Machine Knitting Wee Sweaters

The time has come to fill you in on a project that has been going on for months now, but recently gained steam again. It’s been so long now since we’ve started that I don’t remember how much I’ve already mentioned, but I’ll pretend we’re starting at zero. It’s a collaboration with my mum, who in the last year got her hands on this:

It’s a Passap brand double-bed knitting machine. She got it on freecycle, and spent a ton of time this year taking one all the way apart, fixing it up, reassembling it, and learning how to use it.

Nice view of my dad’s garden railroad included.

As soon as she told me about it, I got super excited, because I had been learning about the use of home knitting machines in Shetland’s cottage knitting industry. Kate Davies even published a pattern, Cockatoo Brae, in collaboration with Ella Gordon, meant for the body and sleeves to be knit on a machine and the yoke by hand.

When mum told me about her machine, I was keen to give one of these types of patterns a try. I decided on the Wee Bluebells pattern by Kate Davies. I love putting my girls in matching things, and need to make haste to do so while they will still let me, so how better to expedite the process than with a knitting machine?

I ordered yarn directly from Jamiesons and Smith in Shetland, discovering that their cones yarns are oiled specifically for use in knitting machines. Makes sense. I even had a rather star-struck exchange of emails with Ella Gordon herself about it. I ordered a cone of the main colour and balls of the contrast colours.

Image from Jamieson & Smith’s online shop,, where I spent many happy hours. Ah, FC37, how I love thee!

The yarn was delivered to mums house in the spring, and she got to work right away. She was still learning her machine at that point, but had worked out how to knit things in the round. She figured out how to apply those skills to sleeves on other test sweaters.

Ella had machine knit the body of the original Cockatoo Brae sample in flat pieces that were later seamed. But I wondered, could it be done in the round? A flurry of emails with mum and much experimentation on her part discovered it could be done.

When I arrived at her house this summer, she had things all set up for me to get to work. She had knit ribbings for all of the bodies, and even done the bottom colorwork border on one. Those had to be done by hand.

Then it was down to me to learn the machine and crank out all the pieces I needed in the couple weeks I was there. Mum had already done all the hard work and just showed me how it went, so in a very short time I was off to the races.

It’s been a few months now, but if I remember right I did all the sleeves. I did two of the bottom borders by hand, then they had to be re-hung on the machine painstakingly to machine knit the rest. But guess who did most of the work on the bodies!

I think he enjoyed himself a bit.

Weights are an important part of the process – as are chip bag clips.

It was an exciting process, and throughout I realized the truth of all the declarations I’ve heard about machine knitting over the years: it is absolutely handwork. It requires the work of skilled hands, and a lot of attention: if a row is mis-tensioned or a stitch is dropped and you don’t catch it right away, it’s a good bit of doing to fix it. Everything is fixable, though, and like in all crafts, fixing is just another set of skills.

We left my mum’s house with three completed bodies and three pairs of sleeves, carefully sorted and labeled. There they sat for a couple more months. I finally pulled them back out again last month, as soon as Strodie was off the needles.

The first thing I had to do was swatch. I had no desire to knit an entire yoke just to discover my gauge was radically different from mum’s machine. Mum had given me the nice swatch which she had washed, and my goal was to match it. I knit a really big swatch, with long loops at the back to replicate knitting in the round, and I got it on the first try. I was within 8/100ths of an inch. Thank goodness, because that was a big boring swatch.

Then, well… business as usual!

So far I’ve finished D’s yoke,

Gotten M’s back on the needles and joined,

And N’s is still waiting in the wings. I’ll do up all the yokes, then get the steeking over with all at once. My target? Done in time for Christmas card pictures. Think I’ll make it?

I’ve been watching a lot of conversations online about capsule wardrobe, sustainable clothing, handmade wardrobe, that sort of thing. I strongly suspect that the knitting machine has an important place in that conversation. There are pieces of clothing that are really too time-consuming and tedious (for me, anyway) to make by hand, but which are out of my price range to buy from sustainable materials, if they can be found at all.

Leggings are the big one I think of – they are an absolute staple of my wardrobe, for layering even more than style. Leggings and yoga pants are mostly made of nylon and polyester. I don’t particularly want to knit leggings by hand (though I have looked many a time at Elizabeth Zimmermann’s “Nether Garments” pattern), but wouldn’t that be perfect for the knitting machine? There is a whole world of knitting machine yarn (and weaving yarn) that is actually affordable, even breed-specific wool yarn. Wouldn’t BFL leggings be out of this world?

Weaving is making a comeback right now, but I hope machine knitting becomes a larger part of the conversation again too. I’m thankful my mum is working that avenue right now, and I hope I have a chance to join her at it again soon.

4 thoughts on “Machine Knitting Wee Sweaters

  1. Absolutely beautiful !!! You are quite gifted Rebecca and your girls are blessed to have such warm and beautiful clothing. Thanks for sharing!


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