History of machine knitting

The history of machine knitting begins in 1589, in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, long before the steam-powered industrial revolution got underway. The knitting frames devised by William Lee were used in workers’ homes, and they were very much a means of earning a living – not a hobby.

In common with many other income-generating crafts, the switch to machine knitting as a leisure activity was a much later change. As more and more garments were mass-produced, and the relative cost of these decreased, producing large quantities of a garment as cheaply as possible stopped being the objective. There was no way to be competitive on purely financial terms.

Instead, machine knitters’ attention (as with hand-knitters and those who crochet) switched to the production of very individual bespoke garments. Making something special, whether for sale, as a gift to a family member or friend, or just for yourself, became much more important. This isn’t to say that a popular design wasn’t knitted many times, but that was more of a side-effect than the main purpose (unless you were a knitwear designer using a domestic knitting machine to design garments for mass production, of course).

A lot of the early manufacturers of knitting machines disappeared, sometimes because they were incorporated into the larger manufacturers but sometimes also because they did not continue to develop their range of machines in the way that the remaining companies did. 

Most of the machines in use today – in homes up and down the country and around the world – were manufactured in the late 1970s onwards. And there is at least one manufacturer still making them today!

To find out more (these links open in new tabs):

The Guild of Machine Knitters

The Guild of Machine Knitters (GMK) was launched on 5th March 1998 following research and efforts by Frank Dineen (see the more detailed history, below). As is the case with the Knitting & Crochet Guild, the GMK was run on an entirely voluntary basis by machine knitters for machine knitters and all those interested in the craft.

The aims of the GMK were to:

  • Increase awareness of machine knitting as a craft.
  • Organize exhibitions by knitters for all those interested in the craft.
  • Encourage. and maintain a high standard of craftsmanship.
  • Encourage a sense of awareness of texture, colour, design and fitness for purpose.
  • Foster these aims for individual knitters by the award of certificates of quality of work through our annual challenge
  • Organize Guild Days and Workshops
  • Liaise with manufacturers and suppliers to ensure that we all work together for the greater good of the craft
  • Foster links between UK clubs and groups overseas
  • Ensure greater media awareness

By doing all of these things and more, it was hoped to strengthen bonds between clubs, groups, individual knitters, manufacturers and suppliers, thus ensuring that the craft continued into the future strong and in good heart. It was also important to gain the recognition that machine knitting is a genuine craft in its own right from the media and the general public.

The Knitting & Crochet Guild (KCG) always included machine knitters amongst its members, but the merger did swell the numbers considerably. Since the merger, the number of machine-knitting related articles in Slipknot has increased, machine knitting has featured at the annual Convention and a new online publication specifically for machine knitters has been launched.

A history of the Guild of Machine Knitters

[The information in this section is from the Guild of Machine Knitters website, and was written by Eileen Polkinghorne in January 2012. For this reason, it talks as if the GMK is still in existence.]

How did the Guild come into being?

1996Frank Dineen starts researching whether there is support for a Guild for machine knitters.
5 March 1998The official launch of the Guild of Machine Knitters.
May 1998First Newsletter published. Membership reaches 100.
March 1999First Guild Day and AGM.
April 1999Membership reaches 570.
August 2001First competition announced. Winners announced March 2002.
October 2001Website goes live.
April 2006The Guild of Machine Knitters becomes a company limited by guarantee.
May 2008Membership reaches 700.
March 2010Yahoo Group started. Membership reaches 1000 for the first time.
May 2010A new look for the Guild, with a new logo.
April 2011Updated website goes live.
2014Launch of Beyond the Gate Pegs (our online journal).
2016Redesign of the Newsletter.
May 2019Lack of volunteers meant we could no longer continue. We merged with the Knitting & Crochet Guild.

The idea of a Guild for machine knitters was the brainchild of Frank Dineen. Frank was interested in fabrics and was surprised that there had never been a guild for machine knitters. Frank wrote articles for Machine Knitting Monthly and expressed his surprise in one of his articles. His comments attracted interest from people who were involved in the craft and confirmed to him that there was a need for such an organisation.

With Anne Smith’s support, he was able to use his column in Machine Knitting Monthly magazine to advertise The Guild. In the beginning Frank and his wife Janet made contact with interested parties at a knitting show in Chepstow. It was not planned that way, but they started attracting membership before the official launch at a similar show in Bournemouth in 1997. He then set about recruiting like-minded people who were prepared to work towards shaping his ideas into an organisation. Almost a year later, he had got his team in place, with more and more knitters signing up for membership.

The first newsletter was published in May 1998. It contained 20 pages of articles together with the aims and objectives of The Guild, advice on buying second hand machines, and introduced the members to the names of the committee. This proved a valuable pointer to the seriousness of the venture. From those early days, the newsletter has moved from black and white print to a modern colour production.

Since its formation, some of the early committee positions have changed or disappeared as the Guild adapts to different needs. However, the aims and objectives remain the same. What also remains the same is that whenever children see knitting machines at knitting shows, you can guarantee that they want to ‘have a go’ and are almost always very pleased at being able to produce a scarf or a piece of knitting so quickly.

Other services have come on stream because The Guild realised that there was a need (for example, the Help Line and the Buddy System). Knowing that there is someone at the end of a telephone or a computer who will try to solve a knitter’s problems is a tremendous advantage to our members. Putting knitters in touch with others who are able to offer help and advice particularly when one is unfamiliar with a knitting machine has also proved very successful.

The first AGM, or Guild Day as we preferred to call it, was held in Lincoln on 20 March 1999. That Guild Day set the pattern for all subsequent AGMs. On this first occasion, the day started with the need to confirm the committee who had been doing the background work for about fifteen months. Early on, it was decided that the day of the AGM should consist of starting with the business then devoting the rest of the day to the pleasures of our craft. A tremendous amount of effort went into publicising ourselves by a presence at as many knitting shows as was possible which, over the years, has certainly paid off in recruiting members. The Guild now attends over 20 knitting and mixed crafts shows and exhibitions each year.

The Creativity Cup Competition, sponsored by Sylvia Wynn of Forge Craft Creations, was introduced the following year at the Guild Day held at Stansted Mountfitchet, near Bishop’s Stortford. Sylvia had recently returned from a trip to New Zealand where she had been extremely impressed by the nationwide knitting competition held by the New Zealanders. She felt that by having our own competition it would both encourage and allow members to see what a diverse craft machine knitting can be. It brought to members’ notice ideas and creations that frequently attracted comment and admiration. It has spurred on members to ‘have a go’ and let their imagination run riot. The standard of work has continued to grow. Whilst the rules Sylvia laid down for the award of the Creativity Cup remain essentially the same, The Guild has developed other categories and awards in order that members of all abilities feel able to join in with the competition.

Just as the Newsletter has progressed to include colour, so the Guild has moved forward, keeping abreast of the times by the introduction of its online Yahoo Group and its comprehensive website. These days as shops selling knitting machines have almost become extinct, the knowledge that one can go on-line to find the telephone number of an engineer or where to find suppliers is such a useful tool.

The Guild was the brainchild of Frank Dineen but he is the first person to say “those who started with it never got enough credit for their efforts”. Names have deliberately been left out rather than offend someone by inadvertently missing them out. They know who they are. They also know how grateful Frank and Janet were for the work and support from everyone involved. If that is not enough they only have to look at the strength of The Guild today to know that all their efforts were not in vain.