Follow along as I machine knit a tuck stitch pattern sweater while I talk about getting into machine knitting and a brief history of the knitting machine.
Machine Knitting Wiki: Knitting Machine Manufacturers
Wikipedia: Knitting Machine
Wikipedia: Stocking Frame
Early 20th Century Hosiery Interviews, including framework knitter Peter Clowes
Leicestershire Industrial History Society about Framework Knitting
Photo by Anton Atanasov
Logo designed and drawn by A.R. Gergler
Photo by Anton Atanasov
[Music: Paper Flakes by Rafael Krux, light piano]
Hello. Welcome to Barrows & Wights. I’m Adrian, my pronouns are he/them, and I am a machine knitter.
I bought my first knitting machine a few years ago: a Silver Reed LK150, which is one of the few affordable new knitting machines on the market today.
For a given measure of affordable. It wasn’t cheap by a long shot, but it also wasn’t the price of a 4k television.
This is one of the most basic flatbed knitting machines out there and is widely
regarded as a great starter machine. That’s why I picked it. I can get replacement parts for it easily and because it was new, it was a lot less likely to have the kind of idiosyncrasies that machines develop as they age. At the time, more new educational materials were starting to come out for the LK150 as well, including online video courses and in person classes at some of the major knitting conventions in the United States. And although this knitting machine shines with huge swathes of stockinette stitch there are a lot of things that you can make with this machine if you have the patience to try things out and rip back when you’ve messed up.
You know, like regular knitting.
After I cranked out two sweaters, a hat, some mittens, and a shawl, I was hooked and I started looking for a used machine with a smaller gauge.
Gauge here refers to the thickness of yarns you can use with the machine. The LK150 does best with sport, DK, and worsted weight yarns. You can do some bulkies depending on how bulky they are and you can do looser knitting with fingering weight yarns, but I’ve found the machine does best with that middling group of yarns.
If you ever end up dipping your toes into the machine knitting world and you like what you find, you will become part historian, part treasure hunter, and part mechanic. This is because home knitting machines first became available around the 1960s and declined in the late 80s early 90s. I believe. Don’t quote me on that.
It might have been a bit earlier, but most of this history that’s floating around in my brain is from online forums by machine knitting folks who were either present for these developments or are second-generation machine knitters whose parents were present for these developments. There were a few different companies making knitting machines at the time and there were two main styles of flatbed knitting machines manufactured. These are generally referred to in the forums today as Japanese style flatbed machines – made by companies like Bond, Brother, Juki, Toyota, and Silver Reed – and Passap machines. The Passap machines are also sometimes referred to as European style flatbed machines, but there weren’t a lot of European companies making flatbed
knitting machines and Passap is the most well known manufacturer from that part of the world.
And that’s your first foray into the historian side of machine knitting. Because in
order to find a used knitting machine, I wanted to find out which machines have the most resources for replacement parts, guides on a how to repair common problems, and
human familiarity so that if I encountered a problem, I could ask someone out there what to do about it. And in order to figure that all out, I ended up down this rabbit hole regarding which companies bought out which other companies and which machine lines continued production after mergers and separations and which machine models are functionally the same as other models, some of which can use the same parts and some can’t and…
You get the idea. And that’s not even going into the patterning and technique esources for machine knitting, the bulk of which were published in magazines in the 1970s and 80s. Many of these things only exist today because of avid collectors and folks who want to preserve these things before they completely deteriorate.
I ended up looking for a Brother machine and bought a KH-836E, which I believe was manufactured in the mid-1980’s. Last year, I started planning a sweater to make on my LK150 and while I was planning out this project and working on other projects for this channel, I kept thinking about the history of the knitting machine.
So I started digging.
I’m going to preface this by saying that I started doing this research for fun and so therefore I did not do extensive research, but I will leave links to the sites that I
was having a look at in the description below.
Of course, I started this curiosity with our good friend Wikipedia, which doesn’t have a ton of information on the history of the knitting machine, but I did find in the See Also section a link to an entry about the Stocking Frame, which Wikipedia helpfully defines with a little blurb that says “an antique type of knitting machine.”
Apparently, the stocking frame was invented around 1589 in Calverton, England by a fella called William Lee.
You heard right. 1589.
These contraptions were made almost entirely out of wood and were the first major step in industrial manufacture of knit textiles, even though the industrial revolution was
about 250 years in the future. These things could be configured to use wool, cotton, or silk and the sound of them being worked is incredible to listen to. Although these machines were obviously later replaced with different iterations of metal industrial knitting machines, there are some organizations that have preserved machines and still have trained framework knitters using them, like the Wigston Framework Knitting Museum in Leicestershire and the Ruddington Framework Knitters Museum in Nottinghamshire.
In the links below, I’ve included a page from the University of Leceister wherein there is a collection of interviews regarding the hosiery industry in the early 20th century. These are fascinating in and of themselves, and the recordings there include interviews with Peter Clowes from the Wigston Framework Knitting Museum regarding the use of stocking frames and a recording of him using one of these machines.
I’ve also found here on YouTube a film that was made for the Leicestershire Industrial History Society about framework knitting. This is linked below and also here in a card if I can manage it. It’s about 8 minutes long and absolutely wondrous to see someone operate the complicated foot peddles and handle levers to knit with one of these machines.
The most fascinating thing to me, though, is that the actual movement created by knitting machines hasn’t really changed from 1589. The levers and foot peddles of the stocking frame create more up and down movement than my modern machines because of the shape of the needles.
Back then, the needles were long metal wires with a funny hook shape on the end. Today, they’re latch-hook style needles, with a smooth curve hook and a little latch that freely opens and closes.
And that up and down movement is necessary to get yarns in and out of that bend at the end of the needle, but ultimately, about 430 years later, we’re still just using a line of hooks to extend out, grab the working yarn, and pull a bunch of loops through other loops.
That’s wild. And it reminds me that we’re really not that far removed from our own history. We may be doing things a little differently, but we’re essentially doing the same things.
This sweater was a self drafted pattern using the techniques from Sally Melville’s
book Knitting Pattern Essentials: Adapting and Drafting Patterns for Great Knitwear. It is knit in flat pieces that are then seamed together. The back and sleeves are in reverse stockinette and the front is knit with an alternating tuck stitch pattern. I used Harrisville Designs 100% sport weight wool in Midnight Blue. The final weight of the sweater is 394 g, which comes out to a little over 1500 yards of this yarn. My LK150 was set to dial tension 4 and mast tension 5.