by Norma Bogan
Throughout the ages men and women have worked at perfecting the humble sock. The first hose were merely strips of cloth wrapped around the feet. Then came cut and sewn fabric stockings, but these, even after cutting them on the bias, would not stay up without considerable ingenuity. The inherent elasticity of knitting was just what was needed.
The first knitting "machine," the stocking frame, was invented by the Reverend William Lee in 1589. To his great disappointment, Lee was denied a patent by Queen Elizabeth I for fear that his frame would put too many home knitters out of work. Lee's knitting frame made flat, rather coarse socks that had to be seamed. At first, William Lee could only work with wool, but in 1598 he finally succeeded in knitting a pair of stockings in silk -- he gave that first pair to Queen Elizabeth!
Other sock knitting machines appeared over the years. Jedediah Strutt, an Englishman, built the first knitting frame with a rib stitch in 1758. In 1816, Marc I. Brunel built a circular knitter that produced tubular fabric. And in 1847, Matthew Townsend came out with the latch knitting needle, a major breakthrough for the knitting industry.
Home use of knitting frames became fairly common around the middle of the 18th century. Home operators in England worked for wholesalers from whom they rented their machines. Meanwhile, in the Colonies, movements were afoot to produce American-made textiles and clothing; machine design ideas and some machines themselves were smuggled through despite an English ban on the export of both.
he heyday of the home sock knitter in America came in the early 1900's, when there were a number of companies manufacturing this type of machine. Domestic machines all worked on the same basic principle, with the knit stitches being made by latch needles held in the grooves of a cylinder by a spring. A few machines had rotating cylinders and stationary cams to activate the needles, but generally, the cylinder was held stationary in a base while a camshell carried the cams around it, pushing up the needles and then pulling them back down as the yam was fed in through a carrier. The purl stitches were made by shorter latch needles placed radially in the slots of a horizontal dial at the top of the cylinder. These ribber needles were activated by cams in a cam plate or tappet plate on the top of the dial. It should be noted that, even today, industrial circular machines operate by these same principles.
In the early 1900's many of these sock machines were sold for production use. An old instruction book from Creelman Bros. in Canada, dated 1872 and written in French, refers to one of their models as "La Money Maker." The ads of the 1920's and 30's blithely emphasized the ease with which the machine could be learned and with which socks could be knit. Some manufacturers, notably Gearhart and Auto-Knitter, enticed people to buy their machines by promising to purchase all the socks they could knit. The catch? The socks had to meet the company's standards, and of course these were high indeed.
Since flat bed machines wide enough to knit sweaters were not available to the home knitter at this time, many patterns were devised for the circular machines. There were directions for such items as capes, jackets and long underwear. The larger parts were knitted flat in strips and small pieces and then joined together.
The manufacture of circular knitters for home use begun in the 19th Century eventually died out. Last to go was the Auto-Knitter, manufactured by the AutoKnitters & Hosiery Company in Buffalo, NY from 1916 to 1927. The Auto-Knitter was, however, revived in the late 1970s when George Fricke, then owner of Bartlettyams, Inc. of Harmony, Maine, bought the company. He started with some old parts inventory, molds for casting most of the parts, and a couple of old, broken machines. There were no blueprints or specifications. He did, however, have the assistance of Ralph McCarthy, whose father had run a successful sock knitting business in the 1930s using Auto-Knitters. Fricke, his son-in-law Rich Youngken, and my husband Kerry spent much time developing the manufacturing processes for the machine and making improvements. In 1984 Kerry and I bought the company.
Although changes have been made to the Auto-Knitter, it still preserves much of its antique character. Many of the machine parts are still cast from the same molds that were used 75 years ago. The sock knitter is all metal-cast iron, aluminum and brass--and is still operated by hand cranking (it cannot be motorized or programmed). Special attention is required for turning the heels and shaping the toes (the heels and toes are knit flat with short rows, while the rest of the sock is knit tubular). The toes of socks must be closed by hand, with stitchesgrafted together using Kitchener stitch-the technique named for its distinguished if controversial inventor Horatio Herbert, First Earl Kitchener of Khartoum, a British military hero who developed the stitch for home knitters making socks for soldiers in WWI.
The Auto-Knitter also makes legwarmers and mittens. For the ambitious, there is an attachment for making argyle socks plus instructions for fancy stitches such as herringbone and lace stitch. Setting the machine at half pitch so that all the needles are in use, one can knit with a fine yam and double the resulting fabric, making a hat big enough for a small child. Incidentally, wool seems to be the machine's favorite fiber, although other natural as well as synthetic fibers can be used. The standard 60 needle cylinder machine uses primarily sport weight yarn, but other weights of yarn can be used once you are comfortable with your machine. There is a 52-needle cylinder that will knit worsted weight, and a 72, an 80 and a 100 for finer yams. These cylinders and the corresponding dials (the two pieces that hold the needles) are interchangeable.
Unlike companies 40 years ago, Harmony Knitters does not offer to buy the socks that their customers knit. However, given the nature of American enterprise this may yet come. Two facts, nevertheless, should give us some pride. The Auto-Knitter remains, as far as is known, the only available circular knitting machine for home use and the only domestic machine made in the U.S.A. today.
*Please see addendum below*
Norma wrote a letter to the editor after her article was published in MACKNIT
No Socks Please
I'd like to clarify a couple of points from my article on the Auto-Knitter in your Fall/Winter 1986 issue.
First, ours is the only knitting machine for home use manufactured in the United States; there are other manufacturers, of industrial knitting machines, in this country.
Second, we do not want to lead anyone to believe that we will buy socks from people who buy our machines. The hint of that idea slipped in with the editing. Knitters do use our Auto-Knitters for production work, but they find their own markets.
*Norma & Kerry Bogan sold their company in late1990, early 1991.
*Elsie McCarthy is compiling information on the Harmony Auto Knitters, produced first by George Fricke and then the Bogans beginning in the 1980's.. These are the ones with the serial plates affixed to them.
If you own one, please contact her by email at LeMcCarthy@VALLEY.NET with the serial plate information (color of plate, serial number, printing on the plate), plus the color of the machine.. Thank you.