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 museum. I 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.
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!
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.
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?