Wednesday, 28 May 2014

knit by machine

It seems like the only sewing I do these days is at craft camp. The promise of a real stretch of time seems necessary for anything beyond the odd repair or emergency track suit pants production. I like to get my head in the game and real life mostly precludes that. Thank god for craft camp!

But I'm not good at idle either, and when contemplating next camp's to do list, or doing some snails pace hand knitting just isn't enough, I occasionally bust out the knitting machine.

I never regret it when I do - generally I wonder why I don't do it more. In my head machine knitting is more like sewing than hand knitting in terms of process, even though the 'products' are almost the same as hand knitting. It's a much more intense kind of making - lots of preparation and thought and then you just sit down and chug through it as quick as you can until it's done. When you mess up, you either unpick or trash it and start again (often the easier option). Like sewing, it isn't mobile or quiet and isn't easily picked up and put down to be completed in small increments.

A big part of that is because the machine feels more like a fabric maker than a garment maker. Hand knitting, at least the kind I have come to enjoy and admire the most, really sings when it uses the incredible capacity of yarn and needles to be sculpted into a three dimensional form. Seamlessly constructed using shaping techniques, knitted garments are more comfortable, more ingenious, more 'hand made' and at the same time more sophisticated and beautiful when the garment reflects the beautiful fluid properties of the yarn itself. Whether it's traditional Icelandic sweaters or contemporary origami inspired creations, the hand knitting I like is a slow meditation on creating something so much more than the sum of its parts.

All of which sounds a bit like machine knitting is inferior to my mind, but it's not. It's different. I love the speed of the machine, I love the way swatching is quick enough to encourage experimentation, I love that each project isn't such a monumental investment that I have to spend months walking a tightrope for fear of messing it up. I love that I can draw a schematic and use a picture to create a pattern piece of fabric to my exact specifications. I love that I can knit the better part of a jumper in a day, or a cashmere wrap in hours.

Or you can find a really interesting pattern that if you were knitting by hand you might knit just the once, and make a good approximation of it on the machine and then try it out in all manner of ways. Olgajazzy's Suke Suke cowl was addictive on the machine, and I made it 4 times in rapid succession, trying yarns from 4 to 10 ply in weight, from bamboo to alpaca to cashmere and various blends between, in tight stand up cowls to long double loops. The kind of learning curve you need months or even years to get up by hand can be cruised in mere weeks with a machine when you want to understand the way yarns and projects mesh.

And I will be honest in saying I love the machine for all it's machineyness. The ingenuity of design, from my super simple early model Singer 200d to my more sophisticated patterning Singer 360, never fails to delight me. And frustrate the hell out of me when it is being uncooperative. Much like a new computer with a slightly unstable operating system there is much to be learned and at least some to be simply endured or passed by as mechanical failure or operator error (the difference between the two often indecipherable).

So I recently took one of the very best design features of the later model knitting machines, the knit radar, and hacked it to work on my ancient plain knitter. An old angle bracket and a load of electricians tape rigged the two pieces of independent machinery to talk to one another and allowed me to use the infinitely more pleasing machine (it's lighter and quieter and much funkier to look at) to do what I preciously what I wanted it to.

The resulting jumper, in 5ply lamb linen from Avril turned out pretty much exactly as I expected and wanted it too. The bands are hand knitted, some by me and the big hem band by a generous friend (thanks!), and it looks for all the world like the kind of hand knit I would make if my body was more cooperative in letting me do the hand knitting thing. I'm aiming to get a few more things knit up to knit down some of my machine weight stash before the moths beat me to it and to expand my work wardrobe for my arctic office through winter.


Nichola Prested said...

Nice work! I need to make more time to play with my knitting machine.

Christine said...

A good statement of an appreciation of machine knitting