Flat socks and knitting machines

With the holidays looming, my thoughts turn once again to production crafting, and I have retrieved my standard gauge knitting machine (KnitKing/Knitmaster 4500) from under the bed. On it was a partially-complete side-seam sock that I started several months ago.

Knitmaster Know How

KnitKing/Knitmaster Graphic from Newsletter

For those not familiar with knitting machine lingo and history, let me briefly summarize what is going on here. What I gather from the marketing angle of my knitting machine manual, is that back in the 50′s and 60′s some young housewives were given knitting machines for wedding presents (or other occasions). There were several brands of non-electric knitting machine being marketed and sold, and while not as common as a sewing machine, these machines were not just reserved for the crafterati as they are today.

With such a knitting machine, a housewife could crank out knitted garments for the whole family (so sayeth the knitting machine manual), and it was never assumed that you would know how to knit by hand. We’ll ignore, for the present, the socioeconomic implications of which women might have had the time and means to do such activities and just accept that knitting machines were more common once than they are today.

Fashion Sweater for KnitKing 4500

Fashion Sweater Ad for KnitKing 4500

Common knitting machines of the 50′s and 60′s were “standard gauge” (which I understand is a slightly different ‘standard’ than modern ‘standard gauge’ machines). Standard gauge machines knit yarns from laceweight to sportweight and maybe even DK. The majority of these basic machines are “single bed” (meaning that ribbing must be hand-manipulated) and cannot do garter stitch, just stockinette. A basic machine can do various hand-manipulated versions of lace and colorwork, but they really excel at making miles of convenient stockinette.

The learning curve on any knitting machine is fairly steep. I’m pretty mechanically inclined, and even for me there have been a lot of non-intuitive lessons. I think that’s why the Bond knitting machines have been so popular in recent years, the starting price is fairly low, and they come with a how-to video. There was a great article in Knitty about the Bond and it’s pro’s and con’s.

So how does one knit anything more complicated than a mile of unwavering stockinette on a single-bed standard gauge non-electric knitting machine? The amazing SusyRanner posts videos on her blog of many machine knitting adventures, including one where she knits socks on her Knitmaster/KnitKing 4500 (keep in mind that she has a rare double-bed machine, mine doesn’t have the row of vertical needles).

For the socks I knit, I cranked out ankle, instep, narrowed for a toe, widened back out for the sole, then turned a heel.  Then you’ve got a back seam down the ankle, two side seams down the instep, and lastly you graft the top of the heel to the bottom of the ankle and done. It’s not fast, but it’s a lot faster than knitting by hand. My first one was not pretty (ugly yarn not helping) but I think it demonstrates some very important concepts to me.

Caveat: I’m kind of glossing over an important point of knitting machine misery: absolute hair-tearing torture ensues when a stitch is accidentally dropped. I really don’t know how to handle it, and I’m pretty sure I’m doing something wrong because it’s really really really horrible. I’m hoping that this is still part of the learning curve that I haven’t yet gotten over.

Now that I’m analyzing this process of knitting socks on a simple machine, I’m thinking that it’s time to try knitting one flat piece per sock, sewing it into a tube, and hand knitting an afterthought heel and toe. Somehow I think that would be faster and more satisfying.  And maybe make a prettier heel and toe (or maybe I just need more practice).

After the flat-tube sock experiment, I’ll try reworking (by machine) a sock that I recently finished handknitting that came out too loose… and I can try adding the handknit decorative cuff after the machine knitting. This could revolutionize my sock knitting… as long as I want socks with a fairly plain body, anyway.

Until next time, keep those needles (and needle-beds) clicking…

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5 thoughts on “Flat socks and knitting machines

  1. Pingback: Forethought heels vs machine-shaped « Unravelling Argyle

    • I highly recommend looking to see if there is a local fiber arts guild, such as a knitting guild or a spinning/weaving guild in your area. Many times there are a few crafters in these groups that have dabbled in the mysterious realms of machine knitting. Also, check your local yarn stores, especially those that cater to spinners because they may be able to network you with crafters who machine knit.

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