Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Neglected subjects

This morning Peter Weis and I were chatting, and I mentioned that I was learning to use a knitting machine.  He replied that Singer was famous for their knitting machines, and it was a little while before we realized that he was thinking of sewing machines rather than knitting machines.  So if you've never seen a knitting machine before, this is what one looks like.  Sewing machines join fabric together; knitting machines generate knitted fabric.

That red strip hanging down from the device is a piece of knitting.  It curls at the side because it is a stockinette stitch (stockinette stitches like to roll and curl; that's how they behave).  This knitting machine has 50 hooks threaded, half of which I'm using to produce this item.  Each hook holds one stitch of fabric.  The purple item at right is a shuttle, which pushes the hooks and creates knitting stitches as it moves across the hook bed.  I operate this shuttle manually; higher end knitting machines can be punch card driven or computerized.

The advantage of using a knitting machine is that it can generate an entire row of stitches in the time it would take to produce two or three stitches with regular knitting needles.  This device can create rows up to 100 stitches wide, and with accessory extensions I could extend that as wide as the work table.

Knitting machines aren't like regular knitting needles, though.  This doesn't pack into a tote bag and carry to Starbucks.  It needs a fairly large work table with specific dimensions and it has to be clamped down.  It also requires engineering skill: a lot of things can go wrong with the assembly and operation.

Each knitting machine can only do certain things.  The hooks are sized to a given size of yarn and spaced at a fixed spacing, which means that one machine could produce baby blankets or heavy sweaters, but not both.  This flat bed knitting machine will never make socks (unless you like a seam in your socks, which nobody does--seams in socks are uncomfortable).

Before getting the flat bed machine I tried the smaller circular machine at right.  It operates on a crank and generates thin rounded pieces of knitting that are suitable for cords and edging.

The smaller machine is worth getting if this intrigues you. This device doesn't work on as many types of yarn as the manufacturer claims.  I've had success only with acrylics and wools in baby yarn and sock yarn.  It's almost a necessity to have a lace making crochet hook in order to correct for machine errors: these devices are prone to skipping and jamming.

Although once a piece gets started properly, this is far faster than manual knitting.

In recent years basic terms and concepts in textile arts have been fading from general knowledge.  These days, "needlepoint" and "knitting" and "braiding" often get misapplied to things that are not needlepoint or knitting or braiding, because a lot of people don't know enough about these subjects to tell the difference.  I've created a lot of the Wikimedia Commons textile arts categories; one has to know what one is looking at to sort the content.

I uploaded these photographs to Wikimedia Commons today; they might find their way into articles soon.


Monica said...

Wow, that's pretty cool. I knit, and I also do some crochet. I have never seen a knitting machine before, either. That's a very nice post. And I understand wheat you mean when stockinette stitch curls! =]

Kaldari said...

Knitting machines are awesome. I saw a really impressive computer-controlled one once. I'm sure it cost about $10,000 though :(

Lise Broer said...

There are several electronic home knitting machines in the $1000 to $3000 range. Another alternative is card punch knitting machines, which are intermediate in price between manual and electronic.