’t it? In this claim, the zero point is “one end” of the needle.
This claim was rejected by the Examiner, who cited Kohler, US Patent No. 2,187,039. This is basically what the invention in that patent looked like:

In response, claim 1 was amended by the inventor to read:

1. A craft needle for use in the fabrication of a work-piece from a continuous filament, said needle comprising:
an elongated member substantially circular in cross section and having a proximal end and a distal end; and
at least one measuring scale, taken from the group consisting of the metric scale and the English scale, permanently applied longitudinally to the surface of the elongated member, said at least one measuring scale having at its zero point one end of said elongated member and being marked in equidistant intervals numbered consecutively toward the opposing end;
whereby the craft needle may be used to measure the dimensions of the work-piece as it is being fabricated.

As you can see, the metric/English scale limitation was added, and it was argued that Kohler didn’t teach that the markings on the needle were numbered consecutively, or with any numbered scale. Kohler does actually state that the markings could be “spaced one inch apart” with “half-inch markings” in between, and even with “intermediate quarter-inch markings”, but Kohler doesn’t actually describe a needle with numbers on it. But the Examiner didn’t buy that argument, and issued a final rejection against that claim, and against some others that were dependent on it. However, the Examiner did allow the claim that I reproduced at the beginning as issued claim 1, as well as a dependent claim based on that. So, in response to the final rejection, the set of claims based on this rejected claim 1 was cancelled by the inventor, and she stuck with the two claims that the Examiner allowed (and added four more, including the issued claims 4 and 6 that I also reproduced).

So there you have it, a brief, albeit incomplete, examination of a patent file history. You can wake up now.

Among the other things I had said earlier when I put up that patent from the 50s, if you recall, was that “for all I know the Knit Stix patent application claims exclusivity over some other aspect that isn’t readily apparent from their product description, although I can’t imagine what that could be…” And see? I didn’t imagine what that could be. And in my defence, it wasn’t in their product description, either; the product they’re offering for sale doesn’t have the features recited in the claims that were allowed. If the pictures on the order page are accurate, then you can see that the zero point is located below the needle head, and there is no depression or other shape in the head that is shaped to receive the “elongated member” of the other needle. The needles that Knit Stix is currently selling seem to have more of a resemblance to Hadler, except the scale runs from head to tip, not from tip to head. Helen Jost has apparently devised an improvement on an old device to improve the accuracy of measurement.

I do wonder about the feasibility of manufacturing needles with a precisely positioned zero point; if you look at the examples on the ordering page, the zero point on the lavendar pair is closer to the head than on the golden yellow pair; what if the heads of the needles, which here are made from a different material, were mounted at varying depths on various needles? Could this imprecision be avoided if the needles were manufactured from a single material, say, molded from plastic?

Patents don’t depend on whether the invention is actually made or used; it can’t be invalidated on that basis (as long as it’s possible to reproduce the invention described and claimed in the patent; there’s a case in Canada in which an applicant was required to submit an actual, working model of his so-called invention, a death ray gun, because the Examiner didn’t believe it would actually work. He didn’t, so he didn’t get a patent). But unless someone actually makes the article that is described by the claims, then there wouldn’t be any infringement. So, I guess it remains to be seen if someone will actually practise the claimed invention.

If you want to look up the history of this patent application, it’s available online. Go here, and type in 11/217,874 as the application number, then select the tab “Image File Wrapper”.

At this point, we don’t even know if a corresponding application has been filed in any other countries because if it had been, it would still be confidential until March 2007: it’s possible to find out if she filed an application elsewhere claiming priority to this US application, but likely not without spending money, and I’m not going to do that.

And for the record, I am still totally against blindly measuring your work with a measuring guide of any sort while it’s still on the needles. If all you need is an estimated length, fine; but if you’re knitting to match a specific length, I’m still firmly on the know-your-gauge-and-count-row side.

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6 Responses to Knit Stix, patented

  1. Peggy says:

    KUDOS!! Where can I get some?????

  2. Michal says:

    I’ve a vintage needle marked with a 6-inch rule and the words “Hero Metal Core Measure-Knit Pat. Pend.” The end of the needle is marked “Hero 1 U.S.A.” It is 9 7/8 inches long, turquoise (plastic?), with a dark metal end (looks like the sort used during WWII). So this ruler/knitting needle idea is nowhere near new! I’m posting a pic on my blog if you want to see my needle.

  3. Brenda says:

    You know, I’ve been meaning to get back into counting rows. The first sweater I ever made was a fisherman’s sweater from a UK pattern. No charts, just stitch abbreviations and row numbers. I haven’t felt as confident about matching lengths of pieces since I made that sweater 20 years ago. U.S. patterns/designers/instructors/etc. don’t really encourage row counting. But next time… I’m definitely counting. Precision makes me happy. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Elaine says:

    Far from asleep, I find your explanations of the processes that go into patents and copyright fascinating. We crafters throw terms around all the time that we simply don’t understand. The way you explain it opens up more opportunities, not limitations. Thank you.

  5. j. says:

    Yup, the person who’s most likely to do it would be the knitter him- or herself. Patent claims are often drafted to capture the method used by the end user because that really is the party that’s going to employ the method, but that doesn’t mean that the patent would actually be enforced against an end user.

    A method claim like that could still be enforced against a competitor, for example in an allegation of inducing (Canadian term) a customer to infringe claim 1, i.e., an allegation of contributory (US term) infringement: a patentee would still sue the competing supplier of the allegedly infringing needles, but would allege that the supplier somehow instructed or directed the end user to infringe by measuring work using that method (for example, by supplying instructions on how to use the needles). The end user would be the direct infringer, but wouldn’t actually be named in the lawsuit because, yeah, suing one’s customers is generally bad PR.

    Now, the claim 1 method does include the step of “obtaining a pair of identical knitting needles, a first needle and a second needle, each of said needles comprising…” the features enumerated in the claim. What if the competitor only sold single needles with those features (but without the depression in the head of claim 4), and instructed the knitter to use prior art, unmarked, plain needles without a measuring guide to knit, and to simply use the single needle to measure vertical length at any time? Could an infringement allegation be made to stick in that case?

    “Stick”… “stix”… ha ha, get it?

  6. Cyndi says:

    Thanks for posting this – I enjoy reading your thoughts on knit-related IP issues.

    The first thing I noticed when I read the claims (particularly claim 1) is that any alleged infringer would be a knitter… most likely this would be the patentee’s presumed customer and not a competitor (i.e. another manufacturer of needles). It seems highly unlikely the patentee would go after a knitter/customer for infringement. Yet another reason the claims seem a bit bizarre.

    Standard disclaimer: my thoughts only, this comment is not a legal opinion or legal advice.