“Put your hand up if you’re wearing something knitted!” 

Figures 1 and 2. Elinor at a Homemade knitting machine workshop for children. Image: Elnaz Yazdani 

Are you wearing something knitted today? Given the broad array of knitted fabrics on the market and the recent lockdown trend for comfort dressing, we’d say it’s very likely – but did you know your clothes were knitted? We have been involved with either teaching about or creating knitting on knitting machines for over 15 years and we often forget that once upon a time we didn’t know that so much of our clothing was knitted.

At a recent knitting workshop for children we asked them to put their hand up if they were wearing something knitted and only 2 of the 11 did so. These two were very proud to say they were wearing a garment hand knitted by a relative or family friend. When the group of children were then told that they were all wearing something knitted, they were shocked. They hadn’t realised that their t-shirts, leggings, hoodies, underwear and maybe even their trainers, were knitted. They were then told how much of what they were wearing was created in factories full of automated computer programmed knitting machines (Figure 4) and that the people who designed for or programmed these computerised machines would often have been first taught how to machine knit on a hand operated domestic knitting machine (Figure 3). Indeed when studying textiles or fashion at honours degree level, learning the basics of machine knitting is an essential element and something that future employers would expect in knit-specialist graduates.

Figure 3 Single bed machines. Image: Authors Own               Figure 4 Automated Knitting Machine. Image: Authors own

We often encounter commonly held stereotypes about handknitting. As Emma (aged 45 from Chester), a participant in a study of hand knitting practices, put it:  

There used to be the kind of one standard image of someone that knitted, which was a little  old lady with blue rinsed hair. And now there’s two standard images because you’ve got…  hipsters and knitting circles in trendy cafes. Well, I don’t fit into either of those, and  probably the majority of people that knit don’t fit into either of those, but it’s still what  people expect. [1]

We love knitting in all its forms, including handknitting, but mostly we love machine knitting and the challenge and extra dimension it can set us to break the rules and hack the machines to make them  do what we want them to do. Whether you hand knit, or machine knit, this is a commonly held  mindset of the knitter.

“A craft like knitting should not be too dissimilar to chess, where young masters will beat  their predecessors because they find new, clever paths through the immense possibilities of  the game…Innovation in chess does not happen through conservation, but through constant  confrontation and risk-taking”. [2]

It is this disruptive mentality that led us to set the question to ourselves, “how can we teach machine knitting to our undergraduate fashion and textiles students stuck at home, in a lockdown, without a knitting machine?”. This led to the development of a blueprint of a homemade knitting machine that can be made at home using household objects. We soon discovered that with a homemade knitting machine like this we could teach (through online video platforms) most of the techniques that we would usually teach in the workshop.  

Machine Knitting Without a Machine – What We Did. 

To create the homemade knitting machine we simplified it to its most basic parts: needles. Needles are essentially sticks, and the loops of the knitted fabric are created by moving yarn over those sticks. Initially for the homemade machine, the sticks we used were lollipop sticks. We needed a method of attaching the sticks securely to a table (Sellotape) and a method of weighing the knitting down as the textile grew (bulldog clips with plasticine attached). Finally, we needed yarn and knowing that students might not have access to this at home, encouraged them to make their own from household objects and old clothes.

To facilitate the making of the machine, we initially sent out packs with everything the students needed (see figure 5). The hope was that this open-source kit would inspire invention!

Figure 5  The Homemade Knitting Machine Pack. Image: Authors Own
Figure 6 Homemade Knitting Machine prototype. Image: Authors Own. 

A Knitting Machine Made From Ice! – What Happened. 

The kit we developed offered them an entry-level introduction to take charge of their learning and it had the benefit of being entirely possible to do at home, giving them autonomy over their practice at a time when a lot of circumstances were out of their control.

Several of our students created bespoke machines in order to further explore the practice and answer their own questions about the possibilities of machine knitting (Figures 7). One final-year Textiles student developed a range of functional knitting machines made from ice, which brought a performative aspect to their practice.[3] Throughout, students have created experimental knitted fabrics using homemade yarns made from household items as varied as newspaper or bread bags (Figure 8).

Figure 7 Student customised machine. Image: E. Waterton, 2021 [used with permission]
Figure 8 Student work using homemade newspaper yarn. Image: J. Shackman, 2021 [used with permission]
Figure 9 A machine made from toilet roll tubes. Yarn made from paper packaging and a t-shirt. Image: Authors own

“Yes, I Am Wearing Something Knitted!” – Machine Knitting for Everyone. 

Now we are taking our home-made knitting machine method to a wider audience. The ability to continually remake the homemade knitting machine to a range of specifications is one of its key benefits, and one of the main reasons we want it to be open source. Rather than keep  knowledge of the homemade knitting machine within the confines of teaching at the university we want this knowledge to be shared with the outside world thus democratising and somewhat demystifying machine knitting. 

We recognised that  our simplification of the machine knitting process allowed us to scale up, utilising traffic cones as ‘needles’. This allowed us to deliver giant machine knitting at public facing textiles festivals (figure 10). 

By continuing to engage a wider audience with homemade machine knitting, and machine knitting in  general, we hope that next time someone is asked if they are wearing something knitted, they will  answer with a resounding “Yes!”.

Figure 10. A machine made from traffic cones. Yarn made from old duvet covers. Image: Authors own 

If you would like to have a go at making your own homemade machine or creating your own  homemade yarn then please take a look at our Homemade Knitting Machine channel. 

Words: Dr Elinor Sykes and Dr Jade Lord

Bio: Elinor Sykes and Jade Lord teach knitted textiles to undergraduate fashion and textiles students at the University of Huddersfield. Between them, they have over 30 years of experience in working with knitting machines.

@elinorvoytal @hudtextiles #homemadeknittingmachine

[1] Harrison, K. & Ogden, C.A. (2019) “Grandma never knit like this”: reclaiming older women’s knitting  practices from discourses of new craft in Britain, Leisure Studies, 38:4, 453-467 

[2] Von Busch, O. (2013) Zen and the Abstract Machine of Knitting, Textile, 11:1, 6-19 

[3] Waterton, E. (2021) Ever changing: A collection [website] https://ewaterton.wixsite.com/mysite