WHAT KNITTING MACHINES CAN DO
Automatic Stitch Techniques
Modern knitting machines can perform a variety of interesting stitch techniques without a ribber or garter carriage. These include fair isle, tuck, skip, normal lace, fine lace, thread lace, weaving, plating, and intarsia. Some of these are identical to their hand knitting counterparts; others are unique to knitting machines.
Each type of stitch is accomplished by using one of the four positions for each needle in conjunction with the different cam settings on the knit carriage. The four needle positions are non-working, working, upper working, and holding. Most of the stitch functions are fully automatic, meaning the machine places selected needles in either the working or upper working position with each pass of the carriage, according to the design pattern. All the knitter needs to do is move the carriage back and forth to knit the fabric. These stitch functions are all exclusive of one another; that is to say, they cannot be combined in any one row (i.e. you can't knit fair isle lace, although you can knit a fair isle body with lace sleeves)
Fair isle refers to stranded knitting using two colors, just like in hand knitting. The main color knits on needles in working position, and the alternate color knits on needles in upper working position. Although only two colors can be used in any given row, these can be changed from row to row, giving you more options. As in hand knitting, the knitter will want to choose a design that minimizes the floats on the back of the fabric. However, the machine virtually eliminates tension problems with the yarn carried behind.
Tuck stitch doesn't really have a hand knitted equivalent that I'm aware of. In tuck stitch, the needles in working position knit normally. The needles in upper working position don't knit, but an extra loop of yarn is laid over them with each pass of the carriage. When these needles are returned to working position, all the loops on the needle knit in a single stitch, resulting in a textured fabric. Tuck stitch uses only one strand of yarn per row, although it can be changed on any row for some interesting color effects.
Skip stitch is the machine knitting equivalent of slipping instead of knitting a stitch. In hand knitting, it's also used to do mosaic knitting. As in tuck stitch, the needles in working position knit and the needles in upper working position don't. However, no extra loops of yarn are laid over the needles in upper working position, so when the needle finally knits, it's a single, longer stitch. As with tuck stitch, the yarn can be changed on any row to produce mosaic effects.
Normal lace is the machine equivalent of traditional hand knitted lace. Also called "transfer lace", it requires the use of a special lace carriage in addition to the knitting carriage. When the lace carriage is passed over the needles, stitches in upper working position are transferred or moved to adjacent needles. Then, when the knit carriage is passed over the bed, needles with multiple stitches knit normally (the equivalent of "knit 2 together"), and needles with no stitch are cast on (the equivalent of a "yarn over"), creating the characteristic holes.
Fine lace is a textured fabric that is probably most similar to the effect you get when you twist stitches in hand knitting. It's worked in exactly the same way as normal lace. However, when a transfer is made, the stitch remains on the original needle while also being stretched onto an adjacent needle. Thus, when the knit carriage is operated, there are "knit 2 togethers" but no "yarn overs" since no needles are empty.
Also called "punch lace", thread lace is essentially fair isle done with a regular yarn and a matching thread. Because the thread is so much thinner, it barely shows, making it appear that the fabric has lace holes in it.
Weaving is actually a knitted technique using a backing yarn and a weaving yarn. The machine automatically places needles in either the working or upper working position according to the design pattern. The knitter manually places the weaving yarn along the needles in upper working position, and then passes the knit carriage over them. The backing yarn knits normally, but catches in the weaving thread on those needles, forming floats of different lengths on the surface of the fabric. The floats appear as a woven pattern on the wrong side of the fabric.
Plating is normal stockinette stitch done with two separate yarns. The main yarn knits normally, and the alternate yarn knits behind it simultaneously. This produces a "lined" knit fabric, which is useful if your main yarn is scratchy. The alternate yarn shows through a little bit, giving subtle color variations.
Some of the stitch techniques are completely manual, meaning that the machine doesn't select the needles for you. The knitter must look at a graphed design, select the needles after each pass of the carriage, and perform the manual operation before passing the carriage again. These techniques include intarsia, cables, and hand-manipulated stitches.
Intarsia is the most labor-intensive of the manual techniques. The knitter places each color yarn on the appropriate needles before passing a special intarsia carriage over them. The yarns are threaded through special weights that hang down from the needle bed to help maintain good tension. On some machines, the knit carriage has a special setting so a separate intarsia carriage is not needed.
Cables can be formed by manually transferring stitches to other needles on the appropriate row. Although a complicated cable pattern can be labor intensive, cables usually work up quickly since the transfer is made on a small percentage of the rows. It can be difficult to work cables wider than 3 x 3, however, since the fabric doesn't usually have as much give as hand knitting.
Hand Manipulated Stitches
Hand manipulated stitches include twisting, wrapping, weaving, lifting, rehanging and transferring stitches to create textured fabrics. These techniques result in surface embellishments, puckers, relief patterns, gathers, ruching, bobbles, popcorn, pintucks, fringes, and trims, even beading. There is almost no limit to the variety a knitter can achieve.
Electronic knitting machines may also include pattern variation buttons that allow the knitter to change a design that's already been input, either by the knitter or pre-programmed. These include reverse, mirror image, upside down, reflection (vertical mirror image), double width, double length, rotation, negative, multi-color rib (jacquard), and single motif. Using double width and double length together will automatically make your design four times larger without having to re-enter it.
Several optional accessories are available that can expand the range of what a knitting machine can do, or make it easier to do some things. These include ribbers, garter carriages, color changers, linkers, transfer carriages, lace carriages, and intarsia carriages. Before purchasing an accessory, it's important to determine if it's compatible with your brand and model of machine, since accessories can cost anywhere from $100 to $600 or more.
The ribber is perhaps the most versatile accessory you can purchase for the knitting machine, and also the most expensive. The ribber is a separate needle bed that attaches to the knitting machine so that the two beds are closely positioned, perpendicular to each other. It has its own separate carriage that attaches to the knit carriage so that both beds knit simultaneously. Stitches on the main bed are knit and stitches on the ribber bed are purl. A plain knitting machine is often referred to as "single bed", but with a ribber attached it's referred to as "double bed." The ribber can be easily lowered out of the way any time the knitter wants to use only the single bed.
The ribber can greatly expand the types of knitting you can do on the machine. Obviously, it's used to make many different ribbings, everything from 1 x 1 to 5 x 5 or more. By changing the settings, you can knit English rib or fisherman's rib, which are thicker, more textured fabrics. By changing the position of the ribber at regular intervals with the racking lever, you can create zigzag ribs. You can use it to knit multi-color rib fabric (jacquard), which looks like fair isle but without the floats. You can also knit a circular tube or a U-shaped piece of fabric twice as wide as the needle bed, although these can only be done in plain stockinette.
Still, the ribber is not capable of producing fabrics where the position of the purl stitch changes from row to row. This is because the knitter would have to hand transfer stitches from one bed to the other on every row, according to the pattern design, and this is too time-consuming to be practical.
The ribber will also come with several specialized tools, such as cast-on plates, large and small weights, wire-loop and claw type weight hangers, two-eyed transfer needles, needle pushers, work hooks, end stitch presser plates, and fine knitting bar.
The garter carriage is used to form purl stitches on single-bed, standard gauge knitting machines. It has a separate, opposing needle, which essentially places the stitch into a purl position before knitting it and returning it to its own needle. It has its own power supply and moves automatically, at a much slower pace than you can move the knit carriage. It has a tendency to jam and may drop stitches when using some types of yarn.
As mentioned in Part II, the garter carriage can produce a purl stitch at any position in any row, which means it can be used to produce ribbings, garter stitch, seed stitch, moss stitch, basket weave stitch, and other fabrics that depend on a combination of knit and purl stitches. However, the garter carriage can only be used with a single color of yarn at a time, meaning it can't produce Bohus-style knitting that combines both fair isle with purl stitches in the same row. Some repair centers now offer a conversion attachment that allows the garter carriage to knit with two different colors in a row, but I haven't used or seen this in operation.
The garter carriage can also be used to cast on and off automatically.
Single Bed Color Changer
The single bed color changer allows the knitter to thread up to 4 different yarns into the machine and easily switch between them without rethreading the machine, which can normally be threaded with only 1 or 2 yarns depending on the stitch technique. This is a huge timesaver when knitting multi-color garments on the single bed, and almost necessary when knitting multi-color stripes, fair isle designs with more than 2 colors, multi-color tuck stitch, or multi-color slip stitch. However, the single bed color changer can't be used on a double-bed machine, and vice versa.
Double Bed Color Changer
The double-bed color changer is similar to the single bed color changer, except it's designed to fit onto a double bed machine and work with the combined carriage. Some models hold 4 colors, while others hold 6 colors. In addition, some require the knitter to manually select the yarns to be used in each row, while others work with the electronic machines to automatically select the colors according to the design pattern. This color changer is necessary to knit multi-color rib, or jacquard, patterns.
The linker is used to cast off, or bind off, automatically. It doesn't do anything the knitter can't do easily by hand. There are several different methods of binding off manually, in addition to scrapping off with waste yarn. The linker gives a firm, latch tool type of bind-off, and can be difficult to master. When the knitting is finished, the knitter removes the knit carriage, attaches the linker to the needle bed, and turns the knob until all the stitches are cast off. Open stitches can be dropped if the operation is not performed perfectly.
The transfer carriage is used to automatically move stitches from the ribber to the main bed (or vice versa) when knitting only 1x1, 2x2, or full needle ribbing. Again, this is easily done by the knitter manually when changing from ribbing to stockinette stitch. To use the transfer carriage, the knitter removes the knit and ribber carriages, attaches the transfer carriage, and turns the knobs until the stitches are all transferred.
The lace carriage is used to transfer stitches according to the lace design, as described in Part III. In some brands, the lace carriage both transfers and knits, while in other brands, the lace carriage only transfers and the knit carriage knits. Some models will include a lace carriage, while it must be purchased separately for others. You should make sure your machine can knit lace and that the lace carriage is compatible before purchasing one.
The intarsia carriage is used to knit intarsia. It places all working needles into upper working position with each pass, so the yarns can be hand-manipulated easily. Some brands and models have an intarsia setting on the knit carriage, so the separate intarsia carriage is not necessary.
The knit leader is a charting device that attaches to the knitting machine. The pattern piece is drawn onto special paper, which feeds through the knit leader as the piece is knitted. It helps the knitter to increase or decrease at the appropriate time without having to make all the gauge calculations in advance.
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