For the Love of Machine Knitting
We’ve been following Olgalyn Jolly’s brilliant writing and documenting of her machine knitting for ages, with equal parts admiration and mystification. We’ve noticed some hand knitters dipping into the machine knitting waters of eBay, and wondered: would Olgalyn share her knowledge in our pages? We asked her, and were thrilled when she said yes. Welcome, Olgalyn, and feel free to leave your beautiful, mysterious swatches right here, anytime.
—Kay and Ann
Don’t hate me because I machine knit. And whatever you think of what I do, please don’t call it cheating. I am a proud machine knitter, and I can knit a sweater-wide row of stockinette in 4 seconds flat.
Machine knitting is a handcraft. (Industrial knitting, the type that take place in knitting mills, is a different topic of discussion.) Most knitters using domestic machines learn that manual dexterity is a requirement, just as with hand knitting.
It’s not all about speed. Designing a sweater to be machine knitted will require the same amount of measuring, math, and creativity as designing a sweater to be knitted by hand. Though the act of machine knitting is usually faster than hand knitting, there are times when this is not the case. I’m pretty sure an experienced hand knitter can produce a square foot swatch of garter stitch about as quickly as I can produce a square foot of garter on a domestic knitting machine. That’s because a home knitting machine is configured to knit certain types of fabrics easily: variations of jersey (stockinette) or rib fabrics, to be exact. Intarsia is an exception and can require much handwork. Garter stitches are in a family of stitches demanding much hand manipulation of stitches. (Remember I said manual dexterity was required? More about hand manipulations later.)
Machine knitting and hand knitting are two distinct yet related crafts, producing similar outcomes.
Here’s a close look at a Passap knitting machine with the carriage, also known as the lock. This is what its Swiss manufacturers call it. It’s threaded with orange yarn. You can see machine knitting needles in different positions sitting in each slot.
Just like you, hand knitter, we machine knitters must master the intricacies of casting on, binding off, increasing, and decreasing. Just like you, we create stitches by pulling one loop of yarn through a previously made loop. In our case, however, each one of the hundreds of needles on a machine holds a single stitch (and perhaps one or two more when doing the fancy stuff). We knit many stitches with each pass of the carriage. Some stitch patterns must be created with hand manipulations of the yarn, and we use special tools for that.
This cable stitch was made on a very basic machine, manufactured in Japan, using the 3-prong transfer tools shown and finished with the latch tool.
As with hand knitting, it takes study and practice for a machine knitter to learn the techniques for complex texture and colorwork. In order to knit some stitch patterns—textural work (like the gold swatch at the top of this page) and jacquards (like the off-kilter plaid swatch below)—we select particular groups of needles for knitting on each row.
Knitters with basic machines select their needles by hand. Those of us using more advanced machines can preprogram our needle selection either mechanically with a punchcard—the same way the earliest computers were programmed—or electronically with an on board computer, depending on the machine.
I knitted this swatch without any special hand manipulations. Much time was spent developing the design, choosing the materials, punching the card, and keeping track of colors, while knitting on my machine.
Each of these swatches could have been knitted by hand. I had a blast imagining them, experiknitting them, and then executing the designs on my machine. For me, the brain-to-swatch pipeline is shorter with machine knitting, but then I’m not a real hand knitter.
Though I’ve knitted numerous sweaters on a machine piece by piece, casting on, binding off, increasing and decreasing as necessary by hand, my favorite part is always developing the stitch pattern. By machine or by hand, a sweater takes a long time, no matter how you knit one.
I designed this sweater to be knitted on a machine that uses bulky yarns only.
History of Machine Knitting
While the earliest instance of hand knitting, as we know it, is rather fuzzy (pun intended), we do know when the earliest version of the knitting machine came to be. Englishman William Lee invented the first knitting frame in 1589. In many ways, it was similar to our current machines, except there was no carriage to carry the yarn across the needles, and the needles were simple hooks.
Though his knitting machine sowed the first seeds of an Industrial Revolution that would begin in earnest a couple of centuries later, Lee did not reap any benefit from his invention. Beginning in 1599, at a time when monarchs ruled Europe and granted patents, Lee applied for a patent on his invention twice to Queen Elizabeth I of England and once, after relocating to France, to King Henry IV of France. Each time Elizabeth I refused, as she feared the invention would put gainfully employed hand knitters out of work. Henry IV died before Lee’s claim was honored.
At last, in England in 1657, Oliver Cromwell officially declared the knitting frame an English invention by William Lee and granted the patent. Unfortunately for Mr. Lee, this was 47 years after he died.
Lee’s first machine must have had hooks of similar size to the contemporary machine needles pictured above, as they produced a fabric of 8 stitches per inch. Both the hand knitting needle (US size 2) and this contemporary machine needle produce stitches of about the same size.
A couple of centuries after she died, Queen Elizabeth’s fears became reality. In early nineteenth-century England, a small group of displaced, yet skilled, textile artisans would resort to smashing automated looms and knitting machines. These artisans called themselves Luddites.
Machine Knitting for Hand Knitters?
I’ve noticed an upswing in hand knitters, including many sweater designers, who are interested, curious, and venturing to learn machine knitting. I sometimes teach the weekend intensive course, Machine Knitting 101, at the Textile Arts Center in Brooklyn, New York, where those new to the machines learn the basics. April 2019 marked the first time that my sold-out class of six was made up entirely of hand knitters!
One hand knitter hoped to use a machine to handle the “boring parts” of hand knitting. Did she mean stockinette? A machine can indeed be helpful there.
Another hand knitter in the class had inherited an enormous stash of yarn and wanted a tool to knit the yarn more quickly. Knitting machines gobble up yarn. In fact we prefer to purchase yarn on gigantic cones, for quantity’s sake with an added benefit of smooth unwinding. Take caution here; most knitters who knit to work through stash end up acquiring an added stash of coned yarn.
The other hand knitters were eager and thrilled to add a new (to them) fiber-related craft to their maker arsenals. Yes! I believe the day is here when hand and machine knitters can live and work together in harmony.