ChiaoGoo – A Tool Company for Knitting
Their needles are loved by knitters all over the world, but not many know the story behind ChiaoGoo. The creation of their needles brings together old bamboo crafting traditions and modern engineering.
When Leon Zheng was a child, living in a remote village outside the Lin’an district of Hangzhou in eastern China, his mother knitted a sweater for him. He had just this one sweater, and it lasted him for years. He was the youngest of four boys, and Leon’s sweater was different to his brothers’. It was made from several yarns, all left over after the other sweaters were knitted. At the time, although he treasured the gift, he remembers feeling awkward about the patchwork quality of the sweater, wondering why it wasn’t made of one single yarn like the rest.
He couldn’t have known it then, but this knitted sweater, with yarn from disparate sources, would come to represent his life’s work. As a designer and a founder of ChiaoGoo, along with his brothers and his wife, Wendy, Leon has created something familiar yet new. He has taken the idea of a traditional knitting needle and, by mixing in modern, perhaps unconventional, ideas from engineering, has created exceptional tools relied upon by the knitting community worldwide.
ChiaoGoo translates as “highly skilful and crafty lady”, paying tribute to Leon’s mother, who knitted to provide clothing for her family.
“During that time,” he recalls, “knitting wasn’t for fun or for enjoyment. Knitting kept the family warm. After all the other work was finished, she would knit when yarn was available. She is very crafty and very, very hard-working.”
As a company that produces knitting tools, ChiaoGoo also acknowledges Leon’s father, a bamboo craftsman, who had a workshop adjacent to their house. It was there that he made simple double-pointed needles out of the mōsō bamboo that was so widely grown in the Lin’an district. These needles were commonly used in his village, and it was this type of needle that provided clothing for Leon’s family through his mother’s hands.
Back to the roots
Wendy and Leon grew up in the Lin’an district in the 1970s and were classmates for several years. When it was time to attend university, they both studied engineering. Leon focused on mechanical engineering and Wendy on civil engineering. They went to separate universities in Beijing before marrying and heading to the United States to finish their education in West Virginia. Leon finished with a PhD in mechanical engineering, and Wendy earned a master’s degree in civil engineering.
They moved to Detroit, Michigan, where Leon was hired by General Motors to work on engine design. By then, the couple had two children, a boy and a girl, who were being looked after by Wendy.
While Leon was finessing his engineering skills, he hadn’t forgotten his hometown in Lin’an. Like his mother, he had an itch to create something of his own. He recalls one conversation with his brother Wenxue where they discussed the rich bamboo harvests and what they could create with it. Mōsō bamboo is especially resilient and grows very thick and fast, making it strong, sustainable and readily accessible.
“We realized the bamboo knitting needle is a good niche product. One, it’s bamboo. Not many other places in the world can do that. Second, we have the background. We know what the bamboo needle looks like and how they make it, because that’s what my daddy made.”
It was then, in 2005, that Leon started on the design of what would become the very first ChiaoGoo product: the double-pointed bamboo knitting needle that was so prevalent in the homes in Lin’an.
They designed the first prototype. The needle was thoroughly tested by the skilful hands of Leon’s mother before meeting quality approval. To Wendy and Leon’s surprise, it sold immediately upon being listed on online marketplaces. It was clear that there was a demand for a needle that was lightweight, allowing for longer knitting sessions, and warm to the touch. The bamboo also proved
more durable than most types of wood.
Leon applied what he had learned about mechanics, quality control and manufacturing and formed an alliance with his brothers, who remained in Hangzhou. The brothers would handle manufacturing. Leon and Wendy would handle the design, marketing and distribution from the United States.
Single-point needles were added, followed by circulars, allowing for even greater flexibility when choosing creative projects. It wasn’t until 2015, however, that Leon took time off from his day job to develop the prototype of what would become their most popular product: the interchangeable sets.
What marks out every ChiaoGoo product is the design. There are finishing touches that could only come from the mind of a mechanical engineer familiar with complex engine design. Leon designed a circular needle featuring precision-
tapered points that provided a swivel effect while using it. The first circulars were bamboo, but as if unable to resist the temptation, Leon continued to experiment with design.
He created a circular made of stainless steel, an alloy commonly used for automotive parts and a variety of household and surgical products. He’s proud of his creation, and points out the smoothness of the needle and the exceptional tapering at the cable join. But it was Wendy who suggested the particular cable that quickly made their circular a signature product.
“The cable itself is not totally new,” suggests Leon. “It’s been used on other products,” he adds, explaining how the design and materials are critical when creating the final product.
“It took quite a few years to come up with the right formula to make the cable. It is flexible,memory-free, strong, and not easy to break.”
The colour of the curl-resistant cable-red – was chosen with intention. It highlights thesymbolism the colour red has within Chinese culture, pointing to joy, happiness and good fortune.
As Leon’s mother has grown older, in-house testing has been passed on to Wendy, Leon’s sister-in-law and ChiaoGoo staff. Customer reviews aside, the quality approval must still comefrom within. As Leon puts it: “My philosophy is that we are a tool company for knitting. Knitters,especially the professional knitters, need a really good tool. Precision, smoothness, and durability. Memory-free, rotation, and cable smoothness. We don’t need to make something that’s beautiful or colourful. But we need to make sure the product is functional.”
ChiaoGoo now boasts over 700 products, spanning all types of needles (including crochet) and accessories. Yet ChiaoGoo’s biggest breakthrough has come with the development of the interchangeable sets.
These sets, available in both bamboo and stainless steel, are modular in form. Depending on the set, the tips range in size from 1.5 mm to 10 mm, with interchangeable cables that create circulars ranging between 23 cm and 150 cm, making the needles both customisable and extremely portable. Each tip of the same joint size securely fastens on to either end of the cable,
with accessories designed to create a seamless knitting experience. Once again, the colour red reappears as a heart-shaped rubber gripper for tightening each seal.
Perhaps not unexpectedly, Leon continues with product experimentation. He’s currently putting the final touches on a luxury interchangeable set that features a combination of stainless steel and hardwood. This set combines the swivel effect found on bamboo circulars with the memory-free, nylon-coated steel cable of the stainless-steel circulars. The cable is not crimped at all – it actually does swivel at the joint. And there’s another prototype in progress that he says will remain a secret.
“I’m not 100% sure it will work, but we feel it’s a very good idea.”
The full-length version of this feature was first published in Laine issue 13.
Text: Liz Warner
Photos: Doug Coombe and Sini Kramer.