Scary New Toy

Six months ago I bought a knitting machine. I never thought I would want to mechanize my chosen handcraft with a machine that has too many moving parts for my comfort, but I did it for two reasons: I love stockinette but hate knitting it, and I have a yarn stash that is so huge it could fuel my funeral pyre for two weeks assuming my current rate of acquisition and rate of consumption in what remains of my life span.

I bought my machine from a woman I’ll call Mrs. X, a local yarn store owner who used to be a dealer for Brother knitting machines in the 80’s and 90’s, before they stopped making them. Mrs. X knows quite a lot about knitting machines. Just ask her, and she’ll tell you what an expert she is. In fact, don’t ask her, she’ll tell you anyway. She had a standard gauge KH965i and ribber attachment that she was refurbishing, with many fabulous features that intrigued and terrified me. So many moving parts! So many things to program with so many weird counterintuitive symbols! She promised me she would teach me everything I ever wanted to know about this machine, for as long as I needed her to teach me, for a sum that she would build into the total price for the machine. I’m not quite sure why I didn’t ask her what the price of the machine was without the lessons, probably because I got the distinct sense it would be taken as a rude question. Mrs. X is kind of scary. I didn’t know anything about knitting machines or how to judge a good machine and a good price or what I would do if I walked away from this clearly well-functioning machine or this person who knew how it worked and was willing to teach me, so I think I didn’t want to know how much she was padding the price. Mrs. X gave me all her phone numbers and told me to call her any time with any question and not to wait to ask her anything. I decided to trust.

Mrs. X and I loaded the machine into my car trunk and there it stayed for the next 5 weeks. I didn’t know where to put it, I was traveling, I was writing newsletter articles for a local environmental group, I had blog posts to write, I had other projects to finish on a deadline, I was taking care of my granddaughter, I had to wash my hair… whatever, the thing scared the daylights out of me. I couldn’t even look at it directly when I put grocery bags into the trunk. Finally my husband told me I should bring the machine and attachments with us on our annual trip to northern Michigan where the family summer cottage is located. I said, do we have room for it? Won’t it rattle around? Won’t it add a lot of weight? Won’t it get in the way when I set it up? Charles said, do you actually plan to learn to use this thing? So it came with us to northern Michigan.

When we got there, Charles’ cousin Jeff and his wife Marilyn came over to welcome us. I showed them the boxes with the machine, ribber, and accessories, and Marilyn told me she had always wanted to learn how to use a knitting machine, and would love it if I would teach her. I told her I knew nothing and she would end up teaching me. I wasn’t joking. Unlike me, Marilyn isn’t intimidated by machines with lots of moving parts and she understands instructional diagrams and videos. Together we perused the manual and found videos online to show us how to assemble the parts properly, attach them securely to the table on the back porch, thread the yarn through the tension unit, use the cast-on comb, and start knitting. Sometimes we’d get stuck and I’d call Mrs. X. She would answer the phone sounding surprised and annoyed to hear from me, and tell me to call back in 20 minutes, then again in another 20 minutes. When she finally spoke to me, she’d chew me out for looking online for answers. After I texted a photo of what I was asking about, Mrs. X would give me an answer that Marilyn would interpret for me. Thank goodness for Marilyn’s enthusiasm, intrepidness, and logical thinking. If it hadn’t been for Marilyn, I’d still be avoiding eye contact with those boxes in the trunk of my car.

Marilyn, my hero, without whom my knitting machine would still be sitting in the trunk of my car
Marilyn, my hero, without whom my knitting machine would still be sitting in the trunk of my car

When we got home from Michigan, I had to think of a solution to the main reason the machine spent five weeks in the trunk of my car: I didn’t know where I was going to put it. We live in a small, cluttered house that we outgrew when our adult daughters were in preschool, but we stayed put because moving was too much bother. One of the shocks of getting this machine was discovering how unportable it is, how much space it requires, and how persnickety it is about where it sits. My younger daughter helped me out by taking her desk from her childhood bedroom to her apartment, and then I started searching the internet for a table with the measurements Mrs. X told me the machine required: 42″ wide, 29″ height, 17.5″ deep, and the edge of the surface top couldn’t exceed 1.5″, which was the maximum extension of the C-clamps that would hold the machine onto the table. Mrs. X also gave me a recommendation for a table from Wayfair. The $150 price tag was less than other tables made specifically for knitting machines, and it wasn’t easy to find tables with those measurements that weren’t specifically made for knitting machines.

The table from Wayfair came in a flat box containing pieces of particle board, a disassembled metal frame, a bag of plastic pegs and metal screws, and a wordless instruction sheet with diagrams and arrows. My older daughter and I set to work trying to follow the instructions only to find that the pieces didn’t fit together properly. When we tried to turn the partially assembled pieces so that we could attach the other side of the desk, the joint crumbled under that very gentle pressure and the desk was ruined. I didn’t attempt to get a refund from Wayfair because their return policy clearly said that they accepted returns only of unopened packages, and I didn’t have the energy to argue. But I’m here to tell you not to buy particle board desks from Wayfair. The desk is now wherever Baltimore City Public Works takes bulk trash.

Badly designed desk from Wayfair waiting for bulk trash pick-up
Desk from Wayfair made from compressed sawdust and ill-fitting parts awaits its fate at the city dump

My Ravelry friend Rachel, who is one of the moderators of Ravelry’s Machine Knitting group, gave me a link to a thread there dedicated to solutions to table and lighting problems, and I saw how people had attached plywood planks to folding sawhorses to create stable, portable surfaces that were the right dimensions for my machine. I checked out the Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Ace Hardware websites to see the specifications of their sawhorses and consulted with people on the board for recommendations on how to attach the plywood plank to it, since I lack carpentry tools and skills. I got a mind-boggling amount of advice. Then I did something brilliant. I phoned my local, family-owned hardware store to ask them about their sawhorses and how to attach a plank to the top of a sawhorse, and the fellow I talked to told me he could do it for me in 10 minutes while I waited, at no charge. Too simple! Someone on the forum suggested using a pre-finished shelf plank. The local hardware store had some that were 12″ wide, 48″ long, and 1/2″ deep, which weren’t the dimensions Mrs. X recommended but sufficed to accommodate the machine. The nice man at Falkenhan’s Hardware aligned the shelf plank lengthwise along the long edge of the sawhorse and drilled screws into the metal top of the sawhorse into the plank, and voila, a stable and sturdy home for my knitting machine. The total cost was $45. I love my local hardware store!

Sawhorse specifications for knitting machine table
Specifications for the sawhorse I used. Not my feet underneath it.
Knitting machine installed on sawhorse-based table
My sturdy, inexpensive, stable knitting machine table

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now that I had a place to set up my knitting machine, I arranged a couple of instructional sessions with Mrs. X. My time was starting to get very scarce because my daughter and son-in-law were taking me up more and more on my offer to babysit, so I was extremely conscious of the passage of time as I drove the half-hour to Mrs. X’s store and another half hour back, and spent the time I was there sitting around waiting for her to finish taking care of her employees and customers and turn her attention to me, and waiting for her to stop telling me what an expert she was on all things fiber and start teaching me how to use my machine. The final straw was when she started lecturing me about color. Finally I had to interrupt her to say, “I’m going to have to leave soon to take care of my granddaughter, and I do know what I’m doing with color. But I don’t know what I’m doing with my knitting machine, so could you please teach me that?” She said, “Well, all right, but you’re closing the door on some valuable information.” I haven’t been back to see her. At least I’m not writing this from jail.

Mrs. X had told me she was the teacher she wished she’d had, but she wasn’t the teacher I wished I had. It looked like that role was going to fall to me. I turned to Rachel for resources, and she gave me links to videos on basic skills by Diana Sullivan. I started a machine knitting thread on my Ravelry group and people there were kind enough to  offer advice and useful links so that I could practice basic skills in preparation for my first project. My husband mentioned that he could use a new scarf, and that was going to be the first project. He wanted red and had no problem with it being a lot of different reds and colors that would look good with red. I collected 20 colors that I liked together, learned how to do an e-wrap with a tension that the machine would accept, and started knitting, changing colors every three to seven rows. The stripes looked so nice together! And I got lots of opportunities to see how my colors were looking on the right side, because the knitting fell off the machine every several rows. What was I doing wrong?

The machine knitters on my Ravelry group were generous with their advice. They told me to check the way I was threading the yarn through the tension unit and into the yarn feeder, and make sure the yarn feeder gate was closed before I started knitting, and to hold onto the end of the yarn when I added a new color until the new yarn engaged with the knitting. I was patient with myself because I have learned hard things before, and I know that I’m not going to get any new procedure consistently right until I have made the same mistake repeatedly. It has to turn into muscle memory through repetition. So I kept picking my knitting up off the floor, putting it onto a long circular hand knitting needle, repairing the dropped stitches, and transferring each stitch from the circular needle to its corresponding needle on the machine. I was aware that there were more efficient ways to rehang stitches onto the machine, but the tiny standard gauge stitches and the splitty Wollmeise lace yarn put those methods out of reach for me at my present level of skill. Sometimes I’d lose the stitches in the transfer and they would ladder, and I would have to maneuver a way to repair them from the purl side. Or I would split the stitch while I was putting it onto its needle and would have to undo it and re-form the stitch while it was on the machine. This taught me the way the machine moves the yarn through the existing stitch to grow the fabric. I really didn’t mind all these repeated mishaps because each one was an opportunity to analyze what I was doing, identify the error, and work to find a way to correct it or prevent it. I had a sense of progress, even though the scarf wasn’t growing quickly.

And then I got this in my Ravelry mail.

Dear Abby,

I am writing this at the risk of being rude and offending you.

You dream of doing things on the machine that you have done by hand, only quicker and just like magic. This won’t work. I sort of cringe when I read what happens when you try to use your machine, let alone your “descriptions” of what you did, which are no descriptions at all, but leave everyone guessing what you might really have done (or forgot to do).

You are a very talented and gifted hand knitter. But machine knitting is a completely different kind of craft, although the results are often not distinguishable from hand knitting.

As long as you do not take the time to learn the basics of machine knitting (cast on and cast off in different ways; increase and decrease in different ways, knowing by heart how to change threads without everything falling down, getting a feeling of how the machine “feels” when you are doing everything correctly), you will never get to finish even the simplest scarf. The basics also include a sound knowledge of what to do when something went wrong.

I appreciate and admire your creativity, but to be successful with the machine, you really need to practice and learn using it from scratch, even if this includes learning things that today you believe you will never need.
Why don’t you try and find a person in your area who can give you some one-to-one tuition?

If you don’t learn to use your machine properly, I predict that you will sell it soon because it is useless for you. Such a great machine, which can do so many nice things, but useless in the hands of a genius that refuses to learn the basics and handle it properly.

PS: Yes, this will hurt you, but I feel so sorry for your poor knitting machine that I simply had to write it. Hate me, if you want to.

I actually wasn’t offended by this well-intended but mistaken critique. I thought it was sweet of the letter-writer to care so much about my progress and to put so much thought into what I ought to be doing, as I said in my reply. I explained my learning  process and how I was using this scarf as a laboratory for learning the basics, and that mistakes didn’t discourage me. I waited for the letter-writer to reply and say, now I understand what you’re doing, carry on! That reply never came. And then the letter began to release its poison in me. Could it possibly be right, that I was “refusing” to learn the basics? Was I doomed unless I went crawling back to Mrs. X? This obliterated my shaky courage to try and fail and try again and eventually succeed. It made mistakes feel like shameful character flaws. I stayed away from my knitting machine for a month while I struggled with this new fear.

Finally I pulled myself together. I wasn’t going to let this letter turn into a self-predicting curse. I told Rachel what had happened, and she comforted me and reassured me about my learning method. She helped me put together a checklist of what I needed to do before grabbing the carriage and moving it across my knitting:

1. Change knob points to NL.
2. Carriage is on both rails.
3. Tension rod is in the right place and the yarn is at the right tension.
4. Yarn is threaded properly.
5. Yarn cake is on the floor and feeding freely.
6. Sinker plate assembly is aligned properly and fastened securely.
7. Yarn is positioned properly in the yarn feeder and yarn feeder lever is closed.
8. Hold the end of the yarn when knitting the first row of a new color.
9. Make sure to get a couple of inches past the last needle when moving the carriage.

machine-knitting-checklist

So I attached the list to the wall facing the machine and went through the steps every time before knitting a row, and I was able to add more and more inches to Charles’ scarf, almost entirely without further mishaps, until it was the 6-foot length I wanted. In the process, I learned that my problems were mostly due to the the way the yarn was feeding into the machine, because it was caught at the bottom of the cake or the cake got pushed against the wall or some such thing that made the yarn tension tight or inconsistent, so I learned to stop after every row and adjust the flow of the yarn from the cake. I learned to check each row after knitting it to make sure the stitches had been formed properly, and I got good at fixing bad stitches. Accurately threading the yarn through the tension unit turned into muscle memory. There were 51 color changes by the time I finished the scarf, so that provided plenty of opportunity for muscle memory to kick in. I took the completed knitting off the machine– this time on purpose!– and put it on a hand knitting needle for a 3-needle bind-off and did the rest of the finishing by hand. It was so nice I wanted to steal it for myself, but I love the way it looks on my husband. I have one for myself on the machine now.

Machine knit scarf using 20 colorways of Wollmeise lace-garn
The many colors hide the blood, sweat, and tears that produced the scarf

 

Machine knit scarf modeled by its owner
Charles has the style to pull this off

Someone told me that it takes as long to learn to use a knitting machine as it does to learn to drive a car. That seems about right. There are as many operations and processes in operating a knitting machine as there are in a car and as many opportunities for things going wrong. It’s true that you can’t kill yourself or others if you do something wrong with a knitting machine as opposed to a car, but you’ll want to. I am finding it to be an order of magnitude more difficult to learn machine knitting than hand knitting, thanks to all those moving parts and the fact that you have to work in isolation when you machine knit because it’s not portable. It would have been easier and quicker if I had had a good in-person teacher, and if I had started with a simpler machine using thicker and less splitty yarn, and if I had had a lot of time at the beginning to dedicate to working through the basics. But I have the yarn that I have and I need to use it, and this is the machine that I have, and I didn’t have my perfect teacher, and I had other priorities besides learning machine knitting skills, so this is where I am. I worked hard to get where I am, and the vast universe of what I still don’t know can wait a little while longer until I’m ready to get to it.

 

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23 thoughts on “Scary New Toy

  1. You have made a beautiful scarf! And now you know enough of the basics to help someone else learn to use a machine with kindness and understanding.

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  2. Wonderful scarf, wonderful explanation of how you got there. You write the way you knit, with attention to detail and a bright enthusiasm for the way words sound and feel. I appreciate your gentle but telling depiction of Mrs. X. I’d like to have a few choice words with her myself, but you’ve done a great job of identifying her without having to name her. You are certainly not the only person who has run across this self-involved, self-promoting soul. I recognize her type, and have run into a few “Mrs, X” in the bead world. And the person who wrote you the “helpful” letter–you are being generous, but she may have actually done you a favor by bringing all your fears about your process of learning to the surface. Writing that list of check points was such a good idea that I’m going to borrow it for the beading projects I’m working on. Now, about the scarf: It glows and vibrates with color. It doesn’t look like the battleground on which you fought and persevered in your endeavor to conquer the knitting machine. It looks fabulous on Charles. He looks like a New Wave French novelist in it. I predict that 2017 is going to be the year that you make serious inroads on your yarn stash. It will be such a relief when you actually do reduce the stash to manageable levels: we, your loving family, won’t have to build a burial pile fueled with expensive and beautiful yarn. Now, if I could only find a machine that would help me with my own stash–a bead embroidery machine, if you will.

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    1. Wow, Nancy, thank you so much for that! Especially for the prediction that 2017 will be the year of the Great Stashdown! That beats the heck out of my own grim predictions for 2017! I’m really hoping that I start getting comfortable with my machine so that I start vomiting out knitted works for everyone and you all start dreading seeing me because I’ve overloaded you with sweaters.

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  3. Abby,I have really enjoyed reading about your early experiences with your knitting machine, both in your blog post and on your forum. Yes, machine knitting is completely different to hand knitting, but you will soon become proficient now that you have mastered the basics – and all without the dreaded Mrs X!
    Your two scarves are projects of beauty. I can’t wait to see what you make next.

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  4. Good mornings Abby. I read your blog and am impressed with your commitment to the task. Who knew it would be so complicated? Great job on Charle’s scarf and the one you are working on now. Happy New Year!

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  5. Hi! Discovered you through Miss Celie’s Pants who found you through Ravelry. There are some of us machine knitters hidden around Baltimore—and, of course, I know Mrs. X. Feel free to ask questions—-I love helping people. There is a Facebook group, too, that is very helpful. Want to join us?

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      1. Will do! I’m Lucindamaria on Ravelry, but I’m not very active….yet. I was always afraid of all the hand knitters. They can be unkind to machine knitters. 🙂

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  6. I love the way Charles’ fabulous scarf coordinates with the Bill Graham exhibit sign. I’d love it without the sign, too. This was a very entertaining post, and I enjoyed it a great deal.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. By the way, I meant to tell you that the Craftsy course on Machine Knitting Essentials is excellent! Well worth your time and money. I watched it and learned so much, even though I’ve been producing garments on a knitting machine since 2001.

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