A knitting machine is a flat bed full of specialized latch hook needles and a carriage that opens and closes those needles in a pattern. For handknitters, it’s like knitting with 200 needles rather than two. Knitting machines can also be circular and knit in the round, like a set of circular needles.
The first commercial knitting machine for household use that succeeded on the market was the 1939 Swiss made Passap. I know next to nothing about Passaps in general, and absolutely nothing about this machine. World War II interrupted most non-war production until the late 1940s. In the post-war market, both Japanese and European manufacturers produced multiple models with consistent innovation. Some of these innovations were better than others. The earliest models one regularly finds on Ebay are from the late 1950s, usually Brother, Fuji Friend, Knitking, Toyota, and Singer/Silver Reed. These old machines are extremely sturdy, but replacement parts are very rare. More common are machines from the 1960s through the 1980s, which usually have replacement parts available, and have the advantage of a multiple years of best practices iterations. In general, machines produced after about 1970 are more stable and reliable than earlier ones.
There is one flatbed company still in production, Silver-Reed. There is also a company, Taitexma, that produces mechanically identical copies of the off-patent Brother machines. Some people consider this unforgivable. This is neither illegal nor immoral. That’s the point of patents – to give the original producer a fixed number of years of an exclusive license to produce. After that license expires, if the license holder does not continue to produce, or maintain the patent, another producer may pick it up and manufacture the patented object. Taitexma is operating within the law in China, and it is not illegal to import those machines. A new flatbed only machine will cost between $900 and $2,000 USD as of 2017. The ribber is a second bed that sits at a near right angle to the main bed. A ribber runs $400-700 new. Silver-Reed and Brother bed parts and carriages are not interchangeable, so you have to make a decision which path you want to follow. I personally chose Brother, though I do own an early Silver-Reed bed and ribber.
Used machines are regularly available through Ebay and estate sites. A basic, early metal flatbed like a Brother KH-587 often runs between $60 and $120. Examine the pictures carefully. If the machine is rusty, you have to be prepared to deal with that — clean the rust and repair/repaint the metal. If the carriage is damaged, you may not be able to repair it. The later machines often run $400-600, but if you’re patient, you can usually find one for less. Eventually. A trend I’ve noticed is that the people who dispose of an estate often don’t understand knitting machines. A subset of machine knitters apparently did not store their carriages with the beds. That means when the estate is sold, the beds and carriages get separated, or the carriage gets trashed and the estate seller treats the bed as the sole part of the machine. When looking at an online machine, go to Machine Knitting Etc, download the manual, and match the images in the manual to the items in the listing. The carriage, the arm and bed are the most critical parts. The tension mast and the small tools can be replaced. Try to buy as locally as possible; if at all possible, take a road trip and pick it up, don’t trust it to shipping. These machines are old, they are heavy, and even in their cases, they’re unbalanced. The plastic ends of the mid-60s forward machines are getting fragile. If you must ship or have a machine shipped to you, try to buy from a dealer who knows how to package them, with lots of thick, styrofoam block. While the plastic can be repaired, it’s not easy. Also be aware that these machines are starting to discolor (if not fully yellowed) because the plastics of the time were not lightfast. If you manage to get one that’s not (badly) yellowed and you work in a sunny room, one of your first tasks should be to coat the plastic parts with automotive plastic UV coating, and recoat every 3-4 months. UV discoloration is a sign that the plastic is weakening. It takes decades to fully degrade, but once the process is started, it keeps going.
Flatbed machines come in two major varieties other than brand: plastic bed and metal bed. This is literally the difference in materials. Plastic beds tend to be machined for larger weight yarns like worsted and sport — the stuff that Michael’s and JoAnn carry and what most hand-knitters use and stash. Metal beds can be machined for larger yarns, but the standard gauge are intended for finer yarns like sock weight and fingering, as well as industrial yarns intended for machine knitting.
The third division is between manual, punchcard and electronic patterning. The most basic machines make hand-manipulated stitches, like cables and pointelle, in straight stockinette ground. There’s no patterning except what you do. These were the earliest machines, and they’re both the easiest to use and the most difficult because they require the most attention and expertise. They’re similar to a straight-stitch, mechanical sewing machine: you can produce absolutely beautiful garments, but the machine won’t do anything for you. There are a few transitional models between manual and punchcard machines that use buttons for the patterning. Punchcard machines use literal pieces of paper with punched holes to create the patterns, and the electronic patterning machines store the patterns in some primitive read-only memory, about as advanced as an Atari console or a TI94/a. The manuals and buttons are the most reliable, because there’s not much to go wrong. Punchcard machines are almost as reliable; they can break a belt or strip a cam, but it’s rare. The problem with the electronics is they’re around 40 years old. Capacitors do fail, and when they do, the magic smoke leaves the machine, and it becomes a manual machine. (Not the memory, fortunately.) It will still knit stockinette and hand-patterned work, and it will still work with a ribber, but you have to do all the work. To repair a capacitor requires replacing it and de-soldering the old one, then installing a new one. Electronics can be adapted to a modern board – The All Yarns Are Beautiful (AYAB) by Mad Scientist Labs. To use an AYAB, you must have functioning solenoids, but these parts are available and it’s not that hard to replace them (in theory. I admit I have not yet had to do so.)
My recommendation for a starter machine is a plastic mid-gauge, like a Brother Kx-350 or a Silver-Reed LK-150. They’re relatively lightweight, they don’t have much or any patterning, they play very well with standard worsted weight yarns, they don’t have ribbers, and they run between $100 and $150 on average. They’re also easy to clean — you take them apart and wash them in a sink full of soapy water.
The most common machines are the Caron/Bond Amazing Sweater Machines and Incredible Sweater machines, and the Bond Classic. They’re plain flatbeds with large needles. The ASM/ISM come apart and can be finicky to align. The Classic Bond is a rigid flatbed. I don’t hate them. Cheryl Brunette is the Bond Whisperer; her video series on YouTube is the best tutorial that exists. But their cast-on method is non-intuitive. Given a choice, I’d go with a KX-350 or LK-150.
The attachments for most machines are a knit-leader, which helps you create shapes like sleeves and necklines; a ribber, which knits in rib rather than plain stockinette; a garter carriage which knits garter stitch automatically, if slowly; lace carriages, which position needles for lace knitting (the actual knitting is still done by the carriage on Brother machines) and color changers, which either automatically or manually assist in… well, what it says on the tin. There’s also a set of metal bars called garter bars, which allow you to turn your work easily on the bed.
There is one circular knitting machine in production: The addi-Express. Addis come in two sizes, the standard and the king size. Addi’s use standard, worsted weight yarn, and they operate on a handcrank. The standard size can be used to produce child-sized hats, mittens, gloves and some socks or leg warmers, as well as strips of flat fabric about 5 inches wide. The king-sized makes adult sized hats and some socks and leg warmers, as well as strips of fabric about 8 inches wide. You have to seam the fabric together, but many people use Addis to produce blankets and garments, so it’s not impossible.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, a few companies made many circular sock knitting machines for home industry use. These work on a similar principle as the Addi, but with ribbers, weights, tensioners, and much finer needles. They do show up on Ebay. They are not cheap. A good price is between $650 and $750 USD in 2017; a fully restored sock knitter runs well over $1000. There is one company in New Zealand who still produces circular sock machines that run about $2000 USD (plus shipping) for a basic set and several hundred for alternate cylinders and ribber attachments. There’s not a lot of official support available for CSMs, but there is a thriving community of enthusiasts. I don’t have one. Yet.
If you can find someone with a working knitting machine, give it a shot first before you buy. Some handknitters find them completely irritating; some take to them like they’re gooey cinnamon rolls. I am not a knitter; a knitting machine is the only way I would ever produce knitted fabric or garments. I find the motion of sliding the carriage meditative; other people hate it.
Knitting machine repository: