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My Knitting Machine

August 15, 2019

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.

Knitting Machine needle bed
These teeny tiny sharp needles are what form the knitted fabric! With the push of the carriage across them, a row of 100 or more stitches can be knit in an instant! How exciting for a hand-knitter!

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!

Lush Cardigan by Tin Can Knits
The Lush Cardigan sample that I made was beautiful, but I hardly had a chance to wear it!

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!

This is one of the yoke prototypes I worked as a hybrid; working body and sleeves on the machine, and the yoke by hand.

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.

knitting machine carriage
This is the carriage; the yarn goes through the slot and you move this back and forth across the bed of needles in order to create knitted fabric.

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.

This sweater I made for my best friend Chantal was another hybrid; I made the body and sleeves on the machine, then worked the yoke by hand. All the details on how I worked the yoke are here!

the results

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!).

colourwork yoke sweaters
These three colourwork yokes are hybrids; I worked the body and sleeves on the knitting machine, and then finished the yokes by hand. You can find more details on these projects on our Ravelry notebook.

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.

This was a quick improvised Strange Brew yoke; knit from the top down! On impulse, I cast on this, knit it on a camping trip, then came home and finished the body and sleeves on the body, seaming them at the sides. The yoke charts are here if you’d like to use them!

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.

strengths

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.

I was able to test colour combinations and motifs for the Compass sweaters.

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.

Another weekend yoke knit! This black and white Almanac sweater was an impulse-cast-on … right after a book deadline! After working the yoke, I finished body and sleeves on a mid-gauge machine. I seamed them, then worked the colourwork at the cuffs by hand.

trade-offs

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 knit swatches
Machine-knit swatches.

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!

26 Comments leave one →
  1. August 25, 2019 7:51 pm

    As one who machine knitted in the 70s and 80s – them gave it away (why!? ) but now have a Brother one model later than my first one, I agree it is a solitary hobby.
    I love this post – so many useful links! #amFollowing

  2. knittedblissjc permalink
    August 20, 2019 1:19 pm

    I absolute LOVE this idea!! I’ve wanted to learn machine knitting for a while for this hybrid approach just like you described- I think it’s fantastic, and a great way to increase a bit of speed while still enjoying the process of knitting those beautiful details.

  3. August 17, 2019 11:30 pm

    That is so neat! I love the color work.

  4. Bindy in Australia permalink
    August 17, 2019 1:53 pm

    Hi Emily,
    I have read your by-the-by mentions of using your knitting machine and this was really interesting. Do you tend to have guage difficulties when moving from hand to machine knitting and back again?
    I’ve also read some of Alexia’s comments that she didn’t knit for herself for quite a while as larger sizes seemed too big a commitment. Seems the myth that knit designers have zillions of handknits and wear their own work constantly is a bit of a myth!

    • Bindy in Australia permalink
      August 17, 2019 1:56 pm

      Sorry, Alexa, not Alexia…I apologise.

    • August 22, 2019 3:49 am

      Hi Bindy – it can take some swatching to align your hand-knit gauge to the machine-knit gauge, but a yoke sweater is a pretty flexible canvas; it’s generally not that critical if the hand-knit gauge at the yoke is a little tighter (or a bit looser) than the machine knit gauge, since there are many decreases across which these differences ‘even out’. For other project types it would be more critical to match gauge.

      Alexa and I are also both parents of little kids… mine are now 3 and 5, Alexa’s are 5, 7, 8… I think being a working parent of little children leaves little extra time for the ‘extras’ like knitting oneself sweaters!

  5. Lynda Porter permalink
    August 17, 2019 10:16 am

    Your work is AMAZING!!!! Have always wanted a knitting machine but never have taken the plunge…..WAY TO GO!

  6. Loretta M McCollough permalink
    August 16, 2019 7:45 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful and accurate assessment of machine vs hand knitting. I probably thought machine knitting was cheating until I got my machines. Two totally different skill sets, like hand sewing versus machine sewing. And beautiful things can happen when two skill sets merge. Thanks for proving the point.

  7. Patricia Hanneman permalink
    August 16, 2019 5:55 pm

    I am a graduate from a knit design program @ Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario Canada.I started hand knitting @ 12 years old. I agree with what you are saying. I have gone on to weave on the knitting machine and use it with crocheting both beafore and after using the machine. I have both fine and chunky knitters. It is great for custom design for puppets and all sorts of clothes.

  8. August 16, 2019 4:39 pm

    I am looking to learn. Any books to recommend or ca n I write to your friend?? 🙄

    • August 22, 2019 3:50 am

      I’d suggest contacting your local machine knitting guild if you can find one near, and seeking resources on the internet. The documentation booklets that come alongside knitting machines are also useful.

  9. ldrosdzol permalink
    August 16, 2019 2:56 am

    Hi Emily, I can understand your combination technique. I am a good crocheted, but am struggling with knitting, so I used your strange brew notes to make a crochet yoke and then do the stockinette and ribbing as knitting.

  10. Sue Hadley permalink
    August 15, 2019 11:52 pm

    After looking at my knitting machine for about 10 years I finally went on a course to learn how to use it. I’m with you on the handknitting but I’m also so excited about my knitting machine. I’m not a designer but I love the fair isle aspect of my machine – I just wish that there were more hours in the day!

  11. Thea permalink
    August 15, 2019 6:58 pm

    Wonderfully, informative post. I just reconnected with my LK-150 after a move. I realize I need a good stand or table for it. do you have a dedicated stand or table for your machine? What form does that take?

    • August 22, 2019 3:51 am

      I have a long narrow knitting-machine table, and most of the time there’s a knitting machine set up on it in my studio. If you have the space, this is much more convenient than setting it up for each work session; but it does take up quite a bit of room!

  12. August 15, 2019 6:58 pm

    So interesting! I’ve always wanted to try a knitting machine (and I’m still curious!), but this at least answered some of my questions – thank you!

  13. Carrie permalink
    August 15, 2019 5:13 pm

    Thanks for the great post! I wondered what type of machine you had. I also loved hearing how you are using it. I knit the Trek sweater as a cardigan and I knit the stockinette by machine and then knit the yoke afterwards and did the ribbing and seaming by hand. I hadn’t thought of doing top down, but might give it a try. I have a couple of machines that I am just learning to use as well. I purchased them used on Kijiji. I have found that there are a lot of older used machines around that didn’t get a lot of use due to the learning curve. Anyway, thanks for the inspiration! I look forward to seeing more about your adventures!

  14. Raquel permalink
    August 15, 2019 2:44 pm

    What machine brand and model do you have?
    I’ve been keeping an eye out at thrift stores and Goodwills in the hopes of finding one to play with before making a big investment.

  15. August 15, 2019 2:01 pm

    I was lucky enough to score a knitting machine for next to nothing but am still a bit terrified of using it! I’d love it if you started designing machine knit patterns/tutorials too, as there are very few modern designers for that out there.

    While my machine has a punch card reader, it didn’t come with a ribber bed, so once I’ve played with it a little that’s the next investment :)

  16. S. Conklin permalink
    August 15, 2019 1:14 pm

    You don’t have to be a designer, or a person who relies on knitting for income, to have and use a knitting machine. I used to have one; it was wonderful to make a gift sweater in an afternoon, or a scarf to match a new coat in an evening, or… well, lots of things. Once in a while people would ask things like, “Did you make that, or did you use your machine?” hahaha! I often wondered if people were asked the same question when sewing machines first were used for home sewing. Anyway – my machine was discontinued, and the company went away, and when I moved across the country the carriage must have fallen off the truck because it didn’t make the trip. I miss it.

  17. August 15, 2019 12:18 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing this post. Which machine do you use? Is there a machine you’d prefer?

  18. Ruan permalink
    August 15, 2019 11:53 am

    My mum got one of these when she retired, she loved using it, it got so quick for her she would ring me at 9am and I could ask for a jumper for a child, she would run it up in the morning, seam up in the afternoon and have it in the post for the final posting, and I would get it the next day before lunchtime. She would make different patterns but only two colours at a time :-) all the kids grew up in home made machine knitted jumpers, sadly when her health started to fail it was something she got rid of rather than clutter my home up more. I didn’t have time then, or now to be honest for it but part of me misses the joy of the machine. Mind you we had hundreds of children’s jumpers by the time she stopped and they grew up. Good to see it is still a joy an making folk smile.

  19. Liz permalink
    August 15, 2019 10:04 am

    Interesting article from the point of view of someone who has recently acquired a knitting machine for the reasons you state in terms of getting the stocking stitch part done faster. Alas time constraints mean it has been sitting set up in my living room for over 8 weeks now & I pass it every day with a nod- saying to myself “I will get to it soon!” If the instruction booklet is to believed in theory I ought be able to knit an entire garment within a few hours. Somehow I suspect my fingers, thumbs, and brain cell won’t acquiesce with speed, so I too face an 18 month + journey. Thank you for spurring me on though: I was starting to abandon hope of achieving anything. Do you knit the body and sleeves and then hand seam onto your hand knitted yoke: or attach the hand knitted yoke to the machine and work from there? [apologies if this is already under one of the links in the article: just haven’t got time today to read in depth]
    from Liz

  20. Martha Bilski permalink
    August 15, 2019 7:13 am

    Thanks for the info. I love tools but now know this is way above my pay grade as an intermittent home knitter. I imagine a dedicated home knitter could make a better living with one of these though.

    • August 15, 2019 9:44 am

      I suspect it would be very difficult to make (much) money creating garments on a knitting machine, given the cost of a fast-fashion garment. For me, as a designer, it’s another tool for prototyping, and allowing me to focus on the more ‘designed’ parts of knits.

    • Astrid permalink
      August 15, 2019 3:12 pm

      There’s a wonderful video from Bloomberg on how Fair Isle knitter Mati Ventrillon combines machine knitting and hand finishing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2HA_Fa4b1tM

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