What to Look for When Buying a Used Knitting Machine

17 August 2022
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So, you want to be a machine knitter.

You’ve watched videos on basic stitches, you know which gauge you want (standard, mid-gauge, or bulky), and machine knitting—taken step-by-step—looks straightforward. A brand-new machine is expensive ($2,000–$5,000), but a used machine can be a more affordable option ($250–$700). The best places to search for a used machine are internet marketplaces like eBay and Kijiji. I use Singer/Silver Reed brand machines, but I’ve heard that Brother/KnitKing machines are reliable.

After browsing online, you’ve found a used machine. Now, how do you ensure that the machine and tools you’ve found are in working order before completing the purchase? What tools, accessories and features do you need?

Let’s start by looking at the machine itself.

The main component of a knitting machine is called the knitting bed. This long piece holds necessary accessories, like your needles, and supports the carriage, grasshopper, and other features like pattern charting devices, a punch card reader, and a row counter. The knitting bed is often paired with a companion bed called a ribbing bed or ribber. This second bed is used to create ribbing, fancy ribbing, circular knitting, double-sided colourwork, and other techniques (the machine’s manual may include additional information).

The carriage drives your needles forward to create the fabric. Each time the carriage passes across the knitting bed it creates one row of stitches. Moving the cam lever to different settings (from stockinette to colourwork, tucks, and slip stitches) changes how the carriage reads input and knits stitches. The tension dial in the centre dictates stitch size.

The grasshopper, which consists of the auto tensioner and the yarn rod, has two thin, springy, steel rods that bob up and down as the yarn is pulled through their tips to maintain consistent tension on the yarn.

Your transfer tools are used to move stitches to create picots, cables, ladders, or to manually select needles for colourwork, tuck, and slip stitches. Weights are hung on the cloth to prevent it from popping off the needles as you work. A set of double-ended transfer tools (1×2, 2×3, 3×1), a latch hook, weights, and clamps that match your machine’s gauge are a must.

At minimum, a machine knitter needs the knitting bed, the carriage, grasshopper, hand tools and weights. Optional additions might include a ribbing bed and its carriage, extra tools, weights, a lace carriage, an intarsia carriage, yarn changers, card readers, digital interfaces, etc. That is a lot to keep track of, so, to keep things straightforward, we’re going to work with a basic set up. This analysis can be used regardless of whether a machine is found listed online or in the forgotten corner of a thrift shop.

Image description: knitting machine, fully assembled, photographed from above.

Top-down view of a fully set up machine. The stripes of the carpet are 1 cm wide.

First, identify your machine. Ask the seller about the provenance of the machine. Where has it been? How was it used? Who cared for it? Where was it stored? Then, search the internet for the model number and find a PDF of the manual. This will serve as a checklist for equipment that you can expect to be included with the machine and will show you what the machine is capable of.

Next, examine the knitting bed in front of you or the images online. Check the colour of the plastic. This will give you an idea of how much sun exposure it received. Machines are made of white plastic which turns yellow and orange over time. The location of the discolouration can give you an idea of the machine’s age and use. Then, check the grates on the metal sheet, the slots guide needles forward and back. Are the grates smooth or chipped? How easily do the needles move? Check for chips, dents, warping, and rust. Are you comfortable using a metal cleaner like Brasso to clean rust off the metal? Are there parts that are too pitted and scarred to be saved? Can you find replacement parts online?

Now, carefully unlock the carriage from the machine and gently slide it off the bed. Flip it upside down, and check for hair and yarn. Rotate the tension dial and the cam lever. Watch the parts move on the underside of the carriage and how everything interacts. Is it smooth? Maybe it resists heavily the first couple of times and then eases up. If you can physically examine a potential purchase, I recommend bringing paper towel and sewing machine oil with you. Try wiping the old grease away and applying fresh oil, working it in by changing the dial. On the back of the carriage are the card reader drums. Spin them. If they’re stiff, don’t oil them immediately. It can take some work to loosen drums. First, see if you can spot an obstruction, and then watch The Answer Lady’s video on cleaning drums.

Next, return your attention to the knitting bed. Is the back bar dirty? Clean it and add a spot of oil. Set the cam lever to O for stockinette, and the Russel levers (on the front) to 2/II. Move all needles from the back of the bed (A) to the frontmost position (D). Slide the carriage on and pass it from one side to another, ensuring that the needles are all drawn into and through the carriage. Do this several times. Get a feel for how the bed acts and if any needles need replacing. It should be relatively smooth, with a tick-tick-tick sound as the needles move along different ramps inside the carriage. Watch videos of similar models in action to become familiar with the sound it should make.

After you have inspected the machine bed, passed the carriage across the bed, and set up the grasshopper, check your manual’s list of tools for what is present and absent. Match your transfer tools to your needles to make sure that they have the same spacing (4.5 mm, 6 mm, or 9 mm).

Finally, check the sponge bar. This is part of the knitting bed; it ensures that the needles are pressed downwards after the carriage has passed. You can check the sponge bar by making sure that the needles are pressed down, or you can poke the bar out of the machine to check if the sponge has degraded. If it has, then the needles can drop stitches and cause jams. A degraded sponge will be a dirty yellow-orange colour and may no longer fill its tunnel in the knitting bed.

A knitting machine is a fantastic invention. It is a tool that lets you knit with even tension and at a relatively consistent pace. The machine is not as mobile as a pair of needles and yarn, nor is a beginner machine knitter as fast as a moderate or experienced hand knitter, but at least the sleeves will always be the same size when you use a machine! It is an art form worth exploring and maintaining.

Knitting Machine Gauges

A standard or fine-gauge machine will knit lace to sport weight yarn (with a weight of 0–2 based on the Craft Yarn Council’s standard yarn weight system). A mid-gauge machine will knit yarns in the 2–4 weight range into a tightly knitted cloth without gaps. Bulky machines will knit worsted and Aran weight yarns (CYC weight 5). You can knit smaller gauge yarns on a larger machine and create beautiful results. If you’re not sure whether a certain yarn is suited to your machine, listen to your machine as it tries to knit the yarn. If the yarn is too large for the needles or the carriage struggles to move across the bed, use a thinner yarn.

Compare the differences between these two cases. Look at the colour of the plastic, the dings, and the scuffed corners. (Click image to enlarge.)

Image description: 2 used knitting machine cases

The inside of the lid and the machine bed. The carriage is missing from the lower machine. (Click to enlarge.)

Image description: vintage mechanical hardware as seen from above.

The grates on the left are good, the ones on the right are chipped. (Click to enlarge.)

Image description: 2 vintage metal knitting machine grates are aligned vertically, side by side.

Setup during a test pass of the carriage over all of the needles. The sponge bar is hidden under the metal below the D symbol. (Click to enlarge.)

Image description: Setup of a vintage knitting machine.

The carriage. Machine arm missing. The tension dial and cam lever are visible in the centre of the carriage. (Click to enlarge.)

Image description: Carriage of a vintage knitting machine, with the arm missing.

A sponge bar partially pushed out of its position in the knitting machine. The desiccated sponge is visible, attached to the underside of the bar. This sponge bar desperately needs to be replaced and the machine should not be used for knitting until it is. (Click to enlarge.)

Image description: Sponge bar partially pushed out on vintage knitting machine.

Two claw weights; needle transfer tool 1×2, 2×3, and 1×3; latch hook tool. (Click to enlarge.)

Image description: several small combed tools for use with vintage knitting machine.

Top-down view of a fully set up machine. The stripes of the carpet are 1 cm wide. (Click to enlarge.)

image description: a close up of the mechanical elements of a knitting machine


Free knitting machine manuals:

Machine parts:
Ebay and Kijiji

All images credit Maghan Wilson.

Copyright © Magan Wilson except as indicated.

About Magan Wilson

Magan Wilson is a potter turned fibre artist with a love of plants, experimentation, cats, and the hidden beauty of the natural world. Her love of glaze chemistry and form transformed into a love of dyes, fibre, felt, and knitwear. Her work catches the wholeness of existing in the present. The wild nature of the world that flourishes on the fringes of awareness. Chasing the idea of a 'wild night' you can find her work via her alias of Oíche Rua (EE-ha RU-ah), an Irish phrase capturing the chaos and wild beauty of the night sky. https://oicherua.substack.com/

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