I want to buy my first knitting machine but I'm not rich and I don't know how to choose-help!
We get messages like this frequently and understand your confusion. Here are some thoughts. I know this is a long article but there isn't a short answer. You really need to know and consider all of this.
Machines come in various gauges from fine-bulky. Fine are fairly uncommon and I do not suggest them as first machines. The gauge definitions are tied to needle spacing which is fine=3.5-3.6mm, standard=4.5-5mm, mid-gauge=6.5-7mm, bulky 8-10mm. Each has a range of possible yarns to use and there is some overlap between the top size one gauge will handle and the lower end that the next gauge will handle. In general, standards use fingering and sport [#1-#2] yarns sometimes called sock weight], mid-gauges use sport and DK [#2-3], bulkies use worsted and some bulky yarns [#4-5]. The numbers are the USA system of defining yarn sizes. Each machine will handle at least 1 size smaller than I have noted also but at the edges of the machine's ability, the work is more challenging. A lot of your decision depends on the type of knitting you want to do so think about those yarn weights. If you have no opinion, my advice is to go with a bulky or mid-gauge. The needles are larger on them and the visual field easier to negotiate. Think about learning to write in school. You began with big pencils and widely lined paper and progressed to finer instruments as your skills developed. I see machine knitting in the same way. It's easier on your eyes, hands and brain to start bulky. For those with visual impairment or arthritis, bigger is also better.
Machines vary from very simple, with the basic ability to knit a row of stitches to highly complex with the capability to automatically make pattern stitches. I'll call these categories hobby, basic, punchcard and electronic machines. These categories exist in most gauges. A lot of patterning may be done on hobby and basic machines but it will take manual manipulation and hand selection of needles. I think this is actually a good thing from the standpoint of learning what a knitting machine is actually doing. However, if you have a basic machine and take it to a knitting club, you may feel jealous of how much a fancier machine can do and how fast. They are truly amazing. On the other hand, it takes a significant investment in time and effort to learn how to get the more elaborate machines to do what you want done. There's already a lot to learn with just the basic skills. In fact, most machine knitters eventually own multiple machines, whatever their intentions were to begin with. All things considered, if you were my student, I'd suggest you begin with a hobby or basic machine. In addition to their simplicity, they are less of a financial investment than more elaborate machines. The truth is, nobody really knows how much they'll love a new hobby until they've engaged in it for a bit so beginning with a modest investment makes fiscal sense.
A NOTE ABOUT BRANDS
This is the most confusing feature of machine knitting because brand names kept changing and the same machine was marketed in various places under different names. Brother is the same as Knit King. Singer, Studio, and Empisal are alike and are now called Silver Reed.The machines still being produced and available in the USA are: Silver Reed, Taitexma and Artisan. I don't think I have forgotten anyone but let me know if you spot another. Silver Reed is the same as Studio, Singer and Empisal. Taitexma machines are copies of popular Brother models. Artisan standard gauge machines are much like a popular Studio model, their mid-gauge is unique but similar to Studio setup and the bulky is much like a popular Brother model. Brother, Passap, Superba, White, Corona, Matador and many others were once popular and may still be found second hand but are no longer in production and haven't been for some time. So if you want a new machine with a warranty, Silver Reed, Taitexma and Artisan are your choices. I have heard some negative things said about Taitexma and Artisan that I want to address. One criticism is the fact that they are copies of previously popular machines. To some this seems shady. In fact, once a patent lapses in the USA and in much of the world, it is perfectly legal to pick it up, begin paying the patent fees and produce and sell the product. While I don't know for certain what the private business of these companies is, I don't believe it is in any way dishonest. Another criticism is that these companies are said, by some, to be producing lower quality machines than the originals of these models. I have not personally compared a same model machine side by side for quality of materials and performance so I cannot say for certain, and that is what would be required develope an informed opinion. But it is only fair to point out that the NEW cost of Artisan and Taitexma is modest in the field. I bought a new Artisan mid-gauge from the second import shipment over 20 years ago. I've worked it hard. It was cosmetically less perfect than some machines but I have no complaints with its performance and for what I paid, I feel no need to complain that minor features weren't perfect in appearance. There were some genuine issues with the first shipment that the company acknowledged and addressed honorably. I know and do business with both importers and find them honest and decent businessmen. So I urge you not to make a decision based on gossip. We all know how reliable that is.
HOBBY AND BASIC MACHINES
These function very similarly. The difference in the way I'm using the words is that hobby means plastic machine and basic means metal machine. There are metal parts on a hobby machine and plastic parts on a basic machine but the predominance is as stated. This makes hobby machines lighter and more portable. Many serious knitters keep a hobby machine for travel and club meetings just because of this fact. Basic machines are stronger of course, due to their metal construction. Both varieties knit nicely. The very least expensive and simplest hobby machine is the Bond under any of its many, many names. ZERO bells and whistles. Some knitters just adore them, others detest them. I enjoyed one for years myself but because so many do not, I'd recommend one of the other hobby machines as a first choice. LK150 is a mid-gauge hobby machine prduced by Singer/Studio and now Silver Reed. It is probably the most popular hobby machine ever. A similar Brother model the KX350 is still often available and also well loved. Singer/Studio produced HK100 and LK100 bulky hobby machines. To the best of my knowledge Silver Reed is not producing them now. Passap Vario, now a rarity, is a dual gauge hobby machine, as is Brother KX395. White/Phildar Big Phil is a bulky hobby machine. The Artisan D70 is a mid-gauge basic machine that comes complete with a ribber. Singer/Studio SK150[different from LK150] is one of my personal favorite basics. A bulky and a real work horse. Brother 230 is a similar machine. Silver Reed is still producing the SK155 which we'll discuss below but not the SK150. Basic and hobby machines only produce stockinette automatically, though you may expand their repertoire with hand selection. Most can achieve tuck, slip and fairisle if you do the work that the punchcard would do in a fancier model.
The array of these is huge! Those still in production include the Artisan standard and bulky models and Taitexma machines. Silver Reed is producing the SK155 and SK280. Punchcards combined with carriage settings allow the machine to produce slip stitch, fairisle and tuck stitch automatically. Most punchcards have a 24 stitch width, meaning that the pattern can be repeated across the bed but all variation occurs within a 24 stitch area. SK155 uses a 12 stitch punchcard. Punchcard machines have more complicated inward parts than basic machines which means more to go wrong as well as more capability. If you are restoring a machine on your own, this is something to consider. But the capabilities of the machine are exciting. The machine is 100% mechanical. Everything from bringing the needles in and out to the rotation of the card and reading the card is achieved by mechanical means.
Brothers actually select the needles and knit in the same manner as punchcard machines. The difference is that, instead of a punchcard they utilize a little computer to select the needles. Doing this removes the limitation of 24 stitches per pattern. One can reproduce a drawing or photograph with the right graphics interphase because the needle selection process has been expanded to the width of the bed. Brother made a lot of electronic standard gauge machines beginning with the 910 and working up to the 970. The Brother 270 is a bulky electronic. Brother electronic models are often available second hand and are very popular. The difference between the models was largely the capacity of the little computer, which kept growing. The Passap E-6000 is a double bed electronic, though only the front bed uses electronic selection. Several electronic Superba models were made. On Superbas, only the back bed uses electronic selection. Silver Reed is still producing the SK840. There is quite a difference between Brother and Silver Reed electronics. Brother carriages are almost like those on the punchcard machines, with a single electronic sensor. The Brother bed does the needle selecting job. Silver reed carriages actually house a lot of electronic features. Once a knitter is accustomed to the language of the electronic machines, they make selection fast and easy and widen the field of possibility. The downside is that the little computers in discontinued machines are aging and parts are scarce. Fortunately they do last a long time. There are a few people learning to restore old circuit boards and we hope the trend continues but, when choosing a machine, the issue of aging circuit boards is one to add to your considerations. Superba and Passap electronic features are also in short supply. Just recently however, a Dutch company has come out with a package that allows interphase with a present day computer. I don't fully understand the product yet so I won't address it until I do.
Garter carriage actually has two meanings. Originally: a carriage that can help in producing garter stitch. This means that some people still call carriages that transfer stitches from one bed to another garter carriages. Passap and Superba both had them. Brother and Studio had something similar with slightly different capabilites made some models of machine only. But usually the term garter carriage refers to the Brother automatic garter carriage AKA G-carriage. Occasionally I've seen one sold as a "knitting machine" which it is but it MUST have a Brother bed to work on. By itself, it can't do a thing. Brother G-carriages are all motorized and work on Brother models from about 860 onward. The earlier models of machine and G-carriages sometimes require the addition of special rails to connect with the machine. The G-carriage is electronic but will work on a punchcard machine. As it moves along both knit and purl stitches are formed in the same row. You could do this manually by knitting across, which forms all knit stitches, then reforming some as purls. But hand working large garter stitch projects takes more time than most people have to give it. The G-carriage is slow but can do its job while you attend to other things. It's not a great idea to leave it completely unsupervised but you can knit something else or read or cook or babysit within viewing range and still monitor it. Even though the g-carriage is automatic, it's best to bring some machine knitting skills to the table when you use one.
The ribber is a whole second bed of needles facing the opposite way from the main bed. This means that stitches on it will be purl stitches. It's #1 purpose is making ribbing for hems, cuffs, necklines, etc. without having to reform stitches manually. Once you have mastered that, a whole world of double bed fabrics awaits you. Those are the pros. The cons: the ribber costs extra, takes up space and limits your access to the main bed. It is still possible to work freely on the main bed but your elbow room is reduced by the ribber. Do you need one? Oh please! How do I know? It depends entirely on what you want to knit, how much of it you'll do and how you feel about hand manipulation. My personal feelings are as follows: I wouldn't like to be without one. I have them on several machines. But I also have several machines that I leave purposely ribber-less for the ease of access. Be aware that there is not a ribber available for every model of machine.
G-CARRIAGE VS. RIBBER: DO I NEED BOTH?
Well, no. But many knitters do have and enjoy both. The ribber is much, much faster. Set it up, knit the ribbing and get on with the sweater. Your ribbing will take less than 10 minutes this way. The G-carriage makes nice sweater ribbing, too but probably will take over an hour to do it. On the other hand, you don't have to push the carriage and when you remove it, the machine bed is completely accessable to you. One more thing to consider: machine knitting makes some noise any way you do it but the G-carriage has a motor so it makes extra noise. So it's a personal call. My suggestion is not to buy a G-carriage until you have become a competent knitter. It costs enough extra that waiting until you know you love the craft makes sense to me.
WHERE'S THE BEST PLACE TO GET A GOOD DEAL?
A dealer or reliable reseller of used machines. Seriously. I know that great yard sale and ebay finds exist and I've enjoyed quite a few. But when you ask for a "good deal" more than money is invovled. For a new knitter, "good deal" includes knowing that the machine is in working order when you receive it. This is super important because when you hit a snag, and you absolutely will, it is critical to know whether it's operator error or something wrong with the machine. An experienced knitter will be able to work on a "find", identify its issues and work through them. A new knitter may destroy a salvagable machine while trying to learn to knit on it. We get questions about this all the time. Sure, there are exceptions. I know a few people who've bought an oldie, taken it apart, cleaned it, made replacements for missing parts, then learned to knit. The world does contain a few eccentric mechanical geniuses. Most of us aren't them. There are professional sellers that charge a fair rate, make certain the machines are complete, clean and functional and know what they are selling. For your first machine, buying from one of these people will save you lots of grief.
Here's a story to illustrate my point. I got interested in Corona machines because of their unusual design and movable gatepegs. Part of my interest stemmed from trying to help a knitter who found one at a bargain and was trying to learn to knit on it. She had endless difficulties and before contacting us had tried to trouble shoot but, as she didn't know how to knit or how the machine really worked, had done some things that may not even be repairable. Very sad and demoralizing. Eventually I found a bargain Corona. It arrived, incomplete [as expected, no misrepresentation] but I understood what was missing and borrowed bits from other machines to try it out. *Jack gave it a little cleaning. I cast on. Did a few swatches, learned the system, identified a few issues. We took it apart and worked on some stuff. Repeat from the * for several weeks. It's going to be a great machine and will do what we wanted which is teach us about the Corona system and fix my sorrowful shortage of knitting tools. [hahahaha]. But before we are finished, what we are investing will be many, many skilled and knowledgable hours--hundreds of dollars worth of labor. And this is in the hands of an experienced mechanic and knitter. It IS a bargain to me. It would be a nightmare as a first machine.
WHAT BASICALLY GOES WRONG WITH KNITTING MACHINES?
This is an inside joke. Years upon years ago, I had a young boss who thought he was a wheeler-dealer and bought many things at bargain auction prices. One of these was a Mercedes Diesel car. It did what all of his finds did and proved to be a total pain in the neck so he asked Jack, "What basically goes wrong with diesels?" thinking to get free mechanical expertise over a company dinner. Good luck with that. There is no short answer. But for knitting machines, there almost is one. Of course, they are complex machines and many, many possibilities exist but there are two biggies to always check first. Most machines [not Passaps or Superbas] have a sponge bar that fits into a channel towards the front of the needlebed and presses the needles down. It's a wear item. Time alone will destroy it as will use. When the sponge loses its ability to press down, mishaps from mis-patterning to utter mayhem occur. ALWAYS check the sponge bar if you have trouble. The other big concern is cleaning and lubrication. It's unbelievable the performance difference that these two make. A great deal of breakage can be traced to failure to deal with cleanliness and lubrication when they were needed. Jack has oodles of videos on these subjects to help you and I have several on changing, rebuilding and identifying the need for sponge bars. A link to our YouTube index is below. All videos are free. The index is housed on our site so that you don't have to struggle with YouTube searches.
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