knitteus ex machina, parte prima

Years ago–possibly even decades ago–my mom bought a knitting machine.  She had never really used it, but that didn’t stop her from touting it to me.  Not that it took much persuading, given my general enthusiasm for handicrafts, and my dreams of presiding over a knitwear empire–a lofty goal that would surely be abetted by the use of a knitting machine!

My mom described it as a magical instrument capable of spitting out swathes of stockinette stitch.  It didn’t take long for me to start imagining myself surrounded by piles of scarves; I could make all the projects from a Rowan look-book in just an afternoon or two!  Soon I was envisioning myself in a yurt in Mongolia (the latest volunteer-chic hot-spot), teaching women to use the knitting machine to churn out shawls of yak hair that could be sold to rich people as fashionable coverings for their pet dinosaur clones.

Naturally, before I could actually learn to use the machine I had to spend forty-five minutes designing a logo for this promising new enterprise.

Once that had been satisfactorily accomplished, I was ready to begin.  I gingerly lifted the BOND apparatus from its yellowing cardboard box and placed it on the table.  It resembled a musical instrument, complicated and graceful, with lots of auxiliary parts.

It also came w/ some handy instruction booklets, which claimed they would have me knitting “quickly and easily” in no time.  The machine was capable of working w/ several different yarn weights, and was capable of ribbing and cabling to boot.

The first order of business was to cast on.  I have plenty of scrap yarn lying around, and so decided to use a small, superfluous ball of Rowan Tapestry yarn*, a DK-weight wool/soy blend.

It turned out that I needed elastic thread for this endeavor.  Now, I KNOW I have a bunch of the stuff lying around SOMEWHERE–I even remember which project I bought it for, and I barely used any–but I could not unearth it in the ensuing search.  I sifted through beads, pins, random needles, pitiful little balls of yarn that I can’t bear to throw away, buttons, assorted swatches for my yarn dictionary, tangled lumps of embroidery thread, &c., and nada.  The closest I came was a band of elastic, which I cut into narrow strips to act as makeshift thread.

I decided to do a small sample only 24 stitches wide.  It took me a while to set up the machine, but finally, it seemed as if everything had been properly assembled.  I was ready to cast on.

Getting set up: preparing the "working" needles
Ready for action!

I moved the carriage across and…most of the stitches failed to materialize.  “This will only happen if you did NOT check that ALL the latches were open after hanging the hem,” said the booklet accusingly.  “But I did check!” I protested.

The third time was the charm, and I managed to create a perfect row.


Things got simpler from there, and I began to develop a slow, methodical rhythm.  Still, I wasn’t sure how much time I was actually saving.  Sure, the rows were coming much faster, but it had taken me over an hour to cast on 24 stitches–something that I could have done by hand in 5-10 minutes.

In a mere three minutes I went from this... this

After I got to a point where the sample seemed large enough, it was time to cast off.  Gentlefriends, I did not manage to do this successfully.  I followed the instructions to the best of my ability, but ended up aborting b/c it clearly was not going well.  I also discovered that, once the elastic thread is removed, you are left w/ a row of live stitches, which in my p.o.v. is not entirely a bad thing, b/c I will probably end up using the knitting machine in tandem w/ hand-work, so it will be easier to join stitches.  Furthermore, in skimming the instruction guides I see that there is a technique for what they call a “closed” cast-on.  Also, the yarn sprang back into shape (you can see from the photos it was stretched out from the weighted hem) quite nicely, although I worry what would happen w/ something less resilient, like cotton or silk.

After this, I can see why knitting machines never really took off.  One of the perks of knitting that makes it less intimidating for beginners is the ability to simply cast on a few stitches and start going.  Knitting w/ the machine is much more akin to a sewing project or (I am guessing) a weaving project, which requires careful, time-consuming preparation, but is fairly quick in the execution.  This being the case, I don’t really think it’s practical for the average hobby knitter to put the time and money (to the tune of hundreds of dollars) into a knitting machine.  However, I would think it would be a godsend to the independent commercial knitter; I mean, I’m already drooling at the thought of how many circle scarves I could make in a day!  Some of reasons it’s so difficult to make a living by peddling knitwear is that a) materials are very expensive, and b) the process is v. labor-intensive.  For the last sweater I made, I paid $100+ for the wool/silk blend I used, and then spent many hours over the course of several months knitting it up.  If I had tried to sell it, I would have had to charge at least $200 to make any kind of profit, which is a price most people would balk at paying when they can get a decent cardigan for under $50 at a store.

Again, for the hobby knitter, the process of knitting is pleasurable in and of itself.  For people more interested in production, repetitive stitching turns into a tedious chore.  Just try knitting a few feet of stockinette on a row hundreds of stitches long–it starts to feel kind of oppressive after a while.

Obviously, I have a lot more to learn about machine knitting, and frankly, I’m excited to explore the possibilities.

Next up: seeing if I can figure out how to cast off properly; shaping (increase and decrease); adding in another ball of yarn.

*Which apparently has been discontinued?  How sad. 😦  I loved this stuff!  It made the best hats, b/c it was warm and cozy, but smooth enough that it didn’t leave hair a staticky mess.


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