Knitting is basically the original 3D printing. It’s a process of creating a product from a single strand of material based on a pattern, which is really just a piece of code. In fact, some knitting machines still use punch cards that are just like the ones used in early computers. So, you might say that the relationship between textile production and computing has always been close-knit.
Considering the similarities between knitting and 3D printing, I was excited when fellow knitting machine hackers Varvara and Mar told me about Gerard Rubio’s OpenKnit project a few years ago. I was so glad to see that someone had taken up the challenge of making an automated knitting machine that could knit practically any pattern or garment on a domestic scale.
OpenKnit was described as “an open-source, low-cost, digital fabrication tool that affords the user the opportunity to create his own bespoke clothing from digital files.” Its open-source designs were intended to allow anyone to build it themselves for less than a thousand dollars, and since it could knit an entire sweater in about an hour, it didn’t seem like a bad return on the investment. Despite the ingenious design and affordability of OpenKnit, it did require a fair amount of effort and know-how to build and it wasn’t quite capable of producing some of the knitwear that’s made commercially. So, even though OpenKnit was a great project, it didn’t really take off. But now Rubio is developing a new project called Kniterate, which has the potential to bring knitwear production into homes and makerspaces around the world.
To appreciate what Kniterate can do, it’s worth going over the knitting machine options that are already out there. Knitting machines range from something as rudimentary as a board with a few pegs in it, to a totally automated and computerized device, but most consumer knitting machines consist primarily of a series of latch-hooks, which is called a needle-bed, and a carriage. Each latch-hook, or needle, holds a stitch in the pattern, and the carriage brings the yarn across the needle-bed. As the carriage moves over each needle, the yarn is pulled through the loop in the existing stitch to create a new stitch, so that another row is knitted with each pass.
Brother, the company that manufactured the electronic machines that can be hacked, stopped making knitting machines in the 1990s. This means that there are a limited number of hackable electronic machines available on eBay and Craigslist, and many of those sell for well over one thousand dollars. The limited availability of these machines means that even those who’ve gotten their hands on them already will eventually face repair and maintenance issues. Even if they’ve hacked their machine with a microcontroller that can be replaced, rather than using a rewired FTDI cable and an emulator to upload patterns onto the machine’s original electronics, or have taken their machine to one of the few specialists that still repair these machines, there are very limited resources currently available to those who want to get into knitting digital imagery.
The electronic machines that Brother made are called domestic knitting machines because they were intended to be used in the home. They were designed to be as compact as possible for storage and travel, and are operated by hand. And, although Brother also sold various attachments, which allowed the machines to perform more complicated processes, and even gave them some automated capabilities, domestic machines are nothing compared to their industrial counterparts. For instance, when you use a domestic knitting machine to make a sweater, you have to knit and shape each piece of fabric by hand and then put the pieces together into a finished garment. When I say shape the fabric, I mean use a special tool to adjust each needle by hand and make the fabric wider or narrower, row by row, as you go. By comparison, there are industrial knitting machines that are fully automated to knit fabric into finished garments all at once. One of the reasons that there are still domestic knitting machines for sale on eBay and Craigslist is that many people don’t realize just how labor intensive they actually are, and when they do, they sell them off again.
As the name suggests, industrial knitting machines are primarily used by factories for larger volumes of production knitting, although some fashion schools also have them. The problem with industrial knitting machines is that they are prohibitively expensive and take up a lot of space. So, although the technology is out there, it’s not accessible to makerspaces or hobbyists the way that Kniterate might be.
The exciting thing about Kniterate is that it’s designed to be somewhere between an industrial knitting machine and a domestic knitting machine, which means that it’s in the perfect position to create a new market for automated domestic machines, just like 3D printers did for digital fabrication. It will ideally be small and affordable enough for hobbyists and makerspaces to acquire without the effort and expertise required to operate a domestic knitting machine, while still having the capabilities to produce industrial knitting machine-quality knitwear. I was curious about how Kniterate could bring together the best of the domestic and industrial knitting machine worlds, so I reached out to Rubio to find out. According to Rubio, what he’s currently trying to do with Kniterate is possible because he’s using aspects of industrial knitting machine designs that weren’t available in the older domestic machines.
The key, amongst some new mechanisms never seen in a domestic knitting machine, is the industrial knitting machine needles we use, that’s what allows the machine to be able to behave as an industrial machine and make finished garments at one go. It can cast on, cast off, shaping, cabling, ribbing, etc., all automated.
Unlike OpenKnit, Kniterate is not open-source and will apparently be sold as a finished unit. “It’s a pretty complex machine that will have multiple mass manufactured mechanical parts, which makes it hard for anybody with standard maker tools to build one,” Rubio explained. Although, he did say that the firmware required to operate the machine may end up being open-source.
I applaud Rubio and the rest of the Kniterate team for their vision and innovative design, they certainly have a lot of challenges ahead of them as they navigate the fickle financial waters that surround the launch of such an ambitious product. I find the concept behind Kniterate fascinating, but I am even more curious about the impact that this product will have in society in general. It would be wonderful to see more local, small-scale garment manufacturing replace the demand for large-scale manufacturing overseas, but I also wonder if the accessibility of such a machine will influence the unique and lovely traditions of homemade knitwear. Will grandma stop knitting you socks for Christmas every year once there’s a Kniterate in the basement? Or will everyone just exchange gifts of custom knitwear files by email to be printed at home in the perfect color and size? At any rate, I intend to keep a keen eye out for Kniterate’s progress because 3D printed knitwear might just be coming soon to a household near you!