Find Out About Knitting Machines

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Back in May, Roobeedoo wrote about the cardigan she’d bought from Llynfi Textiles, a small-scale clothes manufacturer based in mid Wales. They use only British wool and … knitting machines! I was fascinated to read that knitting machines are still in use. Clearly, I had been oblivious to the coolest cult in knitting.

Turns out, there are whole threads devoted to these machines on Ravelry, and there’s even a knitting machine museumI contacted Sue of Llynfi Textiles and asked her: could she explain the humble knitting machine to myself and my readers?

Sue, could you tell us how and why knitting machines are incorporated into your business?

S: All our knitwear is produced using a domestic knitting machine – the Brother is my favourite (with a motor drive which is great for monotonous items!), and I also have an Artisan for double knit yarns, and a couple of Knitmasters. Hand knitting is my first love, but it’s just not possible to earn a living at it – neither is it possible to fairly pay outworkers for their handknitting skills. By using a knitting machine, a simple jumper can be completed in half a day and more complex jackets in one day. I’d hoped to find people locally to help with the knitting as it’s ideal for home-workers, but the skills don’t seem to be around like they were in the 80s. Currently, I do all the knitting myself.

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Is the wool any different to that used for hand knitting?

S: It needn’t be. Yarn ideally needs to be ‘on cone’ as it feeds very quickly into the knitting machine, but winders are available to rewind balls onto suitable cones. Years ago there was a vast choice for machine knitting but the demise of its popularity means that the range of ready coned yarn is limited. Knitting machines are ‘gauged’ to cope with a range of yarn sizes or weights: a standard gauge machine has smaller needles and will knit fine 2 – 4 plies and fine double knitting, while a ‘chunky’, with bigger needles ,will knit heavier double knit through to aran and lighter chunky yarns. Ideally, woollen yarns should be ‘oiled on cone’, which means they still contain the spinning oil which reduces friction and static and helps the knitting. The garment is then washed after making. Reasonably smooth yarns are more successful especially if you are just starting out; hairy yarns and eyelash types can get hooked up on the needles and cause much frustration!

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Is there a particular type of garment that suits machine knitting?

S: A knitting machine pulls the yarn through the needles in one direction only so garments with lots of plain stocking stitch are perfect, and punch-card knitting machines are great for fair isle, textured tuck and slip stitch patterns, and a lace carriage will give you….knitted lace! (A ‘punchcard is a card with up to 24 holes across it; each hole corresponds to one needle allowing pattern repeats of 2, 4, 6, 12 or 24 stitches to be knitted.)

Cables and plain and purl textures such as moss, garter and basket stitch are less easy as the stitches have to be manipulated by hand. A ribbing attachment adds to versatility – it’s another bed of needles that hangs onto the front of the machine and knits purl-wise, allowing ribs to be easily knitted.

Circular knitting isn’t really possible either although a ribber does allow you to make a straightforward tubular stocking stitch fabric.

A very useful attachment allows you to draw your garment outline onto a sheet and this then rotates according to how many rows/cm you are knitting at. By following the drawn lines, you can see exactly where to decrease or increase or cast off your work – magic! And if you are a dressmaker, you’ll have no problem getting to grips with this idea.

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How might readers purchase their own knitting machines? Anything they should look out for?

S: Find out all you can about knitting machines. Decide whether you want to knit with finer yarns (standard gauge machine) or thicker ones (chunky machine). If you really get into machine knitting you’ll end up wanting one of each! Don’t buy unseen or untried unless you are certain of what you are looking at, and especially don’t buy on an auction site where the seller says ’….I don’t know anything about these’. Only one manufacturer still makes knitting machines so most of those for sale are now quite old. Electronics may be dated in those that have them, so look for a manual machine to start with. There are still dealers around who sell reconditioned and serviced machines. Check in your area to see if there is still a knitting club, or maybe you are near to a college that offers short courses? As well as Ravelry’s machine knitting groups check out Guild Machine Knit.

Do you have any top tips for readers who might want to use a knitting machine in their home?

S: Like most things, if you have to keep putting it away you won’t use it. It’s often not easy, but if you can make space to leave your machine set up you will get on much quicker. They are more time consuming to get out than a sewing machine for example. Keep it covered with a dust sheet when not in use or look out for a special cabinet that keeps it all contained and away from small fingers. They used to be made by ‘Horn’ and have a slide under bench too, to store yarn in. And try and find a mentor! Learning will get frustrating at times, so it can be really helpful to have a sympathetic soul to turn to.

Could I ask a little more about the ethics behind your business?

S: About 10 years ago, and with the rise of the internet and accessibility of information, I started to find out more about dyeing, which led to textiles manufacture in general. It all became quite depressing – in fact, I nearly just gave up everything I was doing! But then the Global Organic Textile Standards came into being and there seemed a way forward to be a little more certain of the materials one was buying. It’s still very difficult – the biggest problem we have is our tiny scale. We know (often in person) who produces our fabrics and yarns, and where the wool comes from. We need cotton or silk for linings, and we are as sure as we possibly can be of the origins of these. It’s a complex world and there are always compromises and balances to be made (is bamboo really eco? How is ‘peace silk really produced…?), but working directly as we do with our customers – and producers where possible, we are confident that we are doing the best we can to avoid exploitation and unnecessary waste. We try and design garments that will be lasting in style, and in materials that can be recycled – in many ways! And it’s not just about fabrics – we don’t use metal fasteners like zips; this also means that our clothes have a little more ease as buttons can be moved and replaced easily.

Finally, can you see a day when knitting machines come back into fashion?

S: I’m sure they will! But sadly – they’ve gone out of production apart from the one manufacturer. New knitting machines are prohibitively expensive for the average domestic user and the supply and reliability of second hand ones will surely diminish. If you have a good working one in the family – look after it! Better still, learn how to use it. They’re also often very popular with older children … especially boys. Get that creativity going!

Thanks so much, Sue. Maybe I can get past my memories of Mum sighing and swearing over her machine and try this craft out for myself. Readers, what do you think to the humble knitting machine? Do you own one, have you used it and – most importantly of all – what tips do you have to share?

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49 Responses to Find Out About Knitting Machines

  1. Thanks for the interesting interview! I’ve never tried a knitting machine, but I’ve always been curious, making a knitted item in a time frame that allows you to sell it is certainly intriguing. And I love hearing about small-scale makers and sellers who really care about the ethics behind what they do!

  2. Every Stitch says:

    I still have the knitmaster that I bought in the 80s, but I must confess I hardly ever use it. Knitting is relaxing pastime for me, that I do while I’m doing something else. Getting out the machine and making knitting the primary focus gets boring, and if you don’t have exactly the right height table it is really hard on the back and shoulders. I definatley prefer hand knitting

  3. Cynthia says:

    I actually work in a similar small scale knitting studio. We use Brother machines as well. You can hand manipulate to do just about anything a hand knitter can do. One word of advice is to keep your machine clean, it can get full of fuzz much faster than a sewing machine and will drop stitches. Once you’ve got the muscle memory of how to cast on and off you’re good to go. Working on 2 machines simultaneously we can knit about 6 sweaters in a work day.

    We also have these crazy looking industrial linker machines to seam the sweaters together after they’ve been knit, using the same yarn the sweater has been knit with. That’s what I primarily do at work. I can have a sweater stitched together in about 30 minutes

  4. dottiedoodle says:

    I haven’t used one but have a friend who designs and makes her own knitwear using one. You can see the results at http://www.maureencarr.co.uk

  5. Sarah says:

    This is really interesting! Friends of my mothers have always talked about owning a knitting machine back in the 80′s, and it does intrigue me! A girl who I was at college with went onto to study a knitt wear course has recently got her own knitting machine, and was so excited to finally get her hands on one!

  6. My mum had one too. I really remember the noise of her pushing the handle (carriage? Not sure what what the proper word is for it) up and down. And those punched cards that made the patterns on the front!

  7. Chris says:

    I even have a knitting machine in my attic which was given to me by my mother in law. I looked at the instructions once, found them inscrutable and it’s been in the attic ever since. Maybe I should take it down…..

  8. I’ve got my gran’s old Knitmaster. I use it only occasionally, as I’m usually too busy sewing underwear! I’ve only ever made scarves and love using the punch cards. My mum has two knitting machines and she is amazing with them. There’s never enough time for her to teach me when I see her, but one day I hope to make my own jumpers. I’m also put off by the amount of yarn I would have to buy to make a jumper. And it’s hard to source on the cone. The fact that I own a knitting machine puts me off hand knitting, as it’s so slow!

  9. Hanne says:

    Thank you for this interview! Very interesting! I share a knitting machine with a friend and once you get the hang of it, it’s so rewarding (and much faster than handknitting :-))

  10. Fadanista says:

    Er, I have four knitting machines, two of which are in constant use, and a circular sock machine, dating back from the 1880s, which I have restored. You’re right, they’re the coolest trend in knitting and if you’re into instant gratification (like me), then they are wonderful!

  11. Anne says:

    I have 2 knitting machines in my attic and a ribber and a lace carriage and lots of other bits and bobs that go with them. I used them a lot in the 80s and even made a little money by knitting school cardigans and Christmas stockings amongst other things. I was just talking the other day about getting them down so I could use them again. Fun times! :o)

  12. Linda says:

    I used to have a Brother machine in the 80′s I remember making and selling about 100 My little pony jumpers. When I decided I no longer wanted to use it in the mid 90s it was difficult even to find someone to GIVE the machine (plus lots of cones of wool) to no one was interested
    Linda

  13. great interview! I loved using the knitting machines at art college. Late 80′s fashion for baggie jumpers and I can clearly remember one chap knitting himself in by accident! I’d love one now, my knitting can be on the slow side!

  14. Roobeedoo says:

    My former m-i-l gave me her 1980′s Knitmaster, but I regret that I left it in London with my ex when I came North. I suspect it may have gone to landfill. Sob!
    And I never did get round to learning how to use it.
    P.S. Did you know you are name-checked in the latest edition of Knit Now magazine? :)

  15. Paola says:

    My mother had one, and made school jumpers for me and my brothers on it, as well as a beige cardi with a red rose for me using one of those punch cards. I haven’t thought of it in years. It’s either in their cellar or long gone.

  16. yesilikethat says:

    I’ve taken a course on machine knitting at Morley College, highly recommend it to Londoners, although it’s a big time commitment (all day every Friday). Sadly I don’t have a machine, it’s hard to track them down on Ebay and they require a lot of space. As Sue says, you have to leave them out because they take at least 20 minutes to set up.

    It’s very very different from hand knitting, there are some things that are much easier in hand knitting (cables) and some things that are much easier in machine knitting (fair isle). It is addictive and really fun, although there’s a steep learning curve. Wish I had a machine although I have no time for another hobby!

  17. Lindsay says:

    My Mother-in-law has “loaned” me her old knitting machine (father-in-law is hoping she’ll forget and I will just keep it!) I haven’t much used it yet, but we’re moving to California in a couple of weeks time, so hopefully I should have a lot more time to have a play!

    Also, I have seen that there is a group of knitting machine enthusiasts in the bay area on Meetup.com, so am hoping to get involved for some tips!

    • cecelia traylor says:

      The group in the bay area is very active. They show up every year at Stitches West in Santa Clara. one year I didn’t have time to hand knit my sample for class so I ran down to there booth and they did it for me on the machine. I ended up buying a mid gauge and received 4 when a friend passed away.

      • Lindsay says:

        That’s great, thanks for the info. I shall look forward to our container arriving so that I can unleash the machine from it’s metal prison and take it along!

  18. Funny your post showing up right when I was thinking it was high time I clean and start using my machine again. The brand is Silver Reed and it’s identical to the one I used when I was in textile school. I can hook it up to my computer too. There’s a knitting program you can get : Design-A-Knit. I can design an item or a stitch pattern on it. Then, when I knit the item on my machine, the program and machine “talk” to each other. The program tells the machine what to do like a punch card would and the machine tells the program which side the carriage is on, i.e. which row we’re on. The program beeps to tell me when I need to do something (increase, decrease, cast off…)

  19. celch says:

    I’ve recently taken up machine knitting – I bought a secondhand knitmaster & ribber locally. I’ve been teaching myself using the manual and youtube tuts ( check out Diana Knits – she does beginner lessons) The learning curve is quite steep- I think you would need to know how to knit by hand before starting with a machine, and then put in a couple of hours at a time when you first start out. Having said that, my first project was a knit blanket that turned out great and I’m almost finished making a jumper ( i think the best thing is just to jump in and figure out a project as you go… it can always be ripped back!!)

  20. Dilly says:

    This is a super interesting interview. The knitwear (and the clothes) from Llynfi are gorgeous. I’ve always dreamed about owning a knitting machine (hand-knitting is too sloooooooowwwww for me most of the time), but now I’m sad that I’ve learnt they are so hard to source. I will have to ask around my older relatives to see if there are any sitting unused somewhere…

  21. Interesting post! I always wanted a knitting machine but couldn’t find one locally so I eventually ended up with a sewing machine instead. Maybe I should look into it again.

  22. LinB says:

    Jacquard looms, which used the sort of punch-hole cards still in use for knitting machines today, are the direct ancestor of (and inspiration for) the machines we know today as “computers.” Stick that in your pile of “mildly interesting but ultimately useless” trivia, with my compliments.

  23. ribbonjar says:

    Oh that brings back wonderful memories of my Grandmother who has long passed. I can remember being so surprised when she bought her knitting machine because she knit so lovely without it! We so loved the projects she made for us!

  24. Stephanie says:

    I really enjoyed this interview (as an economist, I find the dynamics any market interesting) and I love her design aesthetic. My grandmother had a knitting machine in the 1980s, as she had arthritis which made knitting by hand difficult. I know she enjoyed working with it, as she was always experimenting with her crafts (spinning, weaving, sewing, etc.). In many ways I am more traditional and so am much less likely to add in the machine element. That said, it’s obvious that for someone who wants to produce knitted garments to sell it’s the only way to go. Thanks again for the interesting read!

  25. This is too funny that you posted about these machines! I bought one from a lady off of Craig’s List about 6 months ago because it was just too cool and too good a deal to pass up, but I still haven’t devoted the time to figuring out how to work it. This makes me want to give it my full attention :) Who knew they were still a “thing”? lol

  26. Melinda Jackson says:

    I have a Toyota knitting machine plus ribber and all the attachments – in the attic, unused. I made clothes to measure on it in the 1980′s, which taught me a lot about tension or gauge, which has helped immensely with hand-knitting. So it has had its uses, but has not been used in a long while. I sympathise with those who try to learn to use these machines on their own and give up. I learned to use one properly only when I joined a knitting-machine group locally (also in the 1980′s), and enjoyed chatting and “show and tells”. Studying for a professional qualification put an end to my using the machine.

  27. Fiona M says:

    My mother in law has one, very well used, but apparently cannot get parts for it any more.

  28. Eva says:

    Machine knitting is totally addictive! I never thought it would be something I could get into, but it really expands your options so much. You might like to have a look here: http://knitdesigncourses.com/ it’s a school in Brighton running awesome courses, and they have some patterns specifically for machine knitting for download as well.

    • Eva says:

      Oh and also, the best resource for knitting machine yarn still oiled in the cone is http://www.colourmart.com/ , although their yarns also have a bit of a cult following among hand knitters I think. Their UK shop can also be visited I believe. Ha I swear I have nothing to do with either of these companies, just a loyal customer who enjoys their great service :)

  29. michelenel says:

    Thanks to my daughter for putting me onto your blog post. It was a real ‘blast from the past’! When my children were little (in the 80s!!) I owned a knitting machine that definitely paid for itself and kept them and many other school children warm. I spent quite a bit of time making jerseys as they were prohibitively expensive in South Africa where they went to school. I love the gratification of whizzing up a jersey in a few hours. It is also VERY good exercise if you do not have the good fortune of a motor.
    I must say that the worst part of it all was the stitching together; however, nothing has changed because this is still the part I like the least and I do still knit quite a bit, but by hand – especially for my grand babies :-) I think it is excellent to be a mentor if you have the experience and this is exactly what I am trying to do on my new social experiment at http://themendingbee.com. I am passing my knowledge forward by having free sessions monthly to try and teach sewing, mending, knitting, crotchet etc. etc. Every new person who picks up a needle of some sort is a small victory for the quiet mending revolution.
    Thank you for a wonderful article :-)

  30. I just got in an Addi french style knitting machine that operates with a turn handle: http://www.knitting4fun.com/index.php?page=shop.product_details&product_id=1848&flypage=ilvm_fly_admirable.tpl&pop=0&option=com_virtuemart&Itemid=121
    The design student who ordered it has jacked it up to a motor. It looked like such a lot of fun, we may have to get one for our studio!

  31. PS I’ve just had a good look over their website and LOVE LOVE LOVE their knitwear! I think it’s incredibly good value too.

  32. What an interesting interview! I know of at least a couple of kitting friends on Ravelry who have knitting machines. In fact, I think there’s been a relative surge in interest in (antique) circular sock knitting machines in the last few years, too.

  33. CGCouture says:

    My MIL has a Brother knitting machine that she’s been itching to get up and running again (it sat for 20-ish years while she raised her kids), but can’t find anyone to work on it for her, so it’s sitting in her basement waiting for someone to fix it. I was surprised to hear that only one company still makes them, but I guess, so many of those “old-fashioned” skills are being lost to newer generations, so maybe I shouldn’t have been. I mean, even as a kid in the 80′s it used to be easy to find fabric and sewing machine places (for either service or sales or both), and now it’s much harder–and I even live in an area where a good-sized chunk of the population sews their entire wardrobe!! I suppose that knitting has seen much the same thing–it’s far to easy (and too cheap!) to just buy a sweater ready-made to bother with knitting up a bunch for yourself or family.

  34. Really interesting and my yearning has been awakened! My mum had a 1980/s knit master, with all the attachments including the ‘ knit radar’- the guide for following drawn pattern shapes. I can remember my mum making loads of things with it, I can remember the jumpers she made us with fair isle patterning and strings of hearts ( or cars for my bro ) as decoration. I took it with me 20 years ago or so but apparently it was always dodgy and I just couldn’t get it to work and lack of someone to ask / fix it meant it ended up also going to landfill. so sad. I was always convinced though that it would suit my need for speed and ability to design myself!

  35. Jan Brown says:

    I have owned up to 4 knitting machines at once although now down to just two. Both are Brother 950i models [the best!!!] After knitting numerous garments for hubby, me and various other family members our wardrobes got so stuffed it was this that started me on sewing at the end of last year. I am now making trousers, shirts, jackets etc to complete my whole wardrobe so I don’t need to buy a thing RTW!!!
    It seems funny to have found your wonderfully entertaining blog on sewing fairly recently to now read about knitting machines!!!! You do need to find a place where they can be ‘up and ready to use’ permanently and keep them out of daylight as much as possible. The older plastics go very yellow after a time. I also think they are fairly anti-social which is why they declined in popularity. You can’t use them while watching TV [too noisy and need too much concentration] or while on a bus/train or in the doctors’ waiting room etc. You get the picture? But the results are tremendously rewarding.

  36. Juliab says:

    Very interesting. My Mum had a knitting machine when I was a teenager and I remember making a couple of jumpers on it (with a little bit of help). I think the machine ended up in a skip last year, not sure if it still worked or not! A lady at our Craft Group still uses her knitting machine, she comes in every week wearing a different jumper/cardigan that she’s made on it. I think she’s got a 20 year supply of yarn on cones stashed away in her loft waiting to be used!

  37. Sue says:

    Great responses – really interesting reading through them all! The machine I still use almost every day is the one I bought new in 1986 to keep my 3 little girls in jumpers. (one of those little girls is now designing and making the fabric side of our collection).
    I love knitting – hand or machine, the techniques and approach of each is often transferable and knowledge of one can improve what you do with the other. Sort of thing. Keep knitting people, and if you do have access to a machine, give it a little go! x Sue at Llynfi

  38. KnitNell says:

    I too have a Brother knitting machine (down from two Brothers and a Passap) that is being ignored at the moment because I am enjoying knitting by hand more. I think the main problem with knitting with a machine is that it is compared with knitting by hand and there is no comparison: in my mind they are two completely different activities. It is probably like comparing sewing by hand with using a sewing machine – both enjoyable to do and sometimes achieving similar results but needing completely different skills and techniques to master.

  39. kate steeper says:

    Used to own an ancient sock knitting machine , it was great fun and it would knit in the round , my aunt used to do sweater sleeves as an out worker back in the 60s on it . Sold it a few years ago to a lady who wanted to knit her own yarn into socks

  40. Thanks for posting this. Like some other people here I was kindly handed down a knitting machine which is now sadly sitting in the loft because I havent figured out how to use it! Anyone in the North London area who would like to host a mentoring session?! A machine knitted item will be rewarded :)

  41. Geraldine says:

    really interesting as my brother machine is currently being serviced near Norwich. I bought it in Howells in Cardiff in 1987. It paid for itself by me knitting and selling children’s jumpers. I haven’t used it for 15 years and I am keen to start using it again hence getting it serviced. Just hope I remember how to use it !

  42. Siga says:

    Thank you, Karen, for an interesting read. After finding out about Llynfi Textiles from the very same blog entry by Roobeedoo, I’ve been trying to track down a knitting machine – I know we’ve own one once. And I’d be very interested in trying knitting on one.

  43. jaynehed says:

    Hi, I love your blog, interesting articles. I am a machine knitter and have the SK155 Silver Reed Chunky machine. I am having difficulty getting hold of 12 stitch punchcards, either already punched (not the ones that come with the machine) or preferably so that I can create my own patterns. Have you any idea where I can source these? thank you, Jayne

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