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Knitting Machines

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A domestic knitting machine can be used to make a wide variety of clothes or to make lengths of fabric, which can be made into garments or soft furnishing. A knitting machine will fit on a narrow table about four feet long. When it is not in use it can be put away in its own carrying case. Alternatively, some knitting machines come with their own cabinets that hide the machine without you having to pack it away.

A Knitting Machine - the Hardware

A knitting machine consists of a needle bed, a carriage and yarn guides. It may have extra attachments. The needle bed is made up of latchet hooks which hold the stitches and are similar to hooks used for rug-making, but much smaller. There is a hook facing upwards attached to a stem. Where the hook begins to curve away from the stem, a little latch (a latchet) is attached by a hinge. The latchet can move between two positions. It can lie flat along the stem, in which case the hook is open, or it can move up and over so that its tip rests on the end of the hook closing it. In this position the end of the hook makes a wedge shape and can be pulled through the stitch taking the yarn with it.

The needles can move backwards and forwards independently. Knitting is done by passing the carriage across the needle bed. The carriage is in two parts. One part with the handle sits on top of the needle bed and determines how far out to push the needles. The front of the carriage is screwed onto the part with the handle and sticks out in front of the machine. This part carries the yarn. The carriage does several things at the same time 1. As its name suggests it carries the yarn. It also pushes the needles forward and back again as each stitch is knitted or patterned. It causes the latchet hooks to open and close.

The carriage picks up the patterning information from the machine's memory. There are two forms of memory for the stitch pattern. The older form is punched cards which are supplied with the type of machine which uses them. Blank packs of cards are available and a hand punch so that knitters can design their own patterns or punch new cards for patterns in magazines. These are different from punched cards that were used for computers. For a knitting machine, the punched cards consist of a plastic sheet with twenty four positions per row which can be punched or not. The card is clipped together at the ends to make a loop and moves forward every one or two rows depending on the pattern required. The carriage picks up the patterning information in its memory banks and treats the needles according to their position with a punched hole or no hole.

More recent machines use electronics to transfer the patterning information. The row counter on the machine counts the number of times the carriage has passed it. This is the number of rows knitted. The yarn guides look a bit like aerials on the machine. The yarn is threaded through them from behind the machine and then through the carriage. The carriage is usually pushed by hand, but it is possible, but more expensive, to have a motor to do this.

The Knitting Process

First, it is necessary to cast on the knitting. There are several ways of doing this which are described in the instruction manual for the machine. Assuming that there are stitches on the needles at the centre of the machine to give the correct width of the knitting the following process occurs as a row is knitted. The knitter sits on a chair without casters facing the machine. The handle of the carriage is held and the carriage is pushed fairly slowly along the needle bed. The needles move out towards the knitter taking the stitch already on the needle behind the latch. The yarn from the yarn guides is passed across the open hooks of the needles. As the needles are pushed back the yarn in the hook is pulled through each stitch. As the carriage moves across the needle bed the individual needles moving forward and back make a wave pattern in space. They do not protrude beyond the front of the carriage.

What Gauge?

There are at least three sizes of knitting machine. Both the size and the name relate to the distance between the needles. The three sizes are fine gauge, standard gauge and chunky. Standard gauge is the most usual and knits a range of thickness of wool from soft Double Knitting (DK)to 3 ply. Fine gauge is really for industrial yarns and not for a beginner. Chunky is a very heavy machine which is designed to knit thick yarns from DK to chunky. The needles are thicker for thicker yarns.

Who Uses a Knitting Machine Anyway?

All sorts of people enjoy machine knitting. The machines are capable of producing a wide range of knitted fabrics. Small businesses can be run by people working from home. It is not easy to make money using a domestic knitting machine, but it is not impossible. The cost of a new machine is quite high, but yarn for machine knitting is generally less expensive than hand-knitting yarns and there are usually discounts for bulk purchases.

Art and textile students may find machine knitting an interesting activity. Many variations of colour and texture are possible and many styles of garment can be produced by shaping on the machine or by producing lengths of straight fabric and making up the garment with a sewing machine using a technique known as cut and sew. In practice, the sewing around the shape is done first to prevent the knitting unravelling once it is cut.

Producing Many Different Styles of Knitted Fabric

The simplest fabric produced is stocking stitch. This is the most usual stitch for pullovers. It is not a 'stable fabric' and curls up until the garment has been stitched together.

The next easiest fabric to produce is 'striped stocking stitch' where the colour is changed every few rows. On a machine an even number of rows should be knitted before changing the colour; then all the changes will be made at the same end of the machine and it probably is not necessary to break the yarn.

'Fair Isle' patterns, with two colours in each row, can be knitted using a machine with a patterning device or on some older machines by hand selection of the needles. A patterning device may use a punched card or electronics.

'Tuck stitch' is a textured pattern which does not have an equivalent hand-knitted version. The patterning device instructs the machine to lay the yarn across certain needles and only to knit it on certain rows. The fabric can be used with either side as the right side depending on the effect required. It can also be worked with two or three colours.

'Slip stitch' is less textured than tuck stitch and can also be worked with more than one colour.

'Knit-weaving' is a way of producing a thicker fabric with the purl side of the fabric having a woven pattern and the reverse being knitted. The weaving yarn is usually thicker than the knitted yarn. The fabric is slower to produce than other stitches as the weaving yarn has to be moved to the front of the carriage on every row and the carriage carries the yarn across the needles.

Some machines can produce 'true lace' and others have 'punch lace' where the holes are knitted with a fine thread or 'invisible' thread. True lace can be knitted on any machine by transferring stitches by hand.

Extra Hardware for more Fabric Types

The above fabrics can all be knitted with a flat bed machine. With a double-bed machine or a flat bed machine with a ribber attachment many more fabric types are possible.

'Double Jacquard' is a fabric which can be knitted using the patterning device and two colours. There are no floats of yarn across the reverse as with Fair Isle.

Various 'rib stitches' can be knitted and tuck rib makes a thick fabric while knitted with fine yarns.

Patterns Galore

Patterns for garments can be found at knitting machine shops, in magazines available from good newsagent, or paper patterns can be used if the machine has a built-in or add-on charting device, also known as knit radar or knit leader.

A wide range of garments can be knitted on a domestic knitting machine. Hats and scarves, pullovers, cardigans, jackets and skirts can all be tackled once the basics have been learned. As with hand-knitting the key to success is working to the correct tension so that the fabric is attractive and comfortable and the finished garment is the correct size. Gloves, socks and baby clothes can be knitted but require fiddly hand transfer of stitches to give the shaping required. Beginners are advised to start with something more straightforward.

1Exactly what is done in a single pass of the carriage varies with manufacturer.

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