What You Should Know Before Buying a Knitting Machine

by Sonja Kathleen

I think that knitting machines are just the thing for slow, but goal-oriented, hand knitters. Some hand knitters are quick, but not me. I didn't even hold the yarn right for the first 20 years. Don't get me wrong-I love hand knitting. But I was always thinking ahead to when my project would be finished and how great it would look, not to mention what I would start on next. My enthusiasm for a project usually turned to boredom before it was finished. Even worse, the disappointment I felt when a project didn't fit right made me feel that I had wasted a huge amount of time.

One day, a light bulb went off in my head. I had seen a knitting machine demonstration at a craft show several years earlier but hadn't thought about it since. With a new baby, no time, and lots of knitting I wanted to do, surely this was the answer! I thought I would be able to use a knitting machine to make any hand-knitting pattern. I set out to find a knitting machine, confident that it would be just a quicker version of my own hands. Wrong! And right, just not in the way that I thought.

The dealer I found was helpful, but I didn't know what questions to ask, and since my only contact with her was over the phone it was difficult for her to explain knitting machines without demonstrating. What follows are some of the things I've learned since becoming a machine knitter, things I wish I had known before I started. Part I covers types and brands of machine, Part II explains how they work, Part III describes what they can do, and Part IV lists the various accessories.

Now, I'm no expert and this is certainly not a comprehensive article. It's not an instruction manual. Just think of it as one knitter's observations. I can't tell you whether machine knitting is right for you--I can only try to explain what machine knitting is before you buy a machine and learn to use it.


Types and Brands

Knitting machines can perform a wide range of stitch techniques and functions. However, not every brand or model will have all of the features, so it's important to know what you want before you select one.

There are two main types of modern home knitting machine - Passap and the "Japanese" machines. The Passap brand used a different system for making the knit stitches, and is no longer being produced. I have only used Brother knitting machines, so this discussion is geared specifically to Brother, and generally to the Japanese machines. In addition, I have excluded hobby machines, such as the Bond Incredible Sweater Machine, from this discussion simply because I have never seen or used one. However, my understanding is that these machines work in a similar fashion but have fewer features than the home knitting machines.

There are several different brands of Japanese machine, though all are similar and work the same way. The main differences are in what the different switches and levers are called, and where they are positioned. The only Japanese-type machine I know of that is currently being manufactured is the Silver-Reed, although I believe there is also a new brand from China. Most of the brands are no longer produced, including Brother, Studio/Singer, Knitmaster, Knitking, Toyota, White/Superba, and Artisan, although many of these machines are still available used.

Used machines can be an excellent value, especially since any new machine tends to be expensive. Like all hobbies and crafts, machine knitting has surges of popularity, but when demand wanes the companies no longer find it profitable to produce machines. I hope that with the current popularity of hand knitting, machine knitting will soon follow once again.

Selecting a Gauge

Probably the biggest dilemma you'll face when choosing a knitting machine is not what brand to buy, but what gauge. Gauge refers to the size of the needles and how closely they are spaced on the needle bed, which has a direct relationship to the size of the yarn they can knit. No machine can knit every yarn, although each is designed to handle a range of yarns within the spectrum from super-fine to bulky.

Machine specifications will state the number of needles and give the needle pitch in mm; however, this is NOT the same as the hand knitting needle size. It's best to go by the description of the machine gauge, of which there are three: standard, bulky, and fine.

Standard gauge machines are the most common. They have 200 needles with a needle pitch of 4.5 mm. They knit a wide variety of yarns, everything from lace weight to sport weight. This makes for beautiful knitted clothing and sweaters, but not the typical heavy ski sweater.

Bulky gauge machines have 114 needles with a needle pitch of 9 mm. They are designed to handle worsted weight yarns to create sweaters that look like hand knits, but can also be used with sport weight or bulky yarns. This is your heavy ski sweater.

Fine gauge machines handle the finest of yarns, from mere threads to lace weight yarns. They're used to produce very fine knit fabrics that are typically seen only in manufactured clothing.

A fourth gauge does exist, known as "mid-gauge". These machines were designed to combine the best of the standard and bulky machines, meaning they could knit sport or worsted for greatest variety. However, many of the mid-gauge machines are of inferior quality, with plastic needle beds and fewer stitch functions, so I regard them as hobby machines.

Many dealers will tell you that you can knit worsted weight yarn on a standard gauge machine. It's true, but you must use only every other needle to do so, which means your knitting will be narrow and require piecing.

Patterning Capability

The next decision you'll face will be what type of patterning capability you want. Knitting machines are capable of performing all sorts of fancy stitch techniques (see Part III), but use different methods to read the design you want to use. Early machines had little or no such capability, and the knitter had to pattern the design manually. Subsequent knitting machines use one of three different methods to automatically pattern: punchcard, mylar, and electronic.

Punchcard machines read a special piece of graph paper that has holes punched in it to represent the design to be knit. Mylar machines read a similar graph that is drawn on a clear piece of mylar. Electronic machines have a computer on board that can be programmed with the graph. The most critical difference, besides ease of use, is that the latest electronic machines are capable of reading a design the full width of the needle bed (200 stitches on the standard gauge). Punchcard machines are only capable of reading a graph up to 24 stitches wide per row, which limits the design choices. Electronic machines may also have garment shaping capabilities that tell the knitter when to increase or decrease.

When the knitting machine reads each line of the graphed design, it places the selected needles into the correct working positions to make the pattern. Regardless of type, any knitting machine will repeat the design, whatever size, over and over across the selected needles, unless it's programmed by the knitter to do otherwise. In addition, when all the rows have been knitted, the machine will start over with the first row again unless the design is cancelled.

My advice to anyone buying a new machine knitting is to buy the best that you can, even if it's more than you need right now, because trade-in values are very low. If you should decide later that you want more features, you'll end up spending a lot more than if you just got them in the first place.

Next Installment.... Part II: How knitting machines work

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