Welcome to Learn the Lingo! The idea behind this series of articles is to bring you up to speed on the terms you will need to know to understand what someone is talking about in a specific skill. Often, when just getting into a new skill, the lingo that practitioners use can be confusing and have meanings you didn’t realize. For example, a “hook” means completely different things if you’re sewing or if you’re tying a trout fishing fly!
Today’s lingo lesson will be focusing on machine knitting. For many people, the image of two knitting needles covered in yarn is what pops into the mind when “knitting” is mentioned. Banish that image. What we’re discussing here is way different. A knitting machine is a mechanical system of knitting at high speed. There are tons of variations, ranging from a simple mechanism that requires tons of manual labor (similar to a loom), all the way up to a fully automated behemoth that churns out yards of material per minute.
The animation below shows the basic function. It is taken from this video.
This article will be mainly focusing on the knitting machines that were produced from the 1970’s to the 1990’s, the ones meant for use in homes and small production facilities. These are small enough to fit on a counter top and often require a minimal amount of physical labor. Some can have the pattern programmed in by using punch cards or, in some cases, board computers. As makers realized they could modify these machines to interface with modern computing, we’ve seen a resurgence of interest. Becky Stern showed us how to “hack” one years ago and soon I’ll be showing you how to do the same thing, but with the modern methods that are much easier.
My journey into this hobby has been guided by an extremely helpful enthusiast named Adrienne Hunter. She organizes the Machine Knitters Guild’s booth at Maker Faire Bay Area, and runs an informal machine knitting group in San Jose, CA, where the members have the chance to learn from each other.
The heyday of these domestic knitting machines was in the 1980s; most models have not been manufactured since about 1998. They were very solidly built and most still work remarkably well, but they are now aging and could use some Maker skills to keep them on the road. The original intent was that they could be used for small-scale production, though in fact very few of them were; most have had very light use. The two major brands covered are Brother and Silver Reed. Other significant brands such as Passap, Superba and Toyota had some different terminology.
Since there is a popular Kickstarter going on right now to build a more automated home knitting machine, Adrienne shared some thoughts on the differences between these older machines and the Kniterate system:
Until Kniterate, there was a big gap between the domestic machines and fully automated industrial knitting machines. The cost, size, and power requirements made industrial machines out of reach for the home user or makerspace. Kniterate is bridging that gap; the cost is not too far above the new price of a full domestic machine set; it sits on a workshop table and uses normal power; it can do automatic patterning and shaping of garments, and runs unattended.
Unlike Kniterate, most domestic machines are human powered, though you can motorize them. Shaping is a slow manual technique so Kniterate is way ahead there; as far as patterning is concerned the domestic machines can do almost all of the same color and texture patterning as Kniterate, but can be slower and more error-prone. Some operations can be faster on a domestic machine, but Kniterate runs unattended so you’ll get more output in a day with fewer mistakes.
But as well as the price, the size and weight are a factor: a typical domestic knitting machine weighs less than 40lbs (18 kg), and can be packed away in a few minutes when not in use. For a Kniterate you need a permanent dedicated space, and you won’t just lift it by yourself into the trunk of your car to take it to a Maker Faire or to teach a friend how to use it. For production or prototyping work, or to teach fashion students, Kniterate will be great; for most hobbyists, it is probably overkill.
Terminology for your introduction to machine knitting:
Knit/purl: As in hand knitting, a knit stitch is the little V-shape formed on the side that is usually the front of the work. Purl is the name for the same stitch created from the other side. On a knitting machine, the purl side is facing you as you work.
Needle: Metal piece, one per stitch, with a hook and a latch. The stitch is formed by pulling the previous row’s stitch over the yarn. There are 200 needles on most knitting machines, one needle per stitch.
Latch: The little piece of the needle that flips back and forth to allow the old stitch to pass over the hook and form a new stitch.
Carriage: The part that you move across the needles to make the stitches form. The needles are mechanically guided forwards and back to form the stitch, and are guided down different paths to form two-color or other patterns.
Tension mast: the superstructure that guides the yarn into the carriage, and takes up the slack at the beginning of the row.
Increase/decrease: The use of hand tools to shape the edges of the knitting to make it wider or narrower.
Cast on and cast off/binding: Starting and ending the piece, a manual procedure using hand tools.
Hand-manipulation: Using hand tools for certain patterns and shaping. Even on the electronic-pattern machines you still need to learn how to use hand tools for increasing, decreasing, cables, buttonholes, casting on, binding/casting off, and picking up a dropped stitch.
Hobby machine: Usually made of plastic, but don’t underestimate them, they are more robust and useful than you might think. They generally don’t have a ribber available, nor any patterning features built in, but there’s plenty you can make with them, see hand-manipulation. The Silver Reed LK150 is popular, and is still being manufactured.
Curl: The edges of plain stockinette knitting always curl, whether made by hand or machine, it’s in their nature.
Ribbing: Alternating knit and purl stitches that make a reversible stretchy fabric that doesn’t curl. Commonly used for the edges of sweaters, but many other uses as well.
Ribber: Second set of needles positioned opposite the main needles, for knitting ribbing and certain types of colored patterns.
Needle selection: The patterning mechanism chooses which needles go down which path of the carriage (this forms the pattern).
Lace carriage: Separate carriage for knitting lacy patterns.
Garter carriage: Separate carriage for knitting textured patterns of knit/purl stitches.
Stitch Size: The central dial on the carriage to adjust the size of the loop that makes up each stitch. Sometimes called the Tension.
Fair Isle: A colored pattern technique, two colors per row, knitted by hand or by machine.
Tuck: A texture pattern made by holding a loop for several rows and knitting them all off into one stitch.
Punchcard: A thin plastic card with rows of 24 holes. For a two-color pattern, each hole or not-a-hole guides a needle to pick up one or the other color of yarn. The same pattern can be repeated across the needle-bed. A punchcard machine needs no electricity.
Electronic patterning: A black and white dots/pixels pattern saved on a computer or in the knitting machine. The patterning operates mechanically in the same way as using a punchcard, but each needle is individually addressable and allows non-repeating patterns.
Mylar: An optically-read pattern sheet used on Silver Reed and early Brother model electronic machines. Can be bypassed by DAK, Silverlink, or AYAB.
Sponge bar: a strip of foam that holds the needles in position with the right balance of friction and flexibility. Needs to be replaced every 2-4 years, so if you are refurbishing an older machine it’s the first thing to check.
Gauge: Used in two related senses. First is the same as in hand knitting; the number of stitches and rows per square inch/square cm. Secondly, gauge describes the spacing of the needles on a knitting machine – the closer together the needles, the thinner the yarn it can handle. Typical spacings are 4.5mm (standard gauge), 6.5mm (mid-gauge), and 9mm (bulky gauge).
PPD/floppy: A Pattern Programming Device is a 1980’s Brother device that hooked up to your analog TV allowing you to design patterns on the screen for your electronic knitting machine. Designs could be saved to a floppy drive. If you have one of the floppy drives, replace its belt and it will then work perfectly.
Brother: The company whose electronic machines are of most interest to makers, even though they have not been manufactured since 1998. Their punchcard machines are also widely used. Some Brother machines were marketed in the United States as Knitking.
Silver Reed: Still in the business of making a range of punchcard and electronic machines similar to Brothers, with no significant design changes since the 1990’s. Generally considered to be less hackable. Previously marketed as Studio (U.S.), Singer (Canada), Knitmaster (UK) and Empisal (Australia).
DAK: Design-A-Knit (TM) Commercial software that has been around since the 1990s. Has many features that the open source versions do not have (yet).
Img2track: Img2Track connects certain models of Brother electronic machines directly to your computer. It is the current form of the same hack first widely publicized by Becky Stern. Img2Track has a full UI, no need for Python or the command line. You import an image, it does some needed manipulation for you, you download it to your machine, and then knit as usual. To use Img2Track you only need to buy or make a special cable. You make no changes to your knitting machine itself. Demo up to 60 stitches wide for free, pay for the full-width software.
AYAB: All Yarns Are Beautiful is an open source hack for Brother electronic knitting machines that covers more models than Img2Track. You remove the original control circuitry and replace it with an Arduino. EMSL has a kit available. It’s fully reversible and you can easily replace the original electronics. There are similar predecessor projects by knitic, knittingdon, and others. However, AYAB has the most traction at the moment. AYAB is still in Beta status as of mid 2017.
Industrial Knitting Machines
The general principle of how most industrial machines work is the same as the domestic ones. The difference is in cost, size, power consumption, speed, and automation. Most commercial knitwear is made on huge automated machines such as Stoll or Shima Seiki. There are also manually operated industrial knitting machines which are closer to the domestic machines, but they are heavier, have higher precision, and cannot produce as many patterning capabilities (like the Dubied).
Adrienne has rescued, traded, and sold many machines. She has some advice for those who would like to find one and get started.
Please buy a knitting machine locally if possible. If you must ship a machine through the mail, be sure it is packed carefully; in particular you need solid Styrofoam to protect the plastic ends. Imagine the long heavy package falling off a truck or conveyor belt onto concrete, it happens often with today’s automated package handling. Do not rely on bubble wrap, airbags, or loose peanuts, they burst or shift and become useless.