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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Our Readers Write

The Missing Link Found!
Recreating the Expedition Sewing Kit
Chouinard Sewing Kit

July 31, 2012

The wheel of the year continues its stately, predicable revolution. Venus' shadow crosses the disk of the sun. More than a century will pass before an encore performance is on offer. We won't be around to see it. That much, at least, is beyond doubt. But such certainties are rare. In the world beneath the heavens — or at least in our corner of Canoe Country — the times seem out of joint, the seasons curiously uncertain and wonderfully disordered. A cool and killing spring follows a warm and snowless winter. The sap fails to rise in the maples, and the lilacs in the dooryard never bloom. Only in the last month has summer made its entrance, and it's done so with a vengeance, not to mention a sense of irony. Week‑long sieges of cloying, oppressive heat alternate with dank, gray days, when temperatures drop low and bone‑chilling rains fall from dawn to dusk.

At least the rain comes down by fits and starts. It keeps the specter of drought at bay. Yet the rivers still run low and slow, while insect‑eating birds forage frantically for the few hardy moths able to brave the changeable weather. And no bats flutter over the water in the evening. Victims of an alien fungus, they may now be gone from our skies for good.

As bleak and cheerless as all this sounds, though, we've no choice but to accept the weather as it comes. Nor can we do anything to blunt the impact of deadly spores from halfway round the world, now carpeting cave floors with the bodies of dead and dying bats. Instead, we continue in our chosen role, self‑appointed inspectors of beaver ponds, mountain rills, and old roads, venturing out and about in all weathers, ready to welcome the sun's appearances with the enthusiasm of parched castaways finding a spring of clear water on a desert isle — but just as often huddling under a flailing poncho or sweaty jacket, listening to a chill rain's remorseless drumming. Could we be felled by both heatstroke and hypothermia in the same week? It's possible.

It hasn't happened yet, however, and between outings we dry our clothes and read our mail. Lately, much of this has concerned the resurrection of a most unlikely object: the Chouinard Expedition Sewing Kit. It occupies a place of honor in Tamia's ditty bag, and for reasons that are surely too obscure ever to be unraveled, she cherishes the little kit with an unholy passion. This doubtless explains why she felt a disconcerting sense of loss when it disappeared from the marketplace, many years ago. The result? She guards her one remaining Chouinard kit with the zeal of a mother protecting an only child. Which is why, after being prompted by a correspondent's question, she recently appealed to readers, asking for their assistance in bringing the Expedition Kit back to life. The crucial task was recreating the small sewing awl, a plastic collet chuck that grips a heavy‑duty needle. (You can see the awl in the photos below.) Without it, the kit is just a collection of sewing sundries. But Tamia was at a loss how to go about fabricating a replacement.

The Missing Link

She'd reckoned without her readers' ingenuity, though. No, that's not right. She'd reckoned on her readers' ingenuity. And they came up trumps. So this "Readers Write" is devoted entirely to the fight to bring back the Expedition Sewing Kit. We won't keep you in suspense. The deed has been done, the battle won. What Chouinard sentenced to death, ingenious paddlers have brought back to life, and one reader has gone further, producing a replacement awl that's both elegant and functional. In fact, it's even better than the original.

Now if the weather would only moderate its excesses, and the bats return to our evening skies… But while we're waiting, hopefully, for these things to come to pass, "Our Readers Write" goes on marking the fifth Tuesday in every month that the calendar allows. Maybe you, too, have something you're eager to get off your chest. If so, just drop us a line. After all, it's every reader's right.

Till next time, then, we're …

  —  Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest, and we're In the Same Boat

This is a Vise Worth Acquiring

Dear Tamia,

Though not exactly the same, possibly the X‑Acto Pin Vise Set could substitute for the awl? Here's the ad copy:

The X‑Acto Pin Vise Set is perfect for building models and miniatures. Capable of drilling, positioning and starting holes in a variety of different modeling materials, this set includes a double-ended pin vise, pin vise bit guard and three assorted drill bits. ... Our Pin Vise Set is equipped for drilling the following modeling and craft materials:

Soft and lightweight wood
And more

If it's what I remember, you have a similar end where the needle would fit into, but I'm not sure how big the hole would be.

Mark Travis

Tamia replies:

Thanks, Mark. A Web search turned up many online retailers selling the X‑acto pin vise, which does indeed look like it could serve the purpose. And it ought to be possible to cut down the aluminum shaft and drill it through to accept a cotter‑pin T‑grip, just like the original.

Another Vote for the Pin Vise

Dear Tamia,

I read your article about the sewing kit in the latest "Our Readers Write" and got to thinking: Would a pin vise work? It doesn't have a hole for a cotter pin, but you might be able to use a rock in the field, or custom make a quarter‑sized, ¾‑inch‑deep hole in the middle of piece of hardwood, in case there are no small stones where you are camping!

One source for the pin vise is Micro‑Mark ["the small tool specialists" – Editor]. Look up "high precision micro pin vise," Part Number 15116. It's two inches long, made of nickel‑coated brass.

Keep up the good work,

Paul Herrmann

Tamia replies:

Several of Micro‑Mark's pin vise offerings look like they'd do the trick, Paul. Thanks. (It's good to know you find the column of interest, too!)

And Another…

Dear Tamia,

The "collet chuck" that you're looking for is called a pin vise. McMaster‑Carr has a good selection of them ranging in price from USD12 to USD25. They have a great website, and fast, easy shipping. You may also be able to find them in your local hobby store. Most of the ones that I saw had knurled aluminum bodies instead of a T‑handle like the one pictured in your article, but I think they should work fine. Before buying one, just make sure that the diameter of your needle shaft is within the clamping size range of the vise. If the T‑handle is imperative to you, then look for the smallest size tap handles you can find. McMaster‑Carr and MSC Industrial Supply both carry several different ones.

Charlie Safley

Tamia replies:

Good call, Charlie. I should have thought of tap handles — I've been meaning to get a selection of taps and dies for bike work for some time now. I ought to have thought of McMaster‑Carr, too. They're a great place to find almost any fitting, fastener, or tool.

And One More

Dear Tamia,

I searched for "pin vise set" online and has two "finger chucks" that look like they may fill the bill: Items 95450 and 95460.

Jack Berger

Tamia replies:

Another good call. Thanks, Jack. One of the vises referenced accepts shafts to 332 inch. That looks like just the ticket.

Dremel Tool, Anyone?

Dear Tamia,

Your collet chuck looks the same as the one in the Dremel tool, which holds small drills and other bits.

Judy Combs

Tamia replies:

It sure does, Judy. One more instance of brain fade on my part. I don't know why I didn't think of it — a Dremel tool is another thing that's high on my shop tool want‑list.

Or How About a Jeweler's Vise?

Dear Tamia,

The part that you are looking for is commonly called a pin vise or a jeweler's vise. They can usually be found at a hobby store or a machinists' tool supplier. I even saw a couple on Amazon today. I have used these pin vises for many things, but I never thought of using it for a sewing awl. I hope this helps. I love your column, by the way!

Bob Moore

Tamia replies:

The pin vise certainly shows up in a wide variety of guises, Bob. Thanks for adding to the list. And thanks, too, for the kind words. We're always happy to learn that people enjoy In the Same Boat.

Office Depot to the Rescue!

Dear Tamia,

I'm sure the swivel‑head pin vise at Office Depot is not the same as the one contained in your favorite sewing kit, but I think it might be a suitable replacement.

Art Denney

Tamia replies:

Indeed it might, Art. Thanks!

And What About the Speedy Stitcher?

Dear Tamia,

If modified as shown in the Primitive Skills blog, a Speedy Stitcher can be made slightly smaller and therefore more useful.


Tamia replies:

This is embarrassing, Jackie. I own a Speedy Stitcher. But I don't often take it with on trips because it's so bulky. If cut down to size, however, it would make a pretty fair substitute for the sewing awl in the Expedition Kit. Not quite as small, to be sure, but almost certainly small enough. Thanks.

Cork Blimey!

Hi, Tamia!

I carry a regular little sewing kit in my repair bag, too. [Your sewing awl] looks easy to replicate. A regular heavy‑duty sewing needle, a piece of cork, and the little pin or stick of wood, if duct taped together, should do the trick. I've also used a regular sewing needle with a Leatherman to punch through the layers of heavy‑duty dry bag material out in the field.


Tamia replies:

What can I say, Lisa? Your improvised awl is both simple and good. And there's no higher praise.

And Now… [Flourish of trumpets]
The Ultimate Awl

Dear Tamia,

Here are the results of my efforts.

Randall Ijams

Tamia replies:

Short and to the point, Randall. A beautiful job, too. Compact, elegant, and functional. In fact, it's better than the original. Plastic can break, and the Chouinard collet chuck is plastic. But yours is metal. In my book, metal trumps plastic almost every time. (Owners of "Tin Tanks" take note.) And the description on your website is also a masterpiece of clarity. I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that I'm going to lose no time in making one for myself.


Randall Ijams Sewing Awl


And on that triumphant note, we'll wrap up this latest edition of "Our Readers Write." Of course, bringing back the Chouinard Expedition Sewing Kit won't solve any of the world's big problems. But it won't add to the list, either, and it's always instructive to see the many ways that clever folks rise to a challenge. Some opt for simplicity and economy. Others look for solutions off the shelf, while still others aim for (and achieve) real elegance. Whichever course you favor, if you ever want to replicate the Expedition Sewing Kit — and you should never underestimate the value of needle and thread in the backcountry — you now know how to supply the missing link. That's no bad thing, surely.

Heartfelt thanks to all the readers who took time to research and suggest solutions. Every paddler who's had to mend a wind‑ravaged tarp or repair a torn pair of shorts is in your debt. And be sure to look for more reader mail in October. What will the hot topics be then? Well, that's up to you, isn't it? It's "Our Readers Write," after all!



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A little fine print: While we can't reprint every letter we receive, we do read them all, and we try to answer each one, though we can't always do so as promptly as we'd like. Letters not intended for publication should be identified as such. (Just put "Not for Publication" in the subject line.) Readers' e‑mail addresses are removed from all correspondence before reprinting, unless you specifically ask us not to do so. We also edit letters for length and clarity, adding links to articles or other resources wherever and whenever appropriate.

Copyright © 2012 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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