Punchcards and patterncards

Machine knitting is one of the disciplines included in the Knitting & Crochet Guild 'umbrella'. Those without experience of machine knitting may assume that the machine does it all by itself but nothing could be further from the truth! Although a machine is used, this is just the creative tool, like the hook for crochet or needles in hand knitting. In all the disciplines it is the person using the tool who decides on design, patterns and methods. Even in machine knitting shaping and special stitches are often done manually to achieve the exact quality and finish needed for the project.

Punchcards were first invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1798 for his weaving looms. They evolved over the years and were adapted for use on the domestic knitting machine. The punchcard selects the needles to create the pattern (just like the idea with the Jacquard loom used in weaving). The number of stitches controlled by the patterning system has increased over the years with standard pattern sizes of 8,12 and then in 1971 to 24 stitches which became the most popular stitch pattern width for some years.

24 stitch punchcard patterns can be broken down to pattern widths of 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 and 12 stitches increasing the design possibilities. The discipline of 24 stitches would seem to be restrictive but in fact if it is looked on as a challenge to the knitter's creativity the number of patterns which can be created is infinite.

Unlike the charts for hand knitting, a punchcard does not always represent the pattern which will be knitted. This is because the punchcards shows the needles to be worked but the knitter can use additional features of the machine to add texture or complexity in the stitch.The exceptions to this are the Fair Isle and thread lace patterns. The Fair Isle setting on the machine allows two colours in a row to be knitted with one yarn in the back feeder and the other in the front feeder. The thread lace setting using a fine yarn in one feeder and a thicker one in the other reproduces an attractive lace pattern which copies the punchcard but with much smaller floats than those in the fairisle fabric. The simple geometric type cards (every alternate needle on alternating rows and blocks of punching) can, by using the different machine settings, create surface patterns which bear no relationship to the original punchcard.

The term Patterncard has been used to distinguish the single pattern repeat grids (of the proportional grids on the electronic machines) from a punchcard (which needs sufficient length to be able to wrap around and join if you want to knit continuously in the pattern).

In the 1980s electronic knitting machines were introduced. Initially the patterning system used Mylar sheets with a 60 stitch wide pattern facility. The patterns were marked on the sheets with a special pen in the proportional grids. It was no longer necessary to fill in the complete sheet. One pattern repeat was all that was needed to knit the pattern. The machine could then be programmed to knit the pattern across the width of the needlebed if required. A pattern could be any width the knitter wanted within the 60 stitch discipline. However, with the variation keys to double the width and length of a pattern or use the negative key, it was possible to control the whole of the 200 stitches on the needlebed.

In the 1990s models were introduced which had 555 built in patterns. The Mylar sheets were discontinued. The ability to control the whole needlebed created many more design possibilities. It is possible to pick out any section of a patterncard and use it as a repeat pattern. As with a punchcard not all the designs shown on a patterncard will produce a recognisable design unless the knitter has the knowledge and understanding to control the machine.