Machine knitting is a generic term describing the production of knitted fabric on a frame of some sort. The type of frame varies and can be controlled by mechanical or electronic methods and can be powered or manually operated.
There are three main categories of knitting machine:
- Flat bed weft knitting
- Circular weft knitting
- Warp knitting
Within these categories there are further subdivisions by method of control/operation and specialisation of product. Although both flat and cicular knitting machines have been manufactured for manual operation in domestic settings, the overall survivor has been the flat bed machine, with Brother, Passap, Singer, Toyota and Empisal/Knitmaster (UK brand names) being the most recent manufacturers. Of these only Knitmaster (renamed Silver Reed) remain in production. Domestic circular machines were prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th century in the UK when they were for piece work paid sock production, but have not survived in a currently manufactured format for domestic use except as a toy (French Knitting).
Since the advent of computers, industrial machine knitting has developed into a hi-tech industry. Early knitting machines (frames) were hand operated, and heavy to use. There is some controversy about the original inventor if the knitting frame, but it is generally accepted to have been the work of the Reverend William Lee of Calverton, Nottinghamshire in 1589. His frame was designed to facilitate the knitting of stocking hose which were a component of every day clothing and an important source of income to home workers. Not finding favour in England because there were fears for the employment of these same stocking knitters, he took his invention to France. Here he refined the machine to knit more delicate, silk stockings, and on his death in 1610 his brother returned to England and established a business in London with these new frames. The Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters was incorporated by Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, on 13th June 1657, was granted a Royal Charter in 1663, and is still in existence today. In the mid 17th century there was dissatisfaction amongst some knitters who were unhappy with the London Guild's restrictions, so part of the industry transferred to the East Midlands (Leicester, Nottingham, Derby), where the English knitting industry has remained in some form or other until its virtual demise in the 1980s.
Lee's knitting frame was made of a wooden frame and a metal 'bed' with 'bearded' needles. It stood about shoulder height and was operated via wooden pedals by someone sitting on the seat that was part of the frame, similar to an old upright organ or piano. A bearded needle is shaped rather like a shepherd's crook; on Lee's machine they lay with the crook's hook pointing outwards towards the operator. Yarn is laid into the open hook, which is then closed against the shaft by pressure being applied to the inward curve of the hook, the needle is then pulled backwards thereby slipping the old loop over the closed hook and allowing the new loop to be formed. Working examples of these machines can be seen at the Framework Knitter's Museum, Chapel Street, Nottingham, UK.
This principle is still employed by modern knitting machines, although the needle now more commonly has a latch which closes the hook before the old loop is slipped off.