Demystifying Knitting Machines
by Eileen Bator
Many hand knitters toy with the idea of buying a knitting machine at one time or another. Whether you are attracted to a machine for making exquisite fine gauge knits or you are lured by the promise of speed, a knitting machine can be an enticing temptation. But it can also be very expensive, so before you go shopping, you should understand your motives and goals.
Knowing what you want to make with a machine will help you decide which—if any—machine to buy. Here are some basics on knitting machine types, buying tips, and helpful resources.
Types of Machines
Like knitting needles, machines come in different sizes. There are four different machine gauges, defined by the distance between the needles on the machine's bed. The larger the gauge, the thicker the yarn it can handle.
Fine gauge machines (3.6 mm between needles) knit the thinnest thread-like yarns. They produce fine, lightweight knitted fabrics. Machine knitters usually move up to this machine—it's not often bought as a first purchase.
Standard gauge machines (4.5 mm) are the workhorses of machine knitting. They knit commercial grade fibers: anything finer than DK-weight yarns. Typically, you use coned yarns on a standard gauge machine.
Mid-gauge machines (6.5 mm) are the best machines for hand knitters. They handle all types of hand yarns, from sport weight to worsted, including DK weight, ribbons, novelty yarns, mohair, and nubby yarns.
Bulky or chunky machines (9 mm) are used to knit the thickest of hand knitting yarns.
Money and Materials
All machines are available in sturdy, metal models, starting at $700 and going up to several thousand dollars. But if you want to enter machine knitting at a more reasonable price, mid-gauge machines are available in plastic versions.
Some plastic machines are better than others; it's worth investing a few hundred dollars in a good, basic mid-gauge machine that will perform well, that will operate easily, and that will be a pleasure to work with. A good plastic machine should be upgradeable via optional accessories.
Most machines are single-bed machines. That is, they have one set of needles on a flat bed to knit stockinette stitches. If you want to do ribbing automatically (without hand-manipulating stitches), several metal bed machines are manufactured as double-bed machines, or offer a ribber as an add-on option. Most new machine knitters start with a single-bed machine before they decide to add on a ribber.
Finally, machines can be manual or electronic versions. Many machine knitters start with a manual machine, moving up to an electronic machine after they have machine knit for a while and determined what their needs are. Some manual machines come with punch card readers built into them, for semi-automatic patterning capabilities.
Metal bed machines are available from Silver Reed and Artisan. Silver Reed (also sold under the Studio name in Canada) offers fine, standard, mid-gauge, and bulky machines. Artisan offers more basic, affordable standard and mid-gauge machines.
Plastic machines are available from two companies: Silver Reed and Bond. The Silver Reed LK-150 (named for the 150 needles on its bed) is manufactured by one of the most respected and reputable knitting machine companies, and retails for under $400.
Bond manufactures the Ultimate Sweater Machine (successor to the Incredible Sweater Machine), which is an 8mm machine, between a mid-gauge and bulky. The Bond machines are the least expensive machines on the market, retailing for $130-250.
Many machine knitters recommend that hand knitters start with the Silver Reed LK-150. This machine is reliable, priced well, and fun to use. What you learn on the LK-150 is easily translated to Silver Reed's other machines if you ever upgrade. The LK-150 has many add-on accessories to help you expand your techniques as you become more comfortable with the machine. Best of all, the LK-150 uses hand knitting yarns, from ribbons to mohairs to worsteds.
To locate a local dealer, see the Selected Resources at the end of this article.
Reasons to Buy
It's very important to examine your reasons for buying a machine. If you expect to produce an aran sweater in an evening, think again. Speed is only a small factor in machine knitting.
And while both hand and machine knitting have many things in common, machine knitting is different than hand knitting. There are many reasons to seriously consider investing in a machine. Here are just some of them.
If you have trouble sustaining an even tension in hand knitting, a knitting machine is a big help. Once you get into a steady rhythm with your carriage, stitch formation is consistent and nearly perfect.
If Fair Isle frustrates you because you have trouble carrying several colors, your stitches are too tight, or it is difficult to follow a color chart, a knitting machine can solve your problems.
Some machines are equipped to do multi-color knitting out-of-the-box; some need an additional carriage. The LK-150 has an optional fair isle carriage that is well worth the investment.
If you love intarsia, it's much easier to hang several colors on a machine than to keep track of them on two needles.
You may find that knitting lace on a machine is easier than by hand.
For production knitting or charity work, a machine can save you time and money.
If your mantra is "So much yarn, so little time," it's much faster to knit stockinette on a machine. You can complete the back of a plain, basic adult sweater in less than an hour.
But not all stitches translate into speed. One of the great things about a basic machine like the LK-150 is that you can still enjoy the challenge of creating an interesting texture by hand manipulating the stitches.
A machine can give you the best of both worlds: It can speed up the tedious work of stockinette, but it can give you the pleasure of manually working through a complex chart for lace, Fair Isle, or cables. You don't lose the satisfaction of hand-manipulation on a machine.
You can combine hand and machine knitting on the LK-150, by hand knitting the ribbed edges and machine knitting the body of a sweater.
Since machine knitting can be faster than hand knitting, it gives you more time for designing and being creative.
Advanced techniques such as jacquard and knit-weaving are very easy on a high-end machine.
As an added bonus, it's actually easier and quicker to rip out mistakes on a machine than by hand. You can rip out a row in a few seconds without dropping any stitches from their needles. It makes mistakes much less agonizing to fix.
Things that are Easier to do by Hand
With all that said, I must admit that there are many techniques I still prefer to do by hand, either because they give me great pleasure to do by hand, or because they are more difficult to do by machine.
Seamless socks can only be done on a double-bed machine with circular knitting capabilities. For me, knitting socks by hand is just more fun.
By hand, mitered squares are exciting to do and the ultimate portable project. On the machine, they are more tedious, involving removing and re-hanging your work every few rows.
Entrelac is one of the coolest techniques I have ever tried on two needles. It can be done on a machine, but it is less magical and interesting.
Creating cables on a machine is the same process as by hand—manually placing a few stitches on a holder and moving them to another position. Exploring cables on the machine is just as fascinating as hand knitting, thanks to a wonderful publication by cross-knitter Susan Guagliumi, Hand-Manipulated Stitches for Machine Knitters. But if you're going to make an intricate aran sweater, it's probably more satisfying to do it by hand.
Knitting in the round can only be done on a more expensive double-bed mach
Most machine-knit afghans must be pieced together simply because the knitting width is limited to the number of needles on a machine.
If you want to knit and purl in one row, to create seed stitch or gansey designs, you will spend countless hours on a basic machine individually removing and turning stitches around by hand. To knit and purl in one row automatically, you need a higher end machine and a garter carriage; it's not a technique for the beginner.
Things You May Not Like About a Machine
It's very easy to use a machine once you understand the basics, but there is a significant learning curve. Regardless of the machine, you should buy from a dealer. Getting lessons is imperative on your first machine, and buying from a dealer is the best bet. Some dealers offer reduced prices or free lessons when you buy a machine from them.
If you buy a machine over the Internet or from a discount outlet, your local dealer may not want to give you lessons, or she may price the lessons much higher. Lessons are a sound investment, saving you countless hours of mistakes and frustrations. And the pay-back is quick. Most plastic machines come with a video tape. If you learn well from instructional videos, a tape may be able to replace live lessons.
You have to clean a machine regularly for it to work smoothly. Routine maintenance after each garment is painless. Every year, you should remove all the needles and give the machine a deep cleaning to keep it in tip top shape.
Swatching is an absolute must on a machine.
Before each project, you should knit a sample with the exact yarn you will be using at the precise settings that you intend; and you must launder and block the swatch exactly as you would treat the final garment. All machines do not knit the same yarn at the same tension or gauge.
Most machine-knit fabrics should be blocked. As you knit on a machine, the fabric is stretched and weighted; when you remove it from the machine, it will be distorted and curled.
Machines do not like static electricity. Even if a machine is not electronic, static electricity can damage it. Keep the humidity level up, use anti-static tools, and ground yourself before touching the machine.
Knitting machines can be noisy. Plan to use it where the noise won't disturb others.
Just as there are hundreds of different hand knitters, machine knitters come in all varieties, too. Don't get stuck in a stereotype that stops you from exploring knitting machines!
Knitting machines are not just for acrylic yarns. You can knit all fibers—from cottons to wools, and most novelty yarns. The mid-gauge is the most versatile machine, letting you knit from your hand knitting stash.
Coned yarn is not inferior to hand yarns. In fact, many familiar yarns are available on cones and are less expensive per yard than their skeined counterparts. Companies such as Brown Sheep, Harrisville, Webs, Silk City, and Jaggerspun have many yarns available on cones. And with coned yarns, you have a lot fewer knotted ends to weave in.
Machine knitting is not cheating! We don't begrudge seamstresses their sewing machines, or weavers their looms. A knitting machine is just another tool in the repertoire. Machines still need human creativity and nimble fingers to work their magic. There are many well-known knitters who create both hand and machine knit designs: Lily Chin, Ginger Luters, and Leslye Solomon, to name a few.
Machine knitted garments can look just like hand-knitted garments, especially when they include hand-manipulated techniques on a mid-gauge machine.
A knitting machine is not for everyone. Chances are you will never knit an intricate aran sweater on a knitting machine.
There is something very special about a hand-knit fisherman's sweater that cannot be replaced—just as there is something very special about a St. John's-style suit knitted on a machine. Each craft has its specialties and its niches.
While there is cross-over in what you can do by hand and by machine, it's important to recognize that they are different crafts.
If you are thinking of buying a knitting machine, talk with other machine knitters before you invest your money. Attend a machine knitting club (usually sponsored by a local dealer) to see what you can do with a machine. Buy a reputable product from a dealer and get lessons. Start with a mid-gauge machine so you can use all your hand-knitting yarns.
And have fun! A knitting machine can open up worlds of techniques, creativity, and possibilities—you will never get bored with a machine.
If you have any questions about machine knitting, I'll see you in the Forums (where I'm known as KnittingBuddy).
KNITWORDS is the premiere North American magazine devoted exclusively to machine knitting. The magazine is known for being instructional; the editor, Mary Anne Oger, publishes articles on techniques and accompanies them with patterns that use those techniques. The quarterly magazine includes patterns for all gauge machines. Mary Anne has also published several books exclusively for mid-gauge knitting machines.
INKnitters and Knit 'N Style magazines publish patterns for both hand and machine knitting.
Amy Stinson runs a machine knitting listserv that is frequented by dealers, instructors, hobby knitters, and well-known designers. Subscribe to MACHKNIT. You can quickly locate local machine knitters, seminars, and clubs through this list.
Yahoo includes several general and specialized machine knitting groups.
Tricia Shafer offers a unique subscription service that provides online lessons, a reference library, and patterns.
About the Author
Eileen Bator is a regular contributor to KNITWORDS magazine. She has been hand knitting for 40 years and machine knitting for 17.