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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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A Knitter’s Fantasy workshop

For the second time, I have had the delightful opportunity to attend a workshop in Youngstown, Ohio called “A Knitter’s Fantasy”.

The workshop has, in the past, been run as a rotation among three Ohio knitting guilds.  I understand however that the event has become too much work for one of the guilds involved, and it may no longer occur at all in future years.  It is too bad, because it is a wonderful event for attendees, although I can’t imagine the amount of work that is probably put on a few individuals from each guild.

The format of the workshop is what makes it really amazing, it’s like a mini-convention or expo (comparing to my other niche-hobby frames of reference:  boardgaming and quilting).  For $45 (this year), you get admission to a charming “Yarn Market” of about 20 or so vendors, access to a morning class and an afternoon class, and a lunch.  There is also a fashion show at lunch, door prizes, a “swap” table where knitters can destash and other knitters can pick up free yarn, tools and patterns, and, for the two years that I have attended, there has also been a demonstration room for machine knitting hosted by a machine-knitting guild.

The classes themselves are what really make this event great.  As far as I understand, all of the teachers are volunteering their time.  The cost of attendance is included in the $45, but some classes cost an additional small fee for materials or extensive hand-outs.  I find the quality of teaching and/or expertise of the teacher has varied widely, but all the classes have still been a lot of fun.  One year, for example, I took Tunisian crochet and the intended teacher had gotten sick, so two very enthusiastic volunteers learned the skill the night before, printed lots of handouts, and ran a great class!  It was tough for them to answer questions of any depth, however, I really felt that they made the class fun and I did successfully learn the basic Tunisian crochet pattern.

knitted broomstick lace swatch

Swatch of Knitted Broomstick Lace that I worked on in class

This year, I learned the Broomstick Lace knit stitch.    I was hoping there was a little more to the class than just the one stitch, as I have tried a little crocheted broomstick lace and there is a lot you can do with the crocheted version.  I’m not sure if there’s a lot you can do with the knit version, because the class really only covered the one stitch.  It was a tricky stitch to learn though, so I’m glad to have had the class to help me get into it.  If you’re curious, there is a very good video on this technique here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GerQQRmTuc0

Her written knitted broomstick lace pattern actually makes a little more sense than the version I was given in the class, which caused a lot of confusion for myself and other class participants.  Luckily, the teacher was able to straighten us out.

The Freeform Knitting class was really my favorite of this year.  The teacher, Sandy Hardy, was enthusiastic and very knowledgeable.  Someone had volunteered a load of plain and novelty yarns, and everyone was encouraged to bring in yarns to share as well.  This is the first time I’ve seen novelty yarns really go to an amazing and versatile use! Usually, I think of “novelty yarns” as the uni-taskers of the yarn world – they might do one thing really well, but you’re probably not going to want an every-day sweater out of it, and the appeal of the item you make might be limited to just a year or two before the look is out of style.  Normally I approach novelty yarns with extreme caution, but after this exciting class I’m wondering where I can get a grab-bag or someone’s destash!

Sandy began the class by trying to establish a relaxing atmosphere for creative exploration of a knitting form that is really versatile.  She then encouraged all the students to grab yarns from the share table, and gently pushed students with more subdued palettes to add in bits of yarn with more sparkle and contrasting color.

We received a handout with lots of resources as well as a few basic stitches, and she coached us through starting a mitered or garter block as a foundation, and then picking up stitches to make small units that could be pieced together later for handbags or other items.

Sandy had the most amazing example piece that she had created.

freeform knit purse by Sandy Hardy

Gorgeous Freeform knit purse by Sandy Hardy, front (photo used with permission)

She used a purse-form from a local yarn store (River Color Studio, which is my favorite yarn store, in Lakewood, OH, just sadly not very local to me anymore), but mentioned that plastic needlepoint canvas should work as well as a stabilizer and foundation to sew on the modular units.  I did admire the purse-form she had, as it was more flexible than rigid plastic canvas, however, I haven’t found the exact same thing online yet. [Update:  Sandy emailed me a link to the Lacis catalog, search TM22 to find the plastic mesh frame she used in her example.]  I think I might do ok with buckram (a stiffened linen) for my purposes.

From the resources in Sandy’s handouts, and the books she passed around, it seems like one of the luminaries of the freeform knitting arena is Prudence Mapstone.  Check out Ms. Mapstone’s inspiring freeform knitting gallery!

To add to the spirit of adventure, Sandy walked around the room and dropped small crocheted buttons or contrasting bits of yarn on the students’ desks and encouraged them to figure out how to add these extra bits.  I was very impressed by how she really got everyone to move beyond their comfort zones, and I found it quite liberating myself to stop thinking about pattern or count, and just pickup and add stitches, decrease and increase willy-nilly!

Gorgeous Freeform knit purse by Sandy Hardy, back (photo used with permission)

Gorgeous Freeform knit purse by Sandy Hardy, back (photo used with permission)

Just one more testament to Sandy’s skill as a teacher: in addition to teaching veteran knitters, there were actually two brand-new beginning knitters that had just learned to knit in a morning class and she coached them with equal finesse in the art of freeform knitting.  I think I remember that the brief teacher bios said that Sandy holds a TKGA educator certificate of some kind.  I’ll have to find out more about this, as I would like to try my hand at teaching again some day after I’ve gotten a little farther in the Master Knitter program.

The final dose of inspiration in the freeform knitting class was that one of the students happened to have a needle-felted handbag, which prompted a lot of discussion about the possibilities of needle felting by machine (either dedicated machines or with a needle-felting attachment to a regular sewing machine).  Thinking about this in context with freeform knitting had me visualizing all kinds of fun hybrid pieces with knit, crocheted, needle-felted, and sewn embellishments.

freeform knit swatch

The beginnings of my first freeform knitting project

 

My mind has been whirling ever since!  I hope I can capitalize on this momentum and have a great project or two to share in the next few months!

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Lost & found

My keen-eyed husband did help me find that lost sock needle the day after I had lost it.  There was more daylight, but I probably still wouldn’t have spotted it myself, because it was sticking out of the ground directly towards where I was sitting to look.  Thus, it was nearly invisible to me, a tiny chrome needle projecting straight out at me as it was.  My husband had a different angle on the scene, and thus found it.

But it got me thinking about lost tools.  The Yarn Harlot often makes light of losing tape measures, and I know lost DPNs are common enough being small and roll-inclined.  I certainly never seem to have enough stitch holders, but I think this is a factor of my many works-in-progress more than an indication that I’m really losing stitch holders.  Stitch markers are easy enough to misplace, but not having worked any enormous lace shawls yet, I’ve never run out of the little implements. 
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The Lost Needle

I got onto a crafting binge this weekend.  Yes, I’m still a frantically reading and writing grad student.  And no, in my final semester I probably have less “time” than ever for crafting.  But I needed craft therapy.  I created some gorgeously outlandish spring floral necklaces.  I finally reupholstered a rocking chair cushion that had been in desperate need of love from someone other than the cats for many years now. 

But I still wasn’t knitting.

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Startitis… I thought it could never happen to me…

I thought I’d never write a post about startitis.  Why?  Not because I never get the itch to start a few new projects all at once, but because I didn’t really believe it was startitis.  I just thought of it as a wave of inspiration that was going in multiple directions… perhaps I was a startitis denier.

Besides, usually when I have the urge to start several different projects, starting one or maybe two cures it.  I don’t have a problem with startitis… Continue reading