A Feral Machine Knitter Meets Civilization. And Dyes

When I first started to get serious about learning how to use my knitting machine two and a half years ago, I decided that I was better off learning from videos and trial and error than I was from live people, after a number of scarring interactions with machine knitters who started off wanting to help me and ended up wanting to kill me. The exception to my no-live-humans rule has been Rachel Brooks, a UK machine knitter whose amazing swatches induced me to start machine-knitting and whose kindness, patience, and good advice encouraged me to keep going. For the most part I have been working in isolation. While I was learning the basics, I could make my mistakes in privacy as many times as I needed to without feeling rushed or self-conscious. It would have been nice to have someone who could tell me what I was doing wrong, but figuring it out for myself enabled me to work out corrections that I could apply to my own way of doing things and incorporate the correction into my sequence of actions as muscle memory.

Rachel has been organizing weekend get-togethers for British machine knitters at the social hall in her village of Fladbury every four months for the last year, and she invited me to join them for the most recent one. That was an exciting invitation, but I was a little apprehensive because my early bad experiences with machine knitters who I had asked for help had left me with the suspicion that I’m just a little too weird for machine knitters to accept. Rachel assured me that I’m not actually all that weird and everyone would be kind to me anyway, and I trusted her because she has never steered me wrong. So I arranged a week’s visit to the UK, with a Friday evening to Monday morning stay at Rachel’s house, sandwiched between visits with my knitting friends Gwen and Liz, Gwen before the weekend and Liz after.

I prepared for my visits by busying myself at the knitting machine, making hats for my hosts according to the formula I had worked out during my January 2019 Swatchathon. I have done plant dyeing with Gwen and Liz during previous visits, so I made their hats using yarn I dyed using plant materials mostly foraged within two miles of my house, with the exception of the lining and the welts, which are commercially dyed Wollmeise colors. I think I used at least 30 different hues and shades of plant-dyed yarn per hat, from such materials as onion skins, avocado stones and skins, amaranth, marigold, yarrow, black bean, black rice, fermented hibiscus, walnut leaves and hulls, and random finds of plants whose names I have forgotten. I made 4-row stripes for the body of the hat and hid the ends inside the lining, but the ends of the 2-row stripes in the triangles of the crowns became a design feature after I seamed them together on the knitting machine. I made the seams on the inside, then pulled the ends through the seams and braided them to make a dangly fringe decorating the seams.

Machine-knit hat made from plant-dyed yarn


Top view of machine-knit hat made of plant-dyed yarn

For Rachel’s hat, since she is my machine knitting mentor, I used my most recently achieved skill, which was knitting a preprogrammed “fairisle” pattern. I made a prototype hat using a color scheme I had seen in one of those optic nerve images I get when I close my eyes at bedtime. It was a deep leaf green, a saturated green-blue, and a red-brown like coagulated blood, and the design of the preprogrammed pattern was a pop art swirl. Structurally, it came out well, despite a dropped stitch that I repaired afterward without leaving a trace. However, there was room for improvement. It fit tightly because the tension I chosen, 6 for the lining and 6.1 for the patterning, wasn’t quite right, and I had failed to allocate an extra stitch at either end of the body for the seam, so the seam was loose and sloppy and needed to be redone by hand using mattress stitch. Also I thought that dividing the crown into four quarters didn’t look as good for this design as it did for the striped hats because the points flopped around a bit, especially after I put a tiny pompom on top. But once I did the finishing, it looked fine, although it fit a little snugly, and it would be a good thing to show to Rachel for before-and-after comparison, since I applied all the lessons-learned to Rachel’s hat.

Rachel looks good in quiet purples, so I selected a couple of shades of heathery purples contrasting against the same red-brown I used for the prototype hat, and a pattern with swirls and dots for her hat. The pattern has a different stitch count than the pattern for the prototype, but I couldn’t get the numbers for full pattern repeats to give me the circumference I needed, so I used enough needles for the circumference and let the additional stitches be partial repeats at the seam edge. This time I used a 6.1 tension for the lining and 7.1 for the patterning. I didn’t have the weights quite right at first and had to repair some pattern stitches that didn’t knit properly, and the stitch at the right edge jumped off the needle and had to be recaptured, but I corrected my weighting and knitted slowly and carefully with lots of trouble-shooting after every row, and the rest of the patterning went without a hitch.

Rachel’s hat gave me a lot of satisfaction. The seaming concealed the several rows of imperfectly rescued stitches at the edge. There’s a tiny disruption in the pattern where I had to fix the stitches that didn’t knit properly, but most people would have to know it’s there and really want to locate the mistake in order to see it. I gave this hat a flat crown by dividing the stitches into five segments instead of four for the seamed triangles. I also did three rows instead of five for the decorative seaming on the crown, which produced an attractive 5-pointed star when viewed from above. The result was pretty close to perfect. It was the culmination of my current skill set and I wanted Rachel to have it, even if she never wore it, because it represented the progress I’ve made as her protege.

Machine-knit hats knit in Stitch World preprogrammed fairisle patterns

The hats seem to have been successful hostess gifts. The prototype fairisle hat looked unexpectedly fantastic on Rachel’s husband Mark, and I was thrilled that it had found such a good home.

Gwen and me, hat twins
Modeled machine-knit hats using preprogrammed fairisle patterns
Rachel and Mark posing as Mr. and Mrs. Hats
Seamed crowns of patterned machine-knit hats
Bowing to the inevitable? I wanted to show off the crowns of the hats
Liz and me in the obligatory hat twins photo
Ornamental braiding on machine-knit hats made of plant-dyed yarn
Braided yarn ends on a walk in Epping Forest

In her planning for the events of the weekend, Rachel had asked us about topics we wanted to learn about and topics we could give presentations about. I have a garter bar that had never made it out of the box, and I would like to have some non-curling edges in my bag of tricks, and new ways to use my machine for stranded knitting now that I know how to poke some numbers into my knitting machine and get cool patterning. So those were the topics I asked to learn about. As for what I might be ready to talk about, I don’t have any technical skills beyond the rock bottom basic, but I could talk about what I do with the little I know.

Rachel scheduled me to speak as an immediate follow-on to a talk by a retired professor of machine knitting, Allison Lee, on how to use a swatch to design a well-fitting garment. She demonstrated how to get accurate numbers in half a second by the use of a “magic ruler” calibrated with stitches-per-inch and rows-per-inch instead of inches and centimeters. I was so thrilled with the idea of this little device that she handed it over to me to keep. Allison went on to explain the math required to knit a sweater selected by randomly opening a knitting magazine based on the gauge of a swatch she had knitted and plugging them into a formula. I was and still am unfamiliar with the terms she used, but I think it’s pretty much the method I use to plan garments in machine and hand knitting. As Rachel had intended, Allison’s talk was a very good introduction to my remarks about my design process.

Allison, brandishing swatch and that fabulous magic ruler. She became one of my two machine-knitting mommies

I can’t remember exactly what I said, so I’ll gist and maybe say here what I wish I had said there. First of all, I’m the last person I would have expected to become a machine knitter, since I am a hand knitter to my bones, and hand-knitting is my native language whereas machine knitting will always be a learned language. But Rachel convinced me that I needed to get and learn to use a knitting machine, and she was right. I love my knitting machine and machine knitting. Learning the basics was a trial of my patience and perseverance in the absence of helpful experienced teachers, but it was also liberating, because it enabled me to learn what I needed to know in order to make what I wanted without having to deal with other people’s ideas of what I should know in order to make what they thought I should make. Since I had bought my knitting machine because I love stockinette stripes but don’t love hand knitting them, learning how to change colors frequently was the first thing I set out to learn, which meant figuring out the hard way why my work was constantly falling off the machine. As an example, I handed around the second item I had made on my machine, a striped scarf whose many, many ends I had braided in a decorative fringe.

Striped machine-knit scarf with braided ends and pompoms

In fact, the hats I made as hostess gifts were good examples of my favorite design tropes: stripes, fringes, and seams knitted together on the outside of the garment as a design element. While I am learning a skill, I look for ways to use its characteristics, especially the characteristics that people usually go to pains to hide, as design features. The pointy, dangly edges of the multi-colored paneled dress I made recently exploits the fact that what I know how to do on the knitting machine is to make stockinette fabric. Stockinette curls. So I used the curling characteristic of the stockinette I know how to do to make the jagged, pointy edging. I know how to hang the edges of fabric against each other on the machine and bind them together by knitting stockinette rows on top of those edges. I did that in bright red and knitted enough at the joins to get a curling fabric that boldly delineated all the lines of that dress.

Finished machine-knit dress modeled seated

And the reaction of the machine knitters? Well, it’s a little awkward for me to describe it. I think I’m clever; they seemed to think I’m a bloody genius. My dress got handed around, every inch inspected and fingered by knowledgeable eyes and experienced hands. Every set of hands plunged into its pockets, which I admit I’m ridiculously proud of. It’s true that I’ve never seen a dress like mine, given that I live under a rock when it comes to machine knitting, but neither had they, and they do not live under rocks. Apparently what I do is unusual.

Detail of side seam pocket
Here’s the pocket in all its finished glory. Well worth the many travails!
Inside-out view of machine-knit dress at finishing phase
An inside look at the finishing situation

I was wearing the dropped-shoulder pullover I made last fall that used short-rows to turn the colors of my plant-dyed yarn into striped wedges. I myself got passed around as everyone examined the intervals of the short rows and the accurate match of the stripes at the seams. Allison asked me how I had figured the math, which she said was very advanced. I replied, it was logical when I drew zigzag lines on the back of an envelope and counted to twenty.

Modeling a machine-knit pullover made of plant-dyed yarn knitted in short-row wedges
I’m congratulating myself on my cleverness for so perfectly aligning the wedges at the seams

Allison and the other retired knitting machine instructor, Barbara (who got her first knitting machine when I was one year old), both asked if they could adopt me, which sounded just fine to me. I talked about my recent forays into using the electronics of my machine, after having waited for two and a half years before even plugging it in and turning it on, and I was thrilled that everything worked as it should. But I have no regrets about waiting so long, while I was building muscle memory about the basic workings and operations of machine knitting and making interesting things with what I knew. Barbara said she wished that more machine knitters would use my approach of practicing new techniques until they mastered them and finding ways to use them, before getting overwhelmed with new information that they aren’t ready to absorb. I told them about the early detractor who asked me why I bothered even trying to learn when it was all so hard for me, and I told her that I would eventually learn and would use my skills in ways that other people don’t think of. My detractor’s response was a derisive sniff. My new friends’ response to that was gratifying.

Barbara, my other machine-knitting mommy

So I spent the rest of the weekend shuttling between Allison and Barbara. Allison showed me many different ways to give finished edges to stockinette fabric, and she let me keep the little swatches she made so I could refer to them later as memory aids. I do have a question for Allison. She showed me a hemmed edge that used waste yarn and ravel cord, then she knitted three rows in the main yarn and folded up the edge next to the waste yarn, just above the ravel cord, and knitted it together with the main yarn using a thin thread in a different color, and it doesn’t show on the stockinette side. How did that happen? Allison, please explain in the comments! Or on Facebook if that’s easier for you, and I’ll put your answer into the comments.

Barbara gave me an intensive lesson in the use of the garter bar. First she demonstrated, then she sat me down at the machine and guided me through the process. I remembered how the woman who sold me my machine, at an inflated price in exchange for lessons that taught me little, had boasted to me, “I’m the teacher I wish I had had.” Finally I had found the teacher I wished I had had. For a couple of iterations of the process, Barbara prompted me, without moving me aside and doing anything for me, to do each of the many steps that needed to be done in a precise sequence:

  1. pull the needles out into hold;
  2. position the stitches behind the hooks but not up against the gate pegs;
  3. put the needle stabilizer in place;
  4. engage the hold lever on the machine;
  5. turn the garter bar so that the grooves face upward;
  6. open the hooks of the needles;
  7. fit the garter bar over the needles and slip the needles through the eyes;
  8. hold the garter bar parallel to the floor and pull the knitting onto the prongs of the garter bar starting on one side and ending on the other;
  9. put the machine into hold and move the carriage to the other side;
  10. turn the bar and the knitting so that the knit side faces;
  11. place the bar against the the needles so that the needles are in the grooves;
  12. turn the top of the bar toward the machine and catch the needles into the stitches;
  13. pull the bar vertical and toward you and make sure the stitches caught cleanly and are all on the needles;
  14. remove the bar from the stitches by pulling it downward from one end, at an angle facing away from the machine;
  15. take the machine out of hold, rethread the yarn in the feeder, and resume knitting.

That’s a lot of steps. I’m not great at remembering a lot of steps. After Barbara had walked me through this procedure with verbal prompts at each step, she went silent and sat next to me as I tried to think my way through the process in order to do it for myself. Every time I was about to do something, I would look over at her for visual cues: a nod, a frown, a finger pointed at the relevant place, the tilt of a transfer tool indicating how the garter bar should be positioned. We went through this pantomime a few times, then she moved a little further away where she couldn’t see my every move, and I called her over when I got stuck. When I stopped getting stuck, she got up and walked around the room to see what other people were doing and left me to build muscle memory. This is the way I want to be taught. I came back the next day and practiced some more without needing so much supervision. Now I’m at home and practicing on my own machine with my own yarn and garter bar and am trying to habituate myself to the very different feel of my stuff from Barbara’s stuff. I’ll get it eventually, I always do, but I’ll get it faster because Barbara is the machine knitting teacher of my dreams.

Barbara demonstrating the steps for using a garter bar to turn machine knitting to its reverse side, without using the stitch stabilizer because she’s so good she doesn’t need it:

Knitting machine needles in hold position
Step 1. Pull needles into hold
Garter bar grooves facing upward before transferring stitches
Step 5, Barbara emphasizing that the grooves of the garter stitch have to face upward when the stitches are being transferred from the needles to the garter bar
Transferring machine knitting from needles to garter bar
Step 8, the eyes of the garter bar have been slipped into the needle hooks and the garter bar has been pulled out parallel to the floor, and now the knitting is being pulled from the needles to the prongs of the garter bar.
Machine knitting carriage being moved to opposite side
Step 9, the hold lever is engaged on the machine and the carriage is being moved to the other side so that it’s in the right place to resume knitting when the stitches are flipped
Garter bar grooves
Step 10, after the work is flipped, the needles will fit into the grooves of the garter bar and hook into the stitches. Knit side faces.
Needles are hooking into stitches on garter bar
Steps 11 and 12, with needles in the grooves of the garter bar, garter bar is turned toward the machine so that the needles hook into the stitches. That is really tricky to do cleanly.

I also sat down with a young woman named Irina, who likes fixing knitting machines even more than she likes knitting with them. She had brought a Brother electronic machine, not the same model as mine but similar to it in all the relevant ways, and she demonstrated how I would connect the img2track program to my machine so that it will knit patterns that are not preprogrammed in its memory. She showed me the cable she had built from parts (nope, when I get one, it will be ready-made) to connect her laptop to the knitting machine and the procedure for calling up pattern files in the laptop and programming them into the knitting machine.

Cable connection for IMG2Track with Brother knitting machine
img2track is loaded onto the laptop and connected to the knitting machine with a special cable
Programming IMG2Track pattern into knitting machine
Irina is showing me how to program a chart from img2track into the knitting machine. It took her seconds. Maybe someday I’ll be ready to do that too

A couple of minutes later, Irina presented me with a freshly knitted swatch in the penguin design she was demonstrating to me. So this is a whole new world to consider. First, I need a laptop. Irina says I can get a used Dell cheap, but all of my other equipment is Apple and I don’t have the tech savvy to make my current devices talk to Microsoft. Do they actually need to talk to each other? On the other hand, I really could use a Mac Air or some other small Apple laptop because I travel pretty frequently and my phone isn’t great for everything I want to do when I’m away from my lovely big desktop. I wish I could have packed Irina in my carry-on (might get a bit squishy with Barbara already squeezed in there) to help me with all the tech issues!

The weekend was a resounding success. After clearing and cleaning the social hall, Rachel and I loaded the equipment, the leftover food, and her dishes into her car, and brought everything back to her house. We unloaded the car, and I went upstairs to get my coat and scarf out of the way, and somehow I found myself an hour later waking up from a nap. Rachel was still coming down from an adrenaline high that she richly deserved, after not only organizing this event but also feeding 17 participants two lunches, one sit-down dinner, and snacks and tea throughout two days, self-catered, including eggs from her kitchen and greens from her garden. She was hosting me at her house from Friday evening to Monday morning, and watching her in action was a thing of beauty. She picked me up at the Evesham train station at 5:30 Friday evening, and we stopped at Tesco to buy the things on her list that she hadn’t personally grown. It seemed to my inexpert mind that she was buying too little and had too little time to prepare so much, but she knew what she was doing. I tried to be as helpful as I could be, and among her managerial skills is the ability to give instructions to assistants. Not that she really needed me. The lady knows her logistics. I’m not an entrepreneur and I’m in no position to advise prospective entrepreneurs, but speaking as a one-person focus group, I think there’s lots of room for this idea of Rachel’s to turn into something bigger, maybe a whole new career.

Next stop, final stop: London, for a session of dyeing with Liz Baltesz, who has been one of the subjects of my posts Knitting Tourism: Cotswolds 2018 and The Witches of Warwickshire. I have been thinking hard about adding madder to my plant dyeing repertoire and making it an exception to my no-purchased-dye-plants rule, after Liz, Gwen, and I dyed with it last year at Gwen’s house. When Liz and I were planning this visit, I asked her if we could do another session of madder dyeing, and she agreed because she’s really nice and also because she had an experiment in mind. Our madder dyeing with Gwen used ground madder, which produced very intense rust-reds but also left a gritty residue that never seemed to completely rinse away. This time, Liz prepared chopped madder root, which required more preparation in advance, but resulted in grit-free yarn at the end. Liz poured boiling water over the chopped roots and left them to soak for four or five days, and the soaking water was added to the dye bath.

The experiment Liz wanted to carry out was to use the mordants and modifiers detailed in Jenny Dean’s Wild Color to produce 25 colors from a single dye bath, using 25 10-gram hanks of natural white Shetland yarn. I was not part of this experiment, because I was using superwash Wollmeise Lace-garn in larger weights and fewer hanks, but Liz had invited Susan, an American living in London and one of my Ravelry friends who I had never previously met, to join her in carrying out the process she was planning.

In the interests of accuracy, I am quoting Liz’s description of what we did:

Here are the details of the 25 shades experiment.

In Jenny Dean’s book, Wild Colour, she describes an experiment to get 25 shades from one dye bath, by using 4 different mordants and 4 modifiers. We used chopped madder roots from Wild Colours, (100% WODG).

We split 250g of Jamieson and Smith’s Shetland Supreme into 25 10g skeins. 5 had no mordant, 5 were mordanted with Alum and COT (10% and 8%), 5 with copper, 5 with iron, 5 with tannin extracted from crushed oak galls. We tied together the 5 skeins for each mordant type.

For the bath, we added 3% chalk, 10% Glauber salts, 10% bran tied in a bag. We followed the method used by Andie Luijk [owner and dyer at Renaissance Dyeing] and described in detail in my project Madder and madder!. This took about 3 hours.

The dyed skeins from each mordant group were split into 5 new bundles – dye only, acid modifier, alkaline modifier, copper modifier, iron modifier. For the acid modifier, we used citric acid to get PH4 and simmered for 15 minutes. The alkaline modifier was soda crystals to get PH8. The copper was half teaspoon in water, simmered for 15 minutes. The iron modifier was left over mordant, with an extra pinch, simmered for about 5 minutes.

I then did an exhaust bath on the following day, with grey and white, alum mordanted yarn. The yarn was put into the cool exhaust and left overnight before doing the bath. I was surprised by the good colours from a cold overnight soak. The bath took about 90 minutes at 65c. I used acid, alkaline and copper modifiers on some skeins. I also did a second extraction from the madder roots and used this for a new bath, with 2 new skeins and 4 from the exhaust bath. I am planning to do a really long bath with this to get really deep colours.

Liz referred above to Andie Luijk’s method for dyeing with chopped madder roots. In Liz’s words, this is what we did:

The roots were tied into a muslin bag and soaked for 2 days, before creating the dye bath. 3% chalk, 10% Glauber Salts, 10% bran (tied in a bag) were added. The bran absorbs the brown pigments. I squeezed the bag of madder roots for 5 minutes, then left for 15 minutes. I added the yarn and soaked it for 15 minutes, before raising the temperature to 50 degrees for 15 minutes. Then I removed the yarn and returned the bags to the bath, massaging for 5 minutes and leaving for 15 minutes, before removing the bags. I repeated this process until I got the desired colour. Some skeins were then left to soak as the bath cooled.

yarn prepared for dyeing with various mordants
The yarn before dyeing, mordanted with oak gall, copper, iron, alum, and some unmordanted
Soaked chopped madder root
Soaked, chopped madder root
madder root in muslin bag
Susan stitching a muslin bag together with the madder root inside, to contain the dye material and make it easier to handle during the dyeing process
Working with madder dye vats
Susan and Liz gauging the temperature of their dye baths and stirring the yarn
25 colors from one madder dye bath
These are the colors Liz and Susan got from their 25 shades experiment
Madder dye on superwash yarn
These were my results

My results were different from Liz’s and Sue’s because the superwash yarn I was using takes dye differently than yarn in a more natural state like Shetland yarn. One very notable difference is in the way that my yarn, when pre-mordanted in iron and dyed in madder, turned a rich, deep brown rather than the brownish-purple Liz got from treating Shetland yarn the same way.

The three of us spent a long, exciting day in Liz’s kitchen, repeating the steps of massaging the bags of madder in the dye bath, then adding the yarn to the bath and monitoring the temperature for a while, then removing the yarn and repeating the process, over and over. We started around 11 in the morning and called it a day after 7 p.m. It was fun to do with Liz and Susan, but this method isn’t practical in my cramped and cluttered kitchen. We talked about how to use ground madder, which seemed to produce stronger reds when we used it at Gwen’s house, but tweaking the method to avoid the powdery residue on the yarn that was so hard to rinse away. This is Liz’s recommendation:

If using ground madder, I suggest steeping in boiling water overnight. Then simmer for an hour or so, keeping temperature between 60 and 70c. I would let this cool before straining through a paper coffee filter. Don’t strain it before simmering! The strained liquid then goes into the dye bath. Madder has lots of colour potential, so I would do a second extraction with the contents of the coffer filter, paper included.

So much new information! So many ways to apply it! So little mental infrastructure in my poor little head to absorb it! I’m back at home, playing with my knitting machine and looking at my madder hanks, next to my cochineal hanks from last year, next to black bean and avocado dyeing I did last fall, and thinking, how do I put this all together? Liz and Rachel both have strong impulses to reach out to people who are interested in their crafts and they have the organizational and managerial skills to make an enterprise of their areas of interest. I am honored to be friends with them both and to use the knowledge they have so generously shared with me as the magpie I am, taking this and that from the experience, to produce things I haven’t thought of yet.

4 thoughts on “A Feral Machine Knitter Meets Civilization. And Dyes

  1. Hi Abby!! The tiny rouleau hem (or any turned up hem) is done by casting on with a waste yarn, knitting one final row with your nylon or smooth cord.
    Then, thread up a very fine yarn – I use a matching polyester thread – and knit a row*.
    Change to your main yarn and knit twice the depth of hem required.
    To fold up your hem, pick up the row of thread stitches* and hang onto corresponding needles.
    Joining row slightly larger than your main tension, then continue at main tension.
    When completed, pull out the nylon cord to release the waste yarn.Hem should lay nice and flat without a discernible ridge.
    The “Magic rule” you refer to is a Knitmaster Green Rule!
    (And finally, you do me much honour, but I am not a Professor, merely a tutor!!!)


  2. Wow, just as brilliant story telling as you are at knitting..

    I just found this page by accident. What a wonderful space. I havnT read it all as my pictures didn’t come through. More work for my soul mate, when he rises.

    The weekend was fabulous, I’m booked in for June. Wish you were coming.
    If you put one on in the states, we could come to see you?.

    How’s the garter bar, got your first garment off the machine, you were so inspired

    Love and light Barbara
    Would love to chat more, but have an appointment to keep


    1. Oh, you haven’t seen the pictures? There’s a wonderful one of you and many of your hands! I’m very glad you enjoyed the post. I haven’t done anything with my knitting machine for a few weeks because I have been sick and haven’t had the physical or mental energy to even look at it. But I’m getting better and will get back to it in the near future.


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