February 24, 2010 8:35 PM   Subscribe

Antique Circular Sock Knitting Machines

Coveted nowadays by knitters and antique machine enthusiasts alike, the circular sock knitting machine has a long and storied past, both as a revolutionary piece of engineering and as one of the last great vestiges of widespread cottage Industry in America. Dozens of companies sprung up in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries to manufacture numerous versions of knitters, which were primarily sold to rural farm wives, who paid for them by knitting socks for the company, which then sold them (at a substantial profit) to urban clothiers. Once the machine had been "paid off", the socks it made could be still be sold to the company, yielding a regular supplemental income upon which many rural households relied to get through lean times. The recent resurgence in crafting has led to a renaissance in machine knitting and sparked a renewed interest in the history and technique (youtube) of these fascinating machines.
posted by Chrischris (23 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
I want one. Partly because it is a clever, beautiful mechanism, but also because I'm always running out of socks.
posted by phooky at 8:54 PM on February 24, 2010

posted by LobsterMitten at 8:59 PM on February 24, 2010

Wow indeed. And there are a couple of them up on eBay at the moment.

Must resist urge to bid.
posted by cazoo at 9:03 PM on February 24, 2010

My sock yarn stash always tempts me to buy a machine, but I've heard so many stories of people being burned by broken machines bought online that I'm hesitant. There seems to be a strangely high number of Crankers in my area (or I'm way too deep in the fiber culture). I have a friend who cranks long tubes, felts them, cuts them to 5" and makes a slit for a thumb... Almost instant fingerless mitts! She got her machine at a thrift shop for $80, find of a lifetime.
posted by MaritaCov at 9:44 PM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Those are some beeyootiful socks.
These machines put my little DPNs to shame.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:50 PM on February 24, 2010

Those are amazing pieces of machinery. I'm biting my tongue trying to not talk about the way in which these demonstrate exactly how Steampunk fans absolutely fail to understand old machinery and what it involved.

I'll put down my beer and back off.

These are amazing. Thanks for the post, Chrischris.
posted by barnacles at 10:01 PM on February 24, 2010

I've seen one of these in person and they're just beautiful machines. (As I recall there's a bunch of extra work involved around the heel.) Regular knitting machines are also cool, but there's something about just turning a crank and having a tube of fabric come out...
posted by smartyboots at 1:36 AM on February 25, 2010

Holy (or holey) crap, when I was a kid we used to crawl around exploring the attic of the antebellum carriagehouse behind one of my friend's houses in rural Alabama. There was all sorts of old junk treasure up there collecting dust. There was no ACSKM, but there were scores of those wooden conical dowel things (that look like a wooden negative of a horn bell). I never until this day knew what they were or why there were so many of them up there!
posted by Pollomacho at 4:31 AM on February 25, 2010

If my husband is reading this, be warned - we may not be able to make the mortgage payment this month because I must have one of these immediately.

Great post.
posted by Dojie at 5:33 AM on February 25, 2010

Actually, Barnacles, the weird hipster-nerd confluence of knitting and steam-punk has renewed interest in these things - steam-punk folks absolutely love stuff like this. They'd just mod it to add more ornate brass decorations.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:10 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

At the time of their invention, these awesome machines put a lot of handknitters out of work.

They drove the cost of knitted socks down fairly dramatically, and moved sock knitting from a guild job, a career, to something a housewife could do by unskilled laborers.

Lots of social change represented there, which is why I want one.

So much social change, in fact, that the terms Luddite is said, among knitters, to be about a sock knitter who destroyed many of these machines by burning them.

I make socks by hand because I like the quality, the fit, and the many fine properties of wool. I do not have the speed of an 18th century sock knitter, but bear in mind that currently, one sock takes me about 6 hours of knitting. If you wanted to pay me minimum wage to knit socks by hand, well, that's a lot of money for a pair of socks. (And the nice yarn itself is generally $20 a pair). Since sock yarn isn't in my budget at the moment, I'm using all my lovely scraps to make a blanket.

Maybe in a bit someone needs to do a FPP about handknitting of socks. Two cirs, DPNS (4 or 5!) Magic Loop, Cookie A, Yarnharlot's basic recipe, yarn dyers, yarn weight in 1800s compared to contemporary. Egyptian Cotton socks entombed. Other uses for sock yarn....
posted by bilabial at 6:17 AM on February 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

On not preview, wow...
to something a housewife could do by unskilled laborers.

should read:
to something that could be done by unskilled laborers.

(which is not to say that housewives were unskilled in general, but that their lives had not been spent in apprenticeship to sock knitting.)
posted by bilabial at 6:19 AM on February 25, 2010

I don't know that you can really blame the technology for the development of the sweating system during the industrial revolution. It may have facilitated cheaper socks but the guild system was quickly being absorbed into the manufactories. You wouldn't really specifically blame the home sewing machine for the industrialization of clothing manufacturing and the development of "ready-made" clothes would you? Maybe this is a chicken v. egg type debate?
posted by Pollomacho at 6:46 AM on February 25, 2010

Do it, bilabial, and don't forget to link Sock Summit and the Sock Museum!

Another good blog post about sock machines and where to get them. I want one too, but not till I'm independently wealthy -- refurbed ones start around a thousand dollars, comparable to the cost of a nice loom or fantastic new spinning wheel.
posted by clavicle at 7:28 AM on February 25, 2010

My dad has one of these, but it's missing some of its needles. He actually showed me how to knit a sock with it - he told me it was his job as a child on winter nights to work the knitting machine to make socks for the family!
posted by LN at 7:36 AM on February 25, 2010

bilabial - I handknit socks on commission. I charge between 15 and 20 cents a yard depending on how difficult the pattern is, plus the cost of yarn. That averages out to about $80 for a pair of socks, which usually puts me right below Michigan's minimum wage. However, I knit at the movies, on car trips and in class so I'm okay not making as much as I would at regular wages. It's the people who think I should only charge the cost of yarn "since I enjoy knitting so much" that amaze me. My friend sells machine knit socks at fiber fests and craft shows, she charges about $35 for a pair, she takes a $20 hit on yarn and ends up making about the same an hour as I do. It takes longer to properly graft a toe on a machine knit sock and she turns her heels by hand. She makes most of her money repairing and restoring knitting machines of all kind.

Also, Cookie A is my sock muse. I've knit Kai-Mei more than a couple times, perfect sandal sock! Janel Laidman is right up there, too.
posted by MaritaCov at 7:38 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Wonderful post! So many 19th/early 20th century machines were beautiful and graceful while still being functional. All that gold paint and wonderful lettering, for something destined to serve a mundane--if vital--function. Pure delight.

Mitch Hedberg let us know that the ultimate stocking stuffer is a severed foot. Just thought I'd toss that in there; I just spent an hour digging my car out of the snow and cannot be held responsible for exhaustion-induced digression.
posted by kinnakeet at 7:50 AM on February 25, 2010

Awsome band name.
Just sayin'
posted by nola at 8:11 AM on February 25, 2010

Oh, I want one of these so bad...
posted by sarcasticah at 9:42 AM on February 25, 2010

If you're on the fence about buying one, I probably shouldn't say this, but the action is appealing on a visceral level. I begged to be allowed to turn the crank on a sock knitting machine that a vendor had brought to the Madrona trade floor a few years ago.

It goes "clunk clunk clunk" as you turn the handle, and it's a wonderfully satisfying, cast iron sort of clunk. And socks come out the bottom!

I can't explain its appeal any better, except to say that it is really awesome.
posted by ErikaB at 11:33 AM on February 25, 2010


bilabial, you should link Stariel as well when you get around to doing that post, she's got more pairs of handknit socks than anyone I know, and I'm fortunate enough to have a pair she knit for one of my books.

Speaking of Cookie A, too, I've got a pair of Monkeys in Noro sock yarn my dear friend Andi knit for me and they are SPECTACULAR.
posted by at 10:30 PM on February 25, 2010

My Grandmother was an Antique Sock Knitting Machine. I still have some too!
posted by milkwood at 11:36 PM on March 4, 2010

Sock machines are still available in less-expensive modern versions.
The much joked-about "hello kitty knitting machine" is a clunky children's toy that has the same principle of these machines, and has about the right diameter output to make thick adult socks.

There's also the non-mechanized version, called a sock loom. If you're not the kind of person to knit socks by hand, these are great for getting a pair of socks churned out- once you have handknit socks, you don't want to go back to the socks in a bag from the big box store.

So haw many other MeFites are on Ravelry? I'm Hwin there.
posted by Hwin at 7:33 AM on March 5, 2010

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