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When an injury forced Ed Fisher to find a new way to feed his family, his mother’s knitting provided the inspiration.

Fisher, 47, worked for 1-1/2 years setting trailers for a Billings company, crawling under the mobile homes to level them on blocks and hook up water and sewer connections. Last year, he tore the cartilage in both knees, injuries that left him unable to stand for more than an hour at a stretch.

His worker’s compensation claim was initially denied. The denial threw him into the welfare system. His wife, Tina, who works as a waitress, has five children, who range in age from 7 to 17, from a previous marriage.

“The system is not something I’m very proud of having to rely on,” said Fisher, who grew up in Gardiner and Billings and has done construction and cabinet work for most of his life.

Last winter, as his family celebrated Christmas with help from church food baskets, Fisher came up with the rough sketches for a furniture cabinet that stores and dispenses knitting yarn and crochet thread.

“I truly believe the idea was born out of the absolute necessity of survival,” Fisher said.

His patented Knit-Chet cabinet has detachable, quick-release spools to hold yarn or crochet thread. Drawers hold knitting needles and crochet hooks. A storage compartment, with a fold-up lid, accommodates 14 skeins of yarn. The base contains a magazine rack for patterns.

Built of solid hardwood, the cabinet is meant to sit beside a knitter’s favorite chair like a piece of fine furniture. Yarn or crochet thread goes straight from the package onto the spools. A special attachment holds larger, 1-pound spools of yarn.

The idea came to him 15 years ago as he watched his mother pull yarn from a bag by her chair. Fisher knew there had to be a better system, but he never found time to design one.

Since the end of May, when an ad for the cabinet ran in the summer issue of a national knitting magazine, Fisher has received more than 100 inquiries.

“The editors at the East Coast knitting magazines, they just love it,” he said.

The cabinet has also attracted attention from yarn-shop owners and craft stores. If Fisher is unable to sell enough cabinets directly to customers, he may sell them through retail outlets for a substantially higher price.

Although the initial response has been positive, it’s too soon to predict whether the cabinets will prove profitable.

“I think I have a really good chance now to capture my own market and sustain my own life,” Fisher said.

The deluxe cabinet sells for $430 in the Billings area. A junior model costs $250, a table-top model sells for $120 and a tote-along, transportable model costs $89. The solid hardwood cabinets come in black walnut, cherry and oak.

Fisher hopes the cabinets will become heirloom furniture pieces, handed down from generation to generation. He envisions husbands and sons buying them as gifts for their wives and mothers.

In 1990, Fisher started selling furniture he designed under the name Yellowstone Oak Works, a business he started in Gardiner. His unusual and practical pieces included a rolltop jewelry case attached to a chiffonier-style dresser and a Montana hall tree, with a longhorn steer-shaped finial and room for a brand.

In 1994, he closed the business and moved to Billings after a divorce.

The pieces he designed under the Yellowstone Oak Works banner are too heavy for him to produce since his injury, but he keeps sketching out new ideas. Last winter, he designed a bedroom butler with a lockable storage place to hold a man’s wallet and cuff links.

  JAMES WOODCOCK/Gazette staff
  The deluxe Knit-Chet dispenses yarn or crochet thread from quick-release spools. The storage compartment, with a foldup lid, holds 14 skeins of yarn.

It took six months from the time he built the first prototype of the Knit-Chet until his first sale. The Knit-Chet name, an amalgamation of the words “knit” and “crochet” was coined by his brother when they were children.

His brother didn’t recognize the difference between knitting and crocheting, so he would say their mother was busy “knit-cheting.” When potential customers had trouble pronouncing “chet” correctly, Fisher added an accent mark over the “e.”

A $5,000 loan through the state’s Vocational Rehabilitation Program paid for some of his start-up costs, including some woodworking equipment and the initial magazine advertisement. Al Jones, the regional development officer with the Montana Department of Commerce, was impressed with the sophisticated way Fisher’s marketing plan attempts to capture a national niche market of devoted hobbyists.

“It’s one of the smartest marketing plans I’ve seen in a long time,” Jones said.

To pique interest in his product, Fisher talked to the editorial departments of national knitting magazines along with their advertising departments.

To design the first Knit-Chet prototypes, Fisher converted the garage behind his house into a cramped wood shop. He sits on lawn chairs and stools as he works at the joiner and inverted router. To work on the band saw, he sits on the table saw.

“I can sit, if I don’t work too long,” Fisher said.

The pain caused by bone pressing against bone makes him unable to stand without fatigue or to move without pain.

“Whenever I get up, it feels like somebody hits me in the knees with hammers,” he said.

After a year of wrangling, his worker’s comp case is now in mediation. Fisher expects to be able to have surgery soon to repair the damaged cartilage.

His two sons, ages 23 and 24, are full-time construction workers and help with his business in their spare time.

“I usually save the heavy stuff for them,” he said.

They do the manufacturing at his oldest son’s shop in Shepherd.

“My sons have invested in this with me. They’ve put a lot of their time and finances in to help me go long on this,” Fisher said.

This fall, Fisher plans to place ads in several knitting magazines and participate in a Billings trade show. He also hopes to travel to out-of-state knit and crochet trade shows.

“I have to have all the optimism in the world,” he said. “I don’t have anything else, considering my position.”

For information on the Knit-Chet, call 245-7838.

Donna Healy can be reached at 657-1292