This is a question I get- a LOT. Most have never heard of one, or know of their existence. Many know of them, but know little about them. I will impart what I know… and hopefully it will answer most questions, but feel free to ask for more info!
Simply put, a knitting machine is a “bed” of needles (actually hooks). These hooks sit in individual channels. Yarn runs through a carriage that sits on the needle bed, and the carriage is moved (manually) across the bed. As the yarn passes over the needles, the carriage has gizmos in it that pushes the needles out, the yarn is grabbed and pulled back, thus creating a stitch. What do the hooks look like- did you ever latch hook a rug? The needles look like that, but without the handle.
There you have it. That is the basics of a knitting machine! However, there are tons of variations as to what each machine does, how and why. So, if you want to know more, read on, and I will expand on this a bit!
Gauge- what is it?
Basically, its all about size. And size does matter– well, to a degree! There are 4 different classifications of knitting machine gauge, and I have broken them down here.
Fine Gauge- I don’t really know much about Fine Gauge, to be honest. I have never dealt with one. My understanding is that this gauge is what is used in industrial knitting, to produce the light weight knitwear you see in stores.
Standard Gauge- Standard gauge machines can handle yarn that is sized from lace weight (1-2ply) to most DK yarn (8ply). Many of the standard gauge machines have a 4.5mm pitch. That means the needles are 4.5mm apart on the bed.
Mid-Gauge- Mid Gauge machines handle yarn that is sized from fingering/sock weight (3ply) to worsted or aran (10ply). The pitch on mid-gauge machines vary. They can range from 6.0mm to 7.0mm. Again, this means the needles sit that many millimeters apart on the bed.
Bulky Gauge- I have not used bulky machines to date, but what I do know is, they handle larger yarns worsted / aran (10ply) and larger. The needles sit at 9.0mm (though I think there is a range on that, as in the mid-gauge classification). Needles, this far apart.. etc,
The next breakdown is the Knitting Process Classification
There are basically 3 different types of machines, within the different gauges.
Manual: This is a very basic machine. All patterning is done by hand, by using the tools (transfer tools) and moving the various stitches to other needles, prior to knitting (manually moving the carriage across the needle bed). This carriage is fairly straight forward, with few cams and levers. While this machine may be “very basic”, they are work horses and quite versatile. Never underestimate plain and simple.
Punchcard: This is the next level “up” (for lack of a better word) from a manual machine. These machines take a flexible plastic punch card with holes in it, and feed it through a reader on the needle bed. As the carriage is pulled across the bed, the mechanism in the reader tells the bed which stitches to knit, and thereby, creating the various patterning. The carriage on this machine has more cams and levers to be able to control variants in the pattern that you want to create. These are more complicated machines, and require a bit more experience. It should be noted that, while this machine has the punch card reading ability, it can be used as a manual machine, if you don’t want to use the punch card. (I hope to find the time to explain a what a punch card is…. )
Electronic: Ahhh.. the “big mamma” of knitting machines. This machine has a computer that attaches to the bed, and allows for complex patterning. As the carriage is pulled across the bed, the computer and the needle bed communicate, and it tells the bed which stitches to knit, and thereby, creating the various patterning. The carriage on this machine has more cams and levers to be able to control variants in the pattern that you want to create. These are more complicated machines, and require a bit more experience. In addition to the knitting, you have to be able to set the computer to knit the pattern you want. This machine has much more flexibility than the punch card machine, and quite frankly, can’t even be compared to the manual bed machine- except that again, you can manually knit if you aren’t doing patterning. One negative- no power, no patterning.