Mechanized Sock Production

19 Feb

Knitting socks by hand takes a long time.

It seems to take me all winter to do a pair and have it complete just in time for it to languish in my drawer over summer. During both world wars, ladies in our area apparently got together in groups to knit socks for the soldiers, and apparently after some practice were knitting a sock per day.

Socks also wear out faster than some other items of clothing. Choosing the right yarn can really help there. Most of the socks I’ve hand knitted to date have been using regular wool from the local craft store, really intended for knitting wooly jumpers and so forth. This sort of woolen-spun yarn is soft, fluffy and warm, but not very strong and not terribly appropriate for socks. Some breathability is required, and the yarn itself must be hard wearing. Modern socks typically achieve this by adding some nylon, but it can be done with wool if the yarn is semi-worsted or felted.

Sock production is of interest to us at Atamai Village, and so I’ve been researching small scale mechanized sock production. Last week I had the pleasure of visiting what I believe is the world’s only museum of vintage sock knitting machines, run by Jacquie Grant in Hokitika, New Zealand.

Jacquie has spent a lifetime collecting vintage mechanical textile equipment, particularly sock knitting machines. Her collection primarily consists of hand cranked machines, intended for home or cottage industry, but also several fully automated industrial machines. The hand cranked machines were popular in the early part of the 20th Century, and were typically sold as a “work from home” scheme for the housewife, the idea being that you would buy the machine, and then sell the socks back to the company. This business model was apparently not very economical once there was no longer a war on, and the sock machine companies used various scams to keep people buying their machines even when they could no longer afford to buy the socks back.

Dodgy business practices aside, the machines are wonderful. Cranking the handle creates rows and rows of circular knit, and various contraptions aid with ribbed stitches, and turning heels and toes. Vintage machines from a range of different manufacturers exist, although some of those brands were in fact the same companies, and many similarities exist. Vintage machines can often be found on ebay and trademe, and there are several people, including Jacquie Grant, who can provide professional assistance in tuning them up and getting them working again.

There are also three options for a modern hand-cranked sock machine.

Jacquie’s company produces a modern version of the vintage “Auto Knitter” brand machine, called the New Zealand Auto Knitter (NZAK). The existing model of this is the Simplex, which Jacque has been making in conjunction with a NZ engineering firm for many years. This machine is probably the most widely used and best documented of the modern sock machine options. Prices are available on the auto knitter website, and a very detailed video user manual can be found on youtube. This video also makes a good general introduction to vintage sock machines.

New from Jacquie is also the NZAK Quicknit. Jacquie describes this machine as “not better, just different”. It has features found in some of the other vintage machines, including the ability to have different cylinder sizes (thus making it able to knit children’s socks), and the ability to knit a fully ribbed sock with the ribber in-situ.

Also now available is the Erlbacher Gearhart sock machine from the US. This is a modern reproduction of the vintage Gearhart sock machine by Erbacher Gear & Machineworks in Missouri. These manufacturers are fairly new to using sock machines, and while I have heard some good things about the machine online, the only two people I have met on my trip the USA last year who have used one have indicated some potential problems when ribbing. I’m not in a position to effectively judge these machines, but I would recommend doing some research before considering a purchase, and ideally not just online.

Regardless of whether you are interested in newly made machines or vintage ones, Jacquie’s museum is a “must see” for anyone interested in vintage fibre technology. I hope to write more on some of the more industrial machines that I saw there as well.

So, how is this all related to the topic of this blog, opens source textiles?

The vintage sock machines are all in the public domain. This isn’t quite the same as being open source. To really empower people, open source technology needs to come with blueprints, design documentation, and a community of people interested in collaborating on design improvements. The newly manufactured sock machines are not in the public domain, although they are not covered by any current patents. Sock machine manufacture is fairly technical, and I don’t see it as a good opportunity for an open source machine at the moment. So, why the interest?

Well, one important aspect of open source textiles is the goal of empowering small scale textile production, both in cottage industries, and small local industrial scale. Some of these machines seem like ideal candidates to be part of this. We’re certainly planning to incorporate at least one sock machine (probably a NZAK Quicknit) in our village scale textile production at Atamai.

Another discovery from this tour is that Jacquie Grant has a wealth of knowledge to share on the subject of industrial revolution textile production, and I hope to bring you more information about machines in her collection.


2 Responses to “Mechanized Sock Production”

  1. gokakmills September 10, 2012 at 10:22 pm #

    Gokak Mills places a high premium on employee welfare. The company hospital, residential complex, educational institutions are one of the best in the region. More than half the company’s employees were born and educated at these facilities.

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    • craigambrose September 11, 2012 at 8:35 am #

      While this comment is perhaps a little spammy, it was on topic and I did find it interesting to see that an Indian textile mill is monitoring blogs and responding as part of a social media strategy, and in particular talking about employee welfare.

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