How do I love my knitting machine? Let me count the ways!
At the end of 2017, I got a knitting machine, and embarked on a journey of learning and gaining skills. Prior to this I had precisely zero understanding of what a knitting machine was, and how it worked. I’ve learned a lot since then!
My generous friend Mica, one of the Edinburgh Yarn Festival organizers, and a keen machine knitting enthusiast, taught me all I needed to get me started! She set up a loaner machine, and spent an evening instructing me on the basics; how to cast on, hang weights on the edge of the work, how the machine knits with the wrong (purl side) showing, and how the carriage moves back and forth across the edge of the work, laying the yarn over the needles which then form the stitches one by one in rapid succession.
That night, I could hardly sleep for all the ideas that were flowing through my mind about projects that I might try with the aid of this powerful tool!
I have often felt frustrated that despite being a knit designer, my own wardrobe of knitted sweaters has long been woefully meagre. I have often knit design samples to fit our models in sizes a little smaller (or shorter) than I would wear. And even when the samples fit me, they were destined to go ‘on tour’ to promote the latest book; travelling back and forth from Canada to the UK and even further abroad to be shown at shops and knit shows.
The result was that I seldom had a knitted sweater of my own to wear, despite this being my livelihood! Wild eh?!
hybrids : combining hand and machine knitting
Reading Kate Davies’s book Yokes, I learned that in Shetland, yoke sweaters often were and still are knit as hybrids; with body and sleeves made on a knitting machine, and yokes finished by hand. In fact, her Cockatoo Brae design includes instructions for making a yoke this way, as she made her sample, knitting the yoke on to the body and sleeves made by Ella Gordon.
I imagined working hybrids, partially machine knit and partially hand knit, would be the answer to a few of my questions. I could zoom through the stockinette sections of a prototype, and then apply my precious time and design efforts to the ‘meaty’ portion of the knit project.
The truth is that I LOVE design. I love knitting too… but it’s really the ‘high excitement’ parts of the knitting that appeal to me as a designer. I’m driven primarily by the desire to make something new, something that’s a little bit intriguing or beautiful; of course I’m always aiming for a little of both!
machine knitting is long term learning process… like hand knitting
Domestic knitting machines of the sort I have been learning to use are ‘push a button and go’ like sewing machines. They are manually operated; you use elbow grease to slide a carriage back and forth across a ‘bed’ of many needles, and in this way create the rows of knitting.
If I thought that the process to finished garments was going to be a quick one, I soon learned that I was mistaken! I’ve been ‘making friends’ with my knitting machine for around 18 months, and I am still by no means skillful. I say this to make clear that machine knitting is not really a ‘quick and easy’ way to do knitting; it also requires a lot of technique and skill (the same as hand-knitting does).
After some time on a basic machine, that only did stockinette, I upgraded to a machine with a punch card, so I could play with colour, and added a ribber bed, so that I could work ribbing too.
I’ve been able to add sweaters to my wardrobe this year at a more rapid rate. This means that I can now wear a hand-knit sweater every day of week (even in summer, ’cause this is Scotland!).
I have felt free to cast on a yoke idea, work through the yoke in a few days, and then zoom through the stockinette and have a sweater to wear WHILE I debated whether Alexa and I would develop the knit into a pattern, or let it remain a personal wardrobe piece. In the past I simply didn’t have the time-luxury of continuing with knits that weren’t likely to be published.
The capabilities that my current machine has are: colourwork knitting, tuck stitch, and lace using a punch card. The only one of these I’ve explored so far is the colourwork knitting side. I find it useful for swatching lace patterns.
As described, knitting stockinette portions of seamed garments is very easy. With a ribber bed attached, ribbing is pretty quick too. I love being able to work in finer yarns than I would spend the time hand-knitting. I love being able to prototype quickly, and foresee using this as a way to test different kinds of silhouettes with a little less time-investment.
With a punch card, I’m able to swatch colourwork patterns more quickly than I can by hand, accelerating this aspect of design, and allowing me to test more options than I might otherwise.
A tool like a knitting machine, of course, is no substitute for experience. The experience you need to hone your intuition for combining colours takes time and practice to build up. But whatever technique you use will build on these skills; so I have welcomed my knitting machine into my toolbox.
There are many methods for shaping which are simple when hand-knitting, but much more difficult and impractical within machine knitting.
While it is technically possible to knit tubes in the round, it’s much simpler to work flat pieces and then seam them; which adds manual time back into the process.
Decreasing within the centre of a piece (ie. to create vertical darts, or gathers across an entire row) is impractical. Thus decreases are kept to the edges of pieces.
And knit/purl textures, including garter stitch, while possible, tend to be so impractical as to be not worth the bother (unless you’re a dedicated machine knitter, but I’m speaking as a hand-knitter).
More importantly, in terms of the way it FEELS, machine knitting is not the same sport. One of the joys of hand-knitting is taking your work to a coffee shop, meeting up with friends, or sitting out on the beach on a sunny day with sunglasses and your needles. Machine knitting, by contrast, is largely solitary. While the results of both hand and machine knitting are the same knitted fabric, the process is different.
machine knitting take-aways
I love my knitting machine as an aid in prototyping. Design work, which is my passion requires a LOT of prototyping. The myth of the beautiful object springing fully-formed from the creators head is just that, a myth! (Though often supported by the Instagram accounts knit designers!).
I love making things, and I’m pleased to add this as another tool to my toolkit, alongside a large array of other fun tools like my laptop, my fancy camera, sewing machine, spinning wheel, … I love making things, and I also love nice tools!