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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…