So this weekend I got the chance to go to a machine knitting workshop: thank the lord, I thought! I have a knitting machine that lurks in my spare room, sad, neglected and guilt-inducing. It looks like a prototype that NASA rejected because it was made entirely of beige plastic and random bits of wire. It would be a lot less intimidating if it wasn’t older than me, but it is, and the instructions really show it. I found it fiddly to set up and difficult to use properly, so after making a few attempts I pretty much just ignored it. A workshop seemed like a great way to learn to use it properly; sometimes things are just impossible (or so difficult that I give up, so I count that as impossible) to learn from leaflets, and you need a person there to help you. That person in my case was Kate (founder of Oubas Knitwear) who runs workshops in Halecat, Witherslack.
The setting is beautiful: stone buildings in the middle of fields, with the original Georgian building of Halecat House just up the road. It was interesting just to see inside the workshop of a knitwear business and admire the yarn stash! The knitting machines were set out in a square so it felt fairly communal, and there were cups of tea and coffee all round. Kate had cast on so that in the morning we concentrated on getting used to using the machine and experimenting with tension and simple stitches. It made a big difference to how confident I felt using the machine, I imagine in the same way it’d be a lot easier to learn to use a sewing machine if you didn’t personally have to set it up yourself. (The seventeen different places you have to loop and dip the thread on a sewing machine always seemed like a really complicated, unknowable ritual to me).
Turns out that it’s much easier than I thought to machine knit. When we’d gotten used to playing around with the tension (which creates a subtle stripe pattern) we moved on to lace and tuck stitches. This is a tuck stitch:
Tucks are created by picking up a single stitch and hooking it onto the current stitches waiting to be knit (I’m sure there’s more technical language to describe this but hey) . At the top of the fabric you can see where I made diagonal tucks by moving them a few stitches to the right or the left when I joined them. I love the effect this has! The other women in the workshop did some awesome things with larger tucks (where you pick up stitches from much further down your knitting) which created a really slouchy, textured fabric.
Lace stitches are also easy to do once you get the hang of moving the stitches about. In handknitting you would knit two stitches together and create a yarn-over, but in machine knitting you only need to knit two stitches together (by moving a stitch from one needle to another) and the machine just knits right across. After lunch (mainly ginger cake and coffee for me, provided by Kate) we learnt how to cast on and off ourselves. This is the MAIN thing I wanted to learn, and now I do actually feel confident doing it. Huzzah, hurray, etc. All of us were at completely different levels of competence but Kate led us all through in logical stages and was there to help if we needed it, or leave us be if we were happy knitting. One woman managed to finish a scarf by the end of the day!
In the following photo, the swatch on the right is lace stitches (and a ladder, which is an easy extension of the original lace stitch). The left swatch shows tuck stitches, and the middle swatch shows my personal BIG ACHIEVEMENT….shaping!
It’s true. I can officially increase and decrease on a knitting machine. I could practically knit a jumper right frigging now! There is NOTHING holding me back!
…except that my machine at home is nowhere near as easy to use as Kate’s. I know I’m being a bad workman and blaming my tools, but the fact is that at this workshop I was able to make fabric that doesn’t look like a pile of spaghetti down the side. This has never been achieved at home. Luckily Kate has experience restoring old machines (erm, they are basically all old btw. Good luck finding a new one. THERE IS A GAP IN THE MARKET MANUFACTURERS, HELLOOOOOOO!) and told me that she had the same issue and it was solved by replacing a sponge bar (didn’t even know my machine had a sponge bar) and you can buy kits to do this on ebay. So not only did I learn how to do the basics of machine knitting but I also got a tip on how to fix my home machine. Definitely worth the money and a trip to Witherslack!