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Why doesn’t my knitting machine work?

While it is frustrating not to have objects behave as expected, I also find that this can be a very fun challenge.  Asking myself ‘why doesn’t my knitting machine work?’ is an invitation to better understanding all the little brushes, switches, flappers, and levers that are interacting between the machine bed and the carriage.  Non-electronic knitting machines are (presumably) a solvable equation.  If it doesn’t work, there is almost certainly something you can fix about it (although it might require replacement parts up to and including a whole ‘spare parts’ machine).  No advanced degree in machine knittery or rocket science required.

But mechanical aptitude and willingness to experiment are valuable attributes.  I will point out that I’m far more apt to experiment on the knitting machine than other types of things around the house.  Our furnace, for example, is temporarily knocked out and while we have opened it up and adjusted and cleaned some things to temporary good effect, I am quite ready to have a professional look at that dangerous and integral system.  See?  After staring at the guts of my furnace and all it’s gas and electrocution hazards, knitting machine repair seems like quite a soothing hobby!  The worst the knitting machine can do to me is snag my yarn and suck away my time.  It’s all about perspective.

Since I have 3 machines in my home that require some TLC and trouble-shooting, I think it’s time I develop a process.

Here’s my first few steps in assessing the “health” of a new-to-me knitting machine, (and I expect this process to evolve with practice):

  1. Check for really obvious missing parts (refer to manual for what should be present), look for bent/broken needles.  Try running the knitting carriage back and forth a few times.  If all goes well, no carriage jamming, move on to step 2.  If carriage jamming, skip ahead to step 4, Trouble shooting.
  2. Basic cleaning and lubrication – this means brushing needle beds and carriage with a medium-firm brush, removing excess lint, and rubbing everything with a soft cloth that has knitting machine oil on it.
  3. Check the sponge bar – if it has a sponge bar.  Disintegrating or permanently squished sponge bars are a really common problem in used knitting machines.  It’s an easy, relatively cheap part to replace.  I have read elsewhere that if the spongy part sits less than 3/8″ above the metal part, you should replace it.
  4. Try to knit a basic sample per machine manual instructions.  If that succeeds, great!  Move on to a test of the punch card operations, and then the lace carriage (if applicable).  If knitting a basic sample fails, move on to trouble-shooting mode.
  5. Trouble shooting mode.  From here, I want a flow chart…  but until I develop one, here is a nice chart on Needles of Steel for Troubleshooting tips.

So far, I have one machine (the KH 881) that won’t close stitches and I’m hoping it’s the sponge bar because I just ordered one for it, and the other machines (the bulky and the KH 800) are knitting the basics fine but may have other issues.

I’m also hoping to try Jack’s cleaning method, from The Answer Lady Knits & Ask Jack video series.  I watched a bunch of the videos while I was home sick one day last week.  It was kind of like listening to the Click & Clack of knitting machines.  The two people have a great rapport and cover a lot of really useful material about how to clean, test and repair knitting machines.  So far though, I haven’t noticed a video that covers a starting troubleshooting process for the beginner, which is why I want to develop my own process.

Also, it might be worth noting that, if you don’t feel you have the wherewithal to troubleshoot and repair your own knitting machine, people like Jack or others can be paid to service your machine.

Until next time… keep those needle beds zipping!

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A little history of knitting machines

I started writing a “page” to tell a little bit about knitting machines, and I got on such a roll that I decided it needed to be a separate post.  I hope to come back and update this some day with real research from real books, but for now, here are some tantalizing bits of knitting machine history gleaned from around the internet.

Knitting machine history:

Human beings have a long history of creating fabric with various tools.  If we loosely define a knit as a stretchy fabric made of loops, then early examples of non-needle knitting included peg knitting which is similar to today’s loom knitting and spool knitting, which appear to both date back to the Renaissance, if not the Middle Ages.  I need to do more research to see if I can find references earlier than that or specific dates.  The first more mechanized instrument seems to be the stocking loom that was said to have been shown to Queen Elizabeth I, who was said to have rejected it with the prescient fear that it would displace the nation’s hand-knitters (although some of this story may be apocryphal)… which it much later did causing social unrest (this is what the Luddite Machine Breakers were actually concerned with – it was a labor protest regarding knitting and other textile machines in industry).

A more modern, horizontal board of latches version of the knitting machine came at the close of the nineteenth century.  Followed by Japanese and European (Passap) machines for home use in the 1920’s and 1930’s respectively.  See the KnitTree for more details on that history.

The “modern” vintage knitting on a knitting machine is kind of like weaving on a loom except latch-hooks make a knit stitch by pulling in and out when you crank a carriage across.  A knitting machine may be electronic, but most are not.  The machine may require hand-manipulation of every stitch that is not intended to be plain stockinette as well as hand-manipulated increases and decreases.  Some machines have patterning options, the most popular being the punch card reader – I had an early 12-stitch punch card machine from 1971, but most are 24-stitch punch card readers.  The punch card reader works by engaging and disengaging the needles in a sequence defined by the holes in a plastic card.  This allows the creation of fair isle patterns with multiple colors, as well as tuck or lace textures depending on the other accessories of the particular machine.

Knitting machines were marketed to housewives in the late 40’s through the 60’s, and home fashionistas(?) in the 70’s and 80’s (the disparity between the 80’s poshness of the models in the beginning of this marketing video and the prim and bespectacled lady in who demonstrates the machine may say a lot about the decline in success of these machines). Knitting machines seem to have had a last gasp of niche hobby popularity in the 1990’s and have been slowly dwindling out of the mainstream of the textile hobby ever since.

The last magazines to print regular patterns and columns on machine knitting seem to have closed their doors in the early 2000’s and the major brands of knitting machines have stopped manufacturing too (Brother, Toyota and Passap are done, and I think Silver Reed/Studio/Singer ended production around 2012).  One knitting machine brand that MAY still be currently manufactured as of this writing (2015) is the Artisan.  The other, is of course, the readily available Bond, which can be found at many big-box stores including Joann Fabrics.  The Bond is something of a different animal, however, as it has a modular board and a very different style of cast-on, but it is most certainly a knitting machine of the flat-bed latch-hooking variety.  I think the Bond deserves it’s own whole post, however.

One last fun link – this lady seems to be, like me, enamored of the whole knitting machine phenomenon and determined to house every machine she can find in a “knitting machine museum”.  I don’t think my husband will let me store many more knitting machines in our small house, so please enjoy her website instead.

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Before we get too comfortable…

Lest anyone think I could focus on any one craft genre at a time…

Just when I have re-committed myself to pursuing the Master Knitter program, I got a tantalizing email from another knitting guild member offering up knitting machines and a garter carriage to anyone who might want them… for FREE.  I called and said that if no one else was interested, I would take the whole lot.  And that there were a couple of the machines that I would like dibs on even if there was a line out the door behind me.  It seems I was the first to call.

So far in my life, I have spent about $200 on three knitting machines and maybe $35 on some parts/accessories.  The first one was a gift for my sister, and the only knitting machine that I think is still sold new on the mass market:  The Bond Ultimate Sweater Machine.  I didn’t know much about knitting machines at the time, but she had a dream about felted squiggly curtains, which sounded like long tedious plain rows of knitting.  I was trying to be supportive, but it turned out that it’s a lot to have a knitting machine in one’s small apartment with cats, finding the right table for it is tricky, and ultimately the machine came back to me.

Before that machine came back, I got my own first knitting machine cheap on ebay.  A few years later, my Mom’s friend gave her (who gave me) a free 12-stitch punchcard machine, the Brother KH 800 from the 1970s.  And just now I’ve gotten a carload of machines and accessories!  It’s an embarrassment of riches!  Or maybe a lot of people are getting out of this dying art.

In truth, it’s challenging to get started when there are few teachers, the machines are (usually) prohibitively expensive to get sight unseen, I don’t think any book or magazine publishers are currently publishing sexy modern patterns for machines, and unlike hand knitting, it’s hard to take your problem project over to a friend’s house for troubleshooting.

In any case, I feel very lucky, this is a whole lot of machine value for the cost of a car ride.  It pays to join knitting guilds, folks.  One guild member’s clutter can be your future clutter… er, treasure!  But seriously, we didn’t talk much but I got the impression that my benefactor had enjoyed machine knitting but was having difficulty taking the bulky, heavy machines to classes and was now ready see someone else enjoy these machines. Carol Murdoch-Miller, you are an angel of the knitting world.  You have given a stranger a beautiful gift of crafting happiness.

As for the added equipment to my small home – my husband smiles, and groans, and teases about the space my stuff takes up.  But I am grateful every day that he appreciates the value of tools.  He really gets it – he was genuinely excited for me to get such an awesome collection of machines and accessories.  And then he lets me store as many knitting machines as I can find in our tiny house!  At least they fold down flat and slide under the bed easily.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not actually planning to keep all of the machines currently in my house.  I have friends and family who might putter around with them too, and are eager to take them on.  I think I’m just the obsessed one who gets other people going along with these kinds of things.

The ones I’m keeping are the new-to-me 24-stitch punchcard Brother KH 881, the compatible garter carriage, and the KnitKing Bulky punchcard (because I love worsted!) .  I’ll probably pass along the 12-stitch Brother KH 800, since this new one is a real upgrade.  The KH 881 is about 15 years younger, and has two noteworthy features:  the knitleader – which appears to be some kind of guide in which you trace your pattern shape onto a thin plastic sheet and it helps guide your progress; and the punchcard reader takes a 24-stich card.  The old one was from a short-lived period before the 24-stitch card was standardized, there are plenty of patterns that can be halved, but there are a lot more available that cross 24 stitches.

For the recipient of the KH 800, there is a really good video on troubleshooting the card reader – I never got around to that fix.  I’m happy to try to fix it with you, if you’d like!

I looked at the KH 881, and I don’t think it needs a new sponge bar, that seems to be one of the first things that break down, but this one seems to be in ok condition.  I cleaned and oiled and tried to assess if there were missing parts.  So far, it seems like the only missing thing is the extension rails for the lace carriage.  Luckily, there are still shops that sell parts, even if no one is apparently manufacturing new machines of this type anymore.

By the way, while the Brother FTP site seems to be down (unless they moved or something), I found a great many knitting machine manuals over on this site:  http://machineknittingetc.com/ and specifically Brother manuals (even some service manuals) on the Mostly Knitting Machines site.

Investigating my new machines will keep me busy for quite some time, I am sure.  As will finding new places in my house to stash my new equipment!

Until next time, keep those needle-beds clacking…

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Knitting machine accessories

I haven’t done much with my Brother KH 800 knitting machine in a while, because having out a delicate machine with fiddly and dangling bits doesn’t seem particularly compatible with having a curious toddler underfoot.  And the craft-room door doesn’t actually click closed, so I can’t keep him out of there mid-project.  But I’m planning some time off for a mitten-knittin’ marathon, and I am considering bringing out the big guns for it.

Thinking of my future knitting machine adventures, I’m probably not going to get around to it soon, but I think a ribber might be a valuable addition to the machine.  How do I find out what ribber is compatible?  There are a couple of really good sites that I like to refer to that have charts about knitting machine abilities and accessory compatibility.

Angelika’s Yarn Store:  http://www.yarn-store.com/knitting-machine-chart.html

and

Daisy Knits:  http://www.daisyknits.com/bcompatibility.htm

I have used both of these sites to help identify and assess the usefulness of many ebay knitting machine items, and that’s probably how I’m going to find a ribber, if I eventually go for it.  My experience is that most of the time when knitting machines and accessories that show up on ebay, the seller found it at an estate sale or grandma’s attic and has no clue what they are selling.  If they did a little research, the item is better described and the auction goes well (perhaps too well for my cheap tastes!).  If the seller didn’t do their homework, then good deals can be found for the savvy knitting machine shopper.

Until next time, keep those needle beds purring!

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Toy knitting machine

My toddler has been taking up more of my time than my crafts and craft-posting lately.  I suppose that’s healthy!  But it means few posts here.

My husband recently discovered a fun item for me at the thrift store that I must share:

Kenner Knitting Machine

Kenner New Automatic Knitting Machine ca. 1967

A Kenner 1967ish toy flatbed knitting machine!  It boggles my mind to think that there was once a market not only for adult housewives to crank out knitwear on these fun-but-fiddly machines, but also that their children might want to imitate them on kiddie-versions thereof.  I seriously wonder if this was a niche-market or considered a mass-market thing.  Sometime I’d like to see some stats on yarn-hobby-industry sales over the decades, and find out what portion was hobby machine knitting.  Because it seems like they were making a lot more knitting machine stuff 50 years ago.

Trying to look up my $7 Kenner thrift-treasure, I did find some posts on vintage/nostalgia boards talking about the hair-pulling experience of trying to use the toy knitting machine as a child.  I’m hoping that my adult-sized knitting machine experiences will make it easier for me to troubleshoot this little machine.

It does use standard-sized knitting machine needles, and the manual says it produces a standard gauge (and to borrow Mom’s leftover “regular weight” yarn).  But it only has 24 or 28 needles (it’s not in front of me at the moment).  It seems to be mostly complete and in decent shape.  The carriage bumpers for the two ends are dry-rotted, and the needles on the far ends of the row seem too sticky/tight, but I think I can loosen some screws to help with that.  Amazingly, all the needles are there and not a single one is bent or broken!  Since most of the original yarn-balls are intact, and there is little evidence of use except for a few remnants of pom-pom cuttings, and some tiny bits of fiber caught in some of the needles, I suspect this toy machine was tried once and given up quickly.

Knitting Machine box contents

Inside the Kenner New Automatic Knitting Machine box

I hope I can get it working.  I think it might be more convenient than my regular machine to keep out of my baby’s way since it’s so small, and it should be big enough to crank out some mittens if it works ok.  Down the road, I am tickled by the thought that my kid might want to try using a knitting machine, and that I’d have a kid-sized one for him to try out.  That is, assuming, he has any interest in crafts… I can only hope.

Until next time, keep those needle-beds clackety-clacking!

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Playing with Machines Again

Brother Knitting Machine KH 800

Brother Knitting Machine KH 800 in action

My Mom was given a knitting machine by a friend who was cleaning out her basement, it sounded kind of fancy.  I offered to teach my Mom how to use it, but our recent get-togethers were focused on other things (eg. I am expecting).  When she came over to help me bake traditional Slovak Easter foods for the holiday, I figured I could at least set up my Knitmaster and show her the basics.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts and on the associated info page, my Knitmaster is a very humble sort of knitting machine.  It’s a standard gauge (meaning it can handle lace-weight through DK), but it’s functionality is limited to plain stockinette unless you are willing to do some very tedious hand-manipulation.

I had considered upgrading to a punch card machine last year, but I really couldn’t justify the expense.  My humble Knitmaster was an eBay bargain at $46 including shipping.  I’d likely have to pay at least $500 for a gamble on a basic punchcard machine.  Spare cash being limited as it often is, I gave up on the idea after a few months of Craigslist and eBay stalking.

So last week I showed my Mom the wonders of machine knitting on my Knitmaster.  I demonstrated various techniques on a piece that started as an attempt to machine knit a baby cardigan.  She also got to try out casting on, binding off, and basic rows.  My crafty buddy Emily also stopped by and got to try out the knitting machine.  Emily is a scientist by trade, so I think the precision and mechanical nature of the knitting machine were intriguing to her.

The next day I got a call from my Mom.  Maybe it’s the impending grandma-hood and the baby sweater I was trying to create, maybe it’s the fact that my Mom just won a circular sock knitting machine from ebay, or maybe it was the fact that my machine is kind of simple and her machine was a bit more complex.  Whatever the reason, she made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.  She asked if I would like to swap knitting machines with her!  So the pic above is “my” new Brother KH 800 Knitting Machine, “on semi-permanent loan to my collection” as we like to say.

So far, I am thrilled!  The Brother Knitting Machine had been in a friend of my Mom’s yarn shop, then it was given to another friend of hers who does charity knitting but apparently never got into the knitting machine aspect of production knitting.  A basement needed cleaning, the machine went to my Mom, and voila!  A free upgrade for me!  It is in fairly good shape (a few needles are missing, apparently swapped out and moved to the ends when bent).  It has a lace cartridge and takes a 12-stitch punchcard.  Alas, the couple of books that I have accumulated on knitting machine patterns are for 24-stitch punchcards, but I think most can be modified.

Compared to my Knitmaster, there are a lot of pieces to set up on this machine.  Flipping through the PDF manual I found online, I was able to figure out most things.  I am slowly building up my abilities with the new functions.  I like making hemmed edges on it – the cast on is so easy it feels like cheating!

The only major difficulty I am having so far is that the punchcard mechanism is not “reading” the cards correctly.  Some of the needles that the card says should be selected are not selecting – I can do it manually, of course, but that sort of defeats the purpose.  The PDF manual is missing some pages, but it doesn’t appear that it ever had a page that detailed troubleshooting the punchcard.  Hopefully internet research will help, but I may be relegated to taking things apart and seeing what happens.

I’m heading for a day-long knitting workshop this weekend with my crafty buddy Emily.  A couple of classes and a vendor area… Watch out now – I’m heading into the danger zone!

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

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Project Swapway: Designing a Cape

A few months ago, I joined a Steampunk Swap in the Odd Duck Swaps group on Ravelry.  My swap target (or “spoilee”) was very talkative and fun, so I got loads of ideas for what to make for her.  One thing she mentioned caught my fancy right away as a great opportunity to set a design challenge for myself.

The inspiration started with a page of illustrations of Victorian capes that my “spoilee” had posted.  One caught my eye immediately.

Victorian Cape

Victorian Cape

So gorgeous!  I loved the high neck, the tailored look, the weighty drape of the luxurious fabric (presumably fur, in the original).  I imagined that this would be a lined cape that would keep a lady warm on the coldest winter strolls, and yet be easily tossed aside for a waltz with a beau.

So then I started to think about how to put my own spin on it.  A steampunk cape with a bit of my own flair.  I toyed with the idea of buying fabric and sewing, but I really wanted to knit it.  A yarn with a good drape should mimic the weight of the fur better than even faux-fur.  And what would a knitted cape be without a heavenly lace trim? Continue reading