The information below is intended to give a brief overview of how a knitting machine works, and what it can typically do. It is not intended to replace the instruction manual for a particular model of machine.
Domestic knitting machines have been around for many years and have been popular since the 1950s. For more information on the background, see the History of Machine Knitting page, or continue reading to find out more about knitting machines today.
Those without experience of machine knitting may assume that the machine does everything for you, but nothing could be further from the truth! Although a machine is used, this is just the creative tool, like the hook for crochet, the needles in hand knitting or even the sewing machine in sewing. In all the disciplines, it is the person using the tool who decides on design, patterns and methods. Shaping (and often special stitches) are done manually to achieve the exact quality and finish needed for the project.
Although knitting machines can significantly speed up the process when you compare using one to knitting a similar garment by hand (where this is possible), it isn’t all automatic! Many machine knitters also may also have other skills, and may combine machine-knitting with hand-knitting, crochet, embroidery or applique.
All machines can knit basic stocking stitch, and most can also knit a variety of other stitch patterns. Although many hand-knitted stitch patterns can be replicated using a machine (and vice versa) one of the easiest and quickest stitches to knit by hand (garter stitch – knitting every row – is time-consuming on a knitting machine.
Shaping (increasing and decreasing) is a manual process, as is moving the carriage across the needlebed (although it is possible to get a motor for some models).
Types of knitting machine
Knitting machines are often termed either as ‘Japanese’ or ‘European’, which is determined by the style of the machine as well as by place of manufacture.
Machines can have plastic or metal beds. Bond/USM machines are also plastic bed machines.
Japanese machines were manufactured by Brother, Silver Reed and Toyota, and were badged differently for markets around the world. You may see them called Jones, Empisal, Knitmaster, Knit King, White, Singer and various other names. The Empisal brand was used for different machines in different countries. These machines were supplied as a single bed of needles with the option to add an additional bed of needles (a ribber).
The early machines were what are now known as standard gauge with additional gauges added over the years. Plastic bed Japanese machines are usually more basic and ribbers are not available.
European machines were made by Passap, Pfaff and Singer, sometimes known as Superba. These were different to the Singer-badged machines made in Japan. European machines usually consisted of two beds of needles fixed together, although some single-bed machines were made as well. The needles on these machines are usually 5 mm apart, which is a little further apart than a standard gauge Japanese machine. European machines are often considered to be more complicated than the Japanese machines.
Silver Reed is currently the main company producing machines and importing them into the UK, although there are other manufacturers in China. (There is a good second-hand market for most makes and more information is available on the Buying a knitting machine page, which includes guidance on buying second-hand.)
Gauge of knitting machines
The ‘gauge’ of a machine is determined by measuring from the centre of one needle to the centre of the adjacent needle. European machines have needles that are 5mm apart, and take the same yarns as standard gauge Japanese machines.
|Needles are 3.5 mm or 3.6 mm apart. They knit yarns up to and including 3 ply and some fine 4 ply yarns. These machines can be difficult to find as there weren’t as many sold.
|Needles are 4.5 mm apart. They knit yarns up to and including 4 ply and some fine double-knit yarns. These machines are the most popular.
|Needles are 6 mm or 7 mm apart and work well with DK yarns, including hand knit yarns. These machines often have plastic beds and limited patterning facilities.
|Needles are 9 mm apart and knit DK, aran and light chunky weight yarns.
The tension sets the stitch size (the equivalent of using bigger or smaller needles) and is usually adjusted by means of a tension dial on the carriage. If yarn is knitted at the wrong tension, it will make the resulting knitting either too stiff or too loose and holey.
It is possible to knit some thicker yarns than those usual for the machine by knitting on every alternate needle, but this reduces the width of the fabric produced (as only 100 needles will be available on a 200-needle machine). It can also create additional problems if the yarn doesn’t fit into the hook of the needle, preventing the latch from closing over it.
Stitch patterns on a knitting machine are produced using a combination of two separate things:
- The patterning mechanism (see below) determines which needles should be selected (treated in a different way to the rest) and the other thing.
- Buttons, knobs and levers on the carriage determine what happens to the selected (and non-selected) needles by changing their route through the carriage.
Leaving needles ‘out of work’ (no stitches at all on them) or in ‘hold’ position (holding the stitches already knitting but not doing anything with them) increases the options available.
The main patterning mechanisms (methods of needle selection) are listed below from the most basic (early machines) to the more complex (later machines).
Manual patterning: needles are selected by hand, moving them to a different position on the needlebed.
Push Button patterning: buttons are pressed to set which needles will be selected, and a handle is cranked to transfer the selection to the needlebed for every row of pattern on Brother and Toyota machines. Knitmaster machines have the buttons on the carriage, and also require needles to be selected for one repeat of the pattern.
Most machines using this patterning mechanism have 8 buttons, but a few were made with 4 buttons that work in the same way.
Punchcard patterning: needles are selected by the machine according to the pattern punched on a card which is inserted into the card reader. These are usually a 24-stitch horizontal repeat, but some models were 12-stitch or 18-stitch repeats. Fine gauge machines are usually 30-stitch repeat.
A few hybrid machines combined punchcards with push buttons, but these are not commonly available.
Electronic patterning: needles are selected by the machine according to a pattern loaded into the memory of the machine, which can contain up to 700 patterns. The patterns can be up to 200 stitches wide (depending on the model of machine). Patterns can also be flipped, rotated and doubled in length and width. Parts of the pattern can be isolated to create new patterns. Some machines read patterns from mylar sheets or external reader boxes. It is also possible to connect some machines to a computer and input the pattern directly. There may also be a slot for a pattern cartridge which contains additional patterns.
More information is available on the separate Patterncards and punchcards page.
It is very important to be aware that accessories for one model of knitting machine may not be suitable for another (even when the machines are from the same manufacturer).
With the exception of very early machines, ribbers (a separate set of needles that connects at an angle to the main bed of needles, enabling true ribs to be knitted) for most Japanese metal bed machines. With a ribber, it is possible to create various ribs, tuck ribs, racked ribs and double jacquard patterns. The ribber itself has limited patterning capability, with most of the patterning being done on the main bed. It is also possible to knit circular or U pieces by adjusting the controls.
Motors are available for some machines. They are either mounted on a rail above or behind the machine or at the right-hand end of the machine, depending on the type of motor and the machine that it is fixed to. The motor only moves the carriage from side to side. It does not shape the knitting.
Some Japanese machines come with a lace carriage, or they can be purchased separately. Lace carriages work by bending two needles together to transfer a stitch. Brother/Toyota machines work by using a lace carriage to transfer the stitches and the main carriage to knit the rows. Silver Reed/Knitmaster use a separate carriage that transfers the stitches and knits at the same time. Chunky gauge machines do not have lace carriages.
Double bed machines make a form of lace by transferring stitches between the two beds of needles. The Passap transfer attachment can be used to create lace.
Machines without a lace carriage or facility can still be used to create lace by manually manipulating the stitches (hand transfer) before knitting the row.
A garter carriage is only available for some Brother standard-gauge machines. It is a separate electrical device that sits on the machine bed and creates plain and purl stitches as it ‘walks’ along. Some of the common methods for shaping cannot be used, and it is very slow.
Cast off Linker
As the name implies, this is used to cast off the stitches when the piece has been knitted. It can also be used when join pieces of knitting together on the knitting machine. Most only work in one direction.
Used to transfer stitches from the ribber bed to the main bed on Japanese machines. There is a similar for Passap machines, which transfers stitches from one bed to the other.
Some machines have a facility to knit intarsia already built into the carriage, others require a separate carriage. Both enable you to knit multiple colours in a row (such as block knitting or when knitting a picture) by laying the yarn into the hooks by hand. It is much slower than knitting any of the more automatic stitch patterns, and can be fiddly.
Available for most models of machine, the colour changer enables the yarn in the feeder to be changed more easily than doing it by hand (when knitting an automatic stitch pattern, not intarsia).
Garter bars are available for standard and chunky gauge Japanese machines. They enable you to take the whole piece of knitting off the machine onto the bar, turn it around, and put the stitches back into the needle hooks. This enables you to knit garter stitch. Although you wouldn’t want to knit a whole garment like this by turning the knitting every row, an occasional row of purl stitches can really highlight a pattern.