What is a knitting machine?
A knitting machine is a long apparatus furnished with a row of hooked needles, or rather, casting-on needles. Usually there are 200 needles. They sit in a base which is called the needle bed. A part of the needle (the butt) protrudes through the needle bed and it is this which makes contact with the knitting carriage. The carriage, which is pushed across the stitches, has on its underside several 'cams' which govern the movement each needle will make as the carriage is moved across the bed. Every needle has a latch which may be tilted back and forth, whereby it opens and closes the access to the hook of the needle. The stitches sit in the hooks, and when you drive the carriage across the needles, they first are pushed up into the upper position, whereby the stitches push back the latches. Next, the yarn feeder lays new thread into the hooks. After that, the needles are pushed down again, whereby the old stitches push the latches forward, shutting off the needle hooks and sliding out over the needles. At this moment, the new stitches have been formed. In the oldest machines, these cams were quite simple, and therefore the machines could do little but knit forwards and backwards. Newer machines have various buttons that you can move or push in order to change the needle routes. This allows for textured and multi-coloured patterning. For instance the needles may be pushed completely forward, whereby they slip into a trail where they are not included in the knitting - unless you move another button, which again includes them. On older machines, you have to include them manually.
The needles have four possible positions:
- 'Out of work' position
- Those needles that are out of use are pushed completely back.
- Working position
- Brought forward about 1/2".
- Idling position, or upper working position
- Precisely so much forward that the stitches just do not enter behind the latches.
- Resting position (or holding position)
- Completely forward.
Some machine instructions use other designations, e.g. letter designations, but as the instructions of different machines use different terminologies, I have chosen to use the terms mentioned above.
In some machines, the system differs somewhat, e.g. PASSAP. But the system described above is the most common.
The oldest types that I have seen, are the so-called double-bed machines. The name refers to the fact that there are two needle beds, i.e. those bottoms on which the needles sit. The two apparatuses are oriented towards each other, at a slant upwards towards their midline. While you are working, the wrongside of the knitting faces outward. When there are two machines oriented towards each other, the front one will have its rightside facing the knitting person, but you cannot see that, because the knitting is between the machines. This means that one may have every other stitch on the foremost machine and every other on the hindmost, i.e. knit 1 plain and 1 purl, 2 plain and 2 purl, or other combinations. Or you may make circular knitting. The oldest machines demanded that very heavy weights were hung on the knitting, and if you knitted plain knitting, you would also have to attach side weights that must be moved for every tenth row. The foremost machine could be detached if you wanted to knit plain knitting. In very old machines, the needles could not be put into resting position, and even older machines did not have the idling position either.
Later, some more practical machines appeared. Various sorts of casting-off systems were invented, which helped so that you did not have to use so heavy weights, but you could not completely do without weights. On the knitter (the hindmost apparatus), it is possible to knit without weights. If you knit on both apparatuses, you need, with most machines, to use weights, but not as heavy as with the oldest machines. In many cases you also have to use weights with a single-bed machine, particularly if you knit patterns, but what you use is only a light comb, upon which small, light side weights are hung.
But one machine had a completely different system. This was KNITTAX. It did not use weights, but, instead of that, springs that sat in between every needle and held the stitches; and when the carriage was led across, it tilted the springs upwards and down again, so that they held the next row while the machine was knitting. KNITTAX was a single-bed machine. A ribber for it was available, but it was placed vertically in front of the single-bed apparatus and could still utilize the springs, so it did not need weights. But it had only every other needle, so you could not knit more than one combination of knit and purl rows - it was meant only for rib borders with 1 knit and 1 purl, and for fisherman's rib (In German and Scandinavian languages, this is called "patent knitting". It seems that "fisherman's rib" is the English word for it, but a dictionary had the term "raised ribbing"). The rib apparatus had no resting position. KNITTAX was a fine machine. It was easy to knit with, but it had no automatics. The needle distance was approx. 5 mm. The first machines that appeared did not have a yarn feeder. You had to put the thread by hand. This was possible because it had another knitting position than other machines; it knitted with the stitches behind the latches. This, plus a slightly larger needle distance, implied that you could use slightly thicker yarn. Eventually, machines with yarn feeder also appeared. If you want to buy a second-hand KNITTAX, you must check that it has a yarn feeder. KNITTAX also produced some smaller machines meant for baby clothing. They had too few needles to allow you to knit a large adult size.
Later, PASSAP took up the idea of having springs instead of weights. This was a double-bed machine that could knit rib without weights, but weights existed for it in case they were needed. It was the only machine that was able to knit patterns in circular knitting. It had slightly differing needle positions. It was an excellent machine, but the producers were not smart enough to follow up when the electronics appeared, so the result was that it was run down by the Japanese.
Today, the machines on the market in my country are mostly Japanese; therefore, this text is mainly about these. ROYAL and BROTHER are the most common, but others have been awailable which are no longer imported, e.g. JUKI. Japanese machines have a needle distance of 4½ mm. You may buy them as single-bed machines, which, in that case, are placed flat on the table. If you buy an accessory ribber, you have to slant the machine slightly. With the machine follows a clamp with which it can be lifted up in an upwards-slanted position, allowing the ribber, which is also slanted, to be attached. Of course, the ribber may be detached again, but that is not necessary, for it can be lowered, so that you can manage.
You can buy machines with punch cards that extend over 24 stitches. These are probably the most sold models, but they are also available with diskettes with countless patterns extending over the entire machine. You may make your own patterns on punch cards as well as diskettes. There have also been machines with print cards, i.e. transparent sheets with small squares where you could draw your patterns with a special pen. They extended over 60 stitches. Unfortunately, they are not available anymore. This is a shame, because here you had a better overview over your drawings. The latest new machines require that you have a computer screen if you want to see the entire pattern at a time.
With ROYAL, all patterns have to be made on punch cards; you can do nothing manually. With BROTHER, all needles are first pushed up into idling position, and the pattern is knitted in the row that follows. Thereby, you can always see what the machine will do in the next row and have a chance to correct something, if you want. You may also make simple patterns without having them on punch cards by pushing up the needles manually. Since March 2000, BROTHER is not imported anymore, but they have issued a guarantee that spare parts will be available for the next 10 years. The new models of ROYAL are now called SILVER REED.
Some older Japanese models had pattern buttons for a 6, 8 or 12 stitch pattern repeat. You could enter a pattern repeat once, and when you pulled a handle or a switch, the needles came into working position all over the machine, allowing you to knit a pattern over them. You may probably be able to find a second-hand machine of this type, if you are interested. But later, it became possible to knit a large single pattern (up to 200 needles on certain machines eg Brother 950i electronic), so machines were constructed that could meet this demand.
The most popular knitting machines have 4.5mm spacing between needles and are designed to knit from a 2-ply laceweight yarn through to 4-ply fingering yarn. It is possible to use Double Knitting (worsted) yarn but knitted on every other needle only.
There are 9mm spaced machines known as 'chunky knitters' usually having 150 - 180 needles that will knit from double knit through to very chunky yarn.
Yarns designed for machine knitting are usually wound onto cones. They are available from very fine single ply through to chunky quality. Several threads of finer yarn can be knitted together to create a thicker fabric if desired.