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Knitting With Balls

Better Living Through Knitting Technology

Like many men, I am predisposed to purchase every gadget, gizmo, device and toy that I can possibly rationalize in my discussions with my wallet, my creditors and my increasingly skeptical significant other. I can't just have one video game console if four (plus a computer and a laptop) will do. I can't have a cellphone that just makes phone calls -- as if those even exist anymore. iPod? Check. Digital camcorder? Check. Wireless internet? Check. HD PVR? Check and double-check.

Knitting is the one place in my life that has been relatively gadget-free. There just aren't that many sexy devices for your average knitter. (Spinners and weavers, on the other hand, are swimming in them.) So it is with a particularly heavy heart that I must admit to all of you that I am the owner of a Bond Ultimate Sweater Machine (As Seen on TV).

The Name is Bond

For those of you unacquainted with it, the Bond is a relatively inexpensive plastic bulky-weight hand knitting machine designed for hobbyists, occasional users and for those of us who are prone to Knitting Emergencies. It costs a few hundred dollars if you shop around, which stands in stark comparison to the $1,000+ you'd pay for a more sophisticated punch card or electronic machine. If you browse around the internet, you'll find the machine has a small but loyal fan base who are eager to share their tips and tricks on getting the most (and the most knitting) out of your new purchase.

Let me be the first to say that, as an entry-level knitting machine, the Bond works exactly the way it's supposed to, and does exactly what the company says it does. However, there are some significant differences between knitting by hand and knitting by machine, and there is a definite unavoidable learning curve. (Some people say that it's actually easier to knit with a machine if you've never hand-knitted before.) Bond's promotional materials are correct when they tell you that you can knit an entire sweater with their knitting machine in less than three days. What you'll discover for yourself, though, is that those three days will probably arrive quite some time after you first set it up.

The Bionic Knitter

Let's be honest: with the holidays hurtling toward us like a fast-moving train, which knitter among us has not lain awake at night -- particularly in the latter half of November -- wondering if a knitting machine would help us speed through the many gifts we are racing to complete?

Wonder no more -- the answer is a qualified "yes". With practice, you can knit 600 to 1,200 stitches per minute (uh huh, you read right) and about 20 inches of knitted fabric, 100 stiches wide, in about five minutes -- but before you run screaming into the street to buy one, you might want to take a few moments to find out what this process entails.

The standard garden-variety knitting machine consists of a bed of latch hooks that function as needles, and a carriage that you pass back and forth along the needles to supply them with yarn to create the fabric. The hooks grab the yarn as the carriage passes, and then pull it through the loops that were previously created. The old loops drop down and then the carriage passes again, prompting the hooks to grab the yarn -- and the process repeats. This ends up feeling much more like weaving than knitting. If you enjoy working a loom (or if you enjoy ironing), you'll feel right at home.

Each machine uses a different method to simulate the needle size and gauge that we associate with hand knitting; in the case of the Bond, plastic keyplates are inserted into the carriage to create longer or shorter paths for the needles to travel -- the longer the path, the larger the stitch.

The bottom edge of the work is weighted with a detachable hem so that the fabric pulls cleanly and evenly off the machine and a consistent tension is maintained. The result is row upon row of eerily perfect stockinette stitch.


I Sense a 'But' Coming.

You're right, there's a 'but'. Several of them, actually. Let's take a few minutes to check out some 'but's (because that's just the kind of guy I am).

When looking at the pros and cons of machine knitting, let's face it: row upon row of eerily perfect stockinette stitch is quite a pro. But. As we all know, there's much more to knitting than stockinette -- and every other stitch combination is something of a challenge to achieve on a knitting machine. Many machines have a variety of attachments and devices available for techniques like ribbing, intarsia, fair isle, cables, garter stitch (yes, garter stitch), circular knitting and so on. But. They all come off as complicated solutions to situations that hand knitters would normally consider to be relatively straightforward.

The Bond is among the simplest and least sophisticated of knitting machines, so in many cases you need to manipulate the stitches by hand (usually by unhooking and rehooking stitches) in order to achieve whatever effects you want. This can be absorbing, interesting instructive and enjoyable. But. It can also be time-consuming, frustrating and tedious -- and sometimes even slower than if you had just whipped out the old pointy sticks in the first place.

It's also worth noting that your machine knitting is limited in width to the number of latch-hooks across the width of your machine. Most needle beds look quite wide. But. They are deceptive -- the maximum number of stitches on the Bond without an extension is about 100 stittches. If you need more stitches for your pattern (say, for an afghan), you need to add more hooks through an extension to your needle bed, or you need to divide your pattern into sections and seam them together after.

Given that the latch-hooks on the needle bed are a fixed width apart from each other, and the different gauges are standardized through keyplates or carriage adjustments, you'd think that machine knitting would be something of an exact science. But. It's not. A scarf knit 40 stitches wide for 650 rows on a pair of regular knitting needles will be neither the same length nor the same width as a similar scarf knit on a knitting machine set at the same needle size and gauge. Seriously, you can't imagine how different they will be. So here's one thing you'll be doing a lot of: swatching. In fact it's safe to say that you cannot knit anything on a machine with any serious expectation of its length or width unless you swatch first. And not just swatch -- you have to wash and block as well. This is not an option. In my experience, knitted fabric fresh off the machine is often tighter and shorter than my hand knitting, even when I move up one or two needle sizes to compensate. Thankfully, you can knit up a very large swatch on a knitting machine very quickly -- no more of this 'four inch by four inch' nonsense -- and consequently make more accurate adjustments to whatever pattern you're working on.

As well, different machines are designed to handle different weights of yarn. A bulky-weight machine may not be able to handle anything lighter than sport yarn, and a finer-weight machine may have trouble knitting worsted. The Bond is a bulky-weight machine, which is great for making sweaters but not so much when it comes to baby clothes. Make sure you know what you're machine can and cannot do before you buy it.

Some other important considerations: hand knitting is quiet, portable, meditative and generally requires very little set-up: just cast on and go. But. Machine knitting is noisy (Say "clack-clack-clack-clack-clack" as fast as you can. Louder. Faster. Louder. Faster. There you go.), it's pretty much fixed to one location, and it can take anywhere from five to twenty minutes to assemble and prepare. And meditative is the last word I would use to describe it. On a good day, it's fabulously productive; on a bad day, it's a terrific way to simulate a third-world sweatshop in your very own home.

In conclusion...

Some of those buts are very big. But. Don't let them dissuade you from giving machine knitting a try. Many of the finer yarn stores, as well as sewing machine stores and some of the larger craft stores, have knitting machines set up and ready for demonstrations. Some of these same stores also give lessons or hold workshops to teach you how to operate and maintain your machine, how to follow patterns written specifically for machine knitting and how to adapt hand knitting patterns so that you can make whatever item you choose.

Also keep in mind that you can easily move machine-knit fabric onto (sometimes long, frequently circular) knitting needles and finish it by hand. This is particularly good for ribbing or for certain increases and decreases. It is, however, incredibly difficult to move hand knitting -- no matter how loose, stretchy or flexible -- onto a knitting machine. Believe me, I've tried.

While I do about 95% of my knitting by hand, I am glad that I have my Bond to fall back on -- and so are a number of my holiday gift recipients, whether or not they realize it.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be heading off to my next challenge: comparing the virtues of the Ashford Joy to those of the Louet S45. Best wishes, and have a Happy 2007!



David loves him some machine-knit pillow covers. This has been a year of firsts for him – he’s learned to more-or-less kind-of spin, to crochet a wicked drink coaster, to sew up a sock monkey on his brand new sewing machine, and now he’s knitting Seasilk lace. (Yes, lace – the mind boggles!) Heaven only knows what next year will bring.

David’s obligatory knitblog can be found right here