Machine Knitting Technique

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Here we shall describe the functioning of the simplest knitting machine without touching upon its improvements in the second half of the eighteenth century. P. Lewis published recently a very important paper about technical evolution and economic viability of William Lee's stocking frame in 1589-1750 and announced the next article about the evolution of the handframe in the second half of the eighteenth century. She presented a very good description of the English machine of its parts and the changes of the trucks, the sley, the caster-backs, hanging-bit and front stops. I have decided to give my old description published in 1962 and 1979 because it concernes mainly the machines used in the European continent. They were usually less complicated and it is interesting to me that Lee's invention was used mainly in the poor countries of central and eastern Europe. But a general description is necessary.17 (II. 17) The oldest flat knitting frame consisted of wooden stationary parts and a mobile metal working part. The wood;n part was built on the pattern of the loom. It consisted of double stands, beams serving as supoort for th working part, and a bench for the worker. Naturally of fundamental importance was only the metal part which could also be placed on a suitably adapted table or any other stand- like construction. The knitting machine executed the majority of stitches with the help of the worker's hand movements, thus it was a typical tool-type of machine. Hooked needles formed a flat horizontal comb with a vertical disposition in the rows. The movement of the treadles would change the position of the blades and the yarn would arrange itself into loops between the needles.

The knitter's first act was to tie the beginning of the yarn thread, from which the item was to be made, on to the first needle and then pass it through the successive needles. The number of needles, i.e., graduation, and their gauge determined the character and width of the produced knitwear. The machine was put into motion by moving the blades by means of treadles, on the same principle as the harness in the loom. The drop of the blades would cause the undulation of the yarn. Leading it under the hooks of the blades would cause a further looping of the already thickening stitches. After the lifting of the blades, formed stitches would arrange themselves under its tapering edges. The worker used to press the formed stitches. Thus, after setting the treadles in motion which, through a wheel, would move the blades, the knitter would press the successive rows of completed knitted fabric which would then wind itself on receiving rollers. Similarities to work done on the hand loom are superficial because the knitting machine was mechanizing many more functions and the knitter's work required much less inventiveness. The lack of attention by the knitter could cause dropping of stitches which had to be immediately caught by a special hook or crochet-type of implement. In order to catch the stitches before they slipped from the needles, the machine had to be stopped, which considerably prolonged the work schedule.

Looking at the framework of a typical knitting machine, particular attention should be paid to the metal frame which contained its basic parts: blades, needles and press for tightening the stitches of the knitted fabric. Mobile pedals through a system of strings and metal clasps move the wheel with drive shaft and drums, and this in turn sets in motion the working parts of the machine. Here we will not give details of the complex system of supports, screwe and nuts. Henson in his famous itemization names a total of 2066 parts involved in the functioning of the simple knitting machine.18 Much clearer, however, is the well-known scheme of the functioning of the simple knitting machine quoted by Felkin. He describes needles as hooks, itemizes the press, weights, shafts, treadles and method of their suspension. In narrow machines the number of needles amounted to 150-600, and in wide ones up to 1500.19

The description of the functions of a worker on the knitting machine has so far pertained only to the production of simple, square or rectangular pieces intended for shawl or larger parts of garments. Production of knitted stockings, the basic product of the first machines, required additional functions and calculations. Production of a stocking started from its upper hem, which required the yarn to be passed through the first row of the first needles and subsequent double attachment of the stitches right to the end of the hem. The heel was shaped by a suitable selection of double-stitches. Depending on the type of yarn and thickness of stocking, the lenght and dimensions of the stitches had to be adjusted on these needles and blades. Sometimes the yarn was hooked every second needle and thrown over to make a loop. It is worthwhile quoting here the stocking sizes standardized for different customers. Large men's stockings had to be, according to French norms of the eighteenth century, 99.06 cm from the hem edge to the foot which was later modelled on a form. Large ladies' stockings were 73.66 cm in length, the smallest men's - 71.62 cm, and the smallest ladies' -48.26 cm. The average length of the foot was 22-23 cm. Detailed French regulations give precise data in inches as to the length of stockings at which its width should start decreasing in the transition from calf to ankle and further, how to finish off the heel and the whole foot. In these regulations reference is made to the rules issued in 1684 for French machine knitters. Special emphasis is placed on the necessity of using properly treated raw material and strongly twisted yarn, at least three-ply, from uncarded wool, beaver hair, silk, cotton or linen thread. It was not permitted to make stockings, drawers or waistcoats on a machine having 22 sets of 3 needles fixed on one plumb bob. it being too narrow. For the production of silk garments wide machines also had to be used.20 In mass production of stockings in the larger knitting workshops or manufactures, a couple of women were constantly sewing them up prior to the finishing. They were also involved in the embroidery of oblong patterns on the calfs of the more expensive stockings, usually of geometric shape.

The large number of small metal parts, from which the simplest knitting machine was constituted, complicated its functioning and required constant maintenance. As the number of machines increased, the production of its parts and its assembly was also subject to standardization. Full-page illustrations in the Great French Encyclopaedia show in detail the forms used for the production of the little springs, blades, devices for drilling holes in the needles, forms used for melting down the lead required for making the blades, files for smoothing them, various drills and screws, and finally the tools for shaping the tops of the mandrels. The necessity of the correct manufacturing of individual parts of the various sizes of stockings and other parts of garments required the use of precise scales.21

The above-described model of the simplest knitting machine was still in use at the beginning of the nineteenth century and became labelled in Dziennik Wileriski (Vilno Daily) of 1820 as the "common" knitting machine. We should remember, however, that even this simple functional model was undergoing certain improvements. The first of them was introduced by the inventor of the machine himself, William Lee, who devoted at least ten years to its redesign.

which would enable the production of silk stockings. The principle of the functioning of the simple model remained unchanged, the number of needles, however, increased to 20 per inch and they were much thinner. In addition, the raisers, weights and clasps were of metal, while previously they were partly wooden. A further improvement to the machine was introduced by Aston, Lee's former journeyman, after his return from Rouen to Nottingham. He made some changes to the earliest machine which according to Henson consisted of placing two fixed sinkers between each pair of jack sinkers, but Felkin states that only one fixed sinker was added at this time. With the same number of neeles it was possible to increase the dimensions and capacity of the machine. We can assume that the wooden knitting frames, so widely used for the production of coarse woollen stockings in Bohemia and Saxony at the end of the seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth century, were linked in their design to Lee's earliest model. Probably only the needles and blades along with the mounting were metal, and the whole construction of treadles, jacks, weights, claps was of wood. This machine's design was possibly to a greater degree linked with the structure of the narrow horisontal loom. Probably in these machines, there was a relatively small number a fairly thick needles, permitting the passage of coarse woollen yarn. J. Beckmann writes in a book published in 1802 about machines where both the rollers and the whole mechanism setting in motion the needles and blades are made out of wood. However, the later so called Saxon type of wooden knittting machine was probably only constructed in the eighteenth century. The machine from Strakonice in 1780 is one of Lee's models.22 This is, however, only an assumption, because no model of such a wooden machine has survived. Also those preserved with metal working part date from the beginning of the eighteenth century.

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