Friday, November 26, 2010

Compare Hand Knitting to Machine Knitting

What's the difference between machine knitting and hand knitting?  Is hand knitting better?   What, exactly is involved in going from hand knitting to planning a project on a knitting machine?

In hand knitting, stitches form as you pull a loop from one stick over a loop on the other stitck.  With a little practice and some decent teaching, hand knitting is interesting and relaxing and there's pleasure to be found in the gorgeous colors and textures of yarn and the creativity of the designs.  Plus, when you finish, you have knitted an item - maybe a useful, beautiful item.  I hand knit, and am fairly fast.  A hat takes me an evening.

In machine knitting, stitches - configured exactly like hand knitting stitches - form on latch hooks mounted on some sort of frame.  Machine knitting is very interesting, and with a little practice and some decent teaching, machine knitting can be extremely pleasurable as you enjoy the gorgeous colors, textures of yarn and the creativity of designs.  And, when you finish -  a little sooner than in hand knitting - you have knitted an item.  I machine knit, and a hat takes me 15-20 minutes.

Neither process is better - just different, and used for different purposes.  A few hand knitters look upon machine knitting with great disdain.  The machines just do an inferior job, they say.  Most of those folks are just snobs, and fortunately, knitters are very nice people and very few are snobs.  Snobs are people who miss out on the joys of getting to know other people because of some dark internal motivations. Stop that already - nobody likes a snob, and learning about something new is very good for the brain.

Almost all hand knitters are at least curious about machines, and they know as well as anybody that whether it's an "inferior job" depends on the knitter, not on the sticks or machine.  Did the knitter use inferior materials?  Did the knitter know how to finish the item attractively?  Did the knitter do sufficient planning?  Was the knitter patient enough to rip and redo, as necessary?

Machine knitting is not "cheating," unless washing my clothes in a washing machine instead of on a rock is cheating, or using a sewing machine instead of hand-sewing is cheating.  The machine is a tool.  I combine it with the lovely yarns and what I know or can learn, and I make things.  Sometimes I combine machine knitting with hand knitting, crocheting, or sewing because I like what I can make.

Sometimes people think that MKers push a button and a sweater comes out.  Machine knitting is still challenging, though - it has quite a learning curve! - and a bunch of us are hooked on how varied and interesting it is.

The easiest stitch to knit by hand is garter stitch.  The easiest stitch to knit on a flatbed machine is stockinette.  Stockinette CURLS.  You will need strategies to deal with pieces of machine knitted fabric curling.

When you knit by hand, the stitches slide on a stick, but when you knit by machine, each stitch has its own needle. That sliding quality to hand knitting is dandy for things like increasing or decreasing evenly across a row, but has drawbacks, as well, like the way all the stitches can slide right off and begin to unravel.  There are ways to increase or decrease evenly across a row in machine knitting, but it isn't the most elementary thing and we teach that a little later on.

If you have stitch tension problems when you hand knit, you will love the evenness of machine knitted fabric.

The stick technique is good for flipping over the work to make garter stitch.  We can do that on the knitting machine, too, but it takes extra devices or extra work.

Can you tell the difference between a hand-knit and a machine-knit garment?  Not always, but some stitches we knit by hand are just too much trouble to be practical by machine, and some stitches we knit by machine are too much bother to knit by hand.  You can take advantage of the differences between the methods to add to your knitted effect repertoire.  

Hand knitting is portable. I love to take it along with me.  Having hand knitting to do transforms a long wait at the airport, or the tedium of sitting on a bus.  It can even help redeem a poor television show, and it certainly softens the harshness of the news.

Machine knitting requires not-so-portable equipment.  It's best to leave at least one machine set up for sudden bursts of creativity.  Machine knitters usually carry around a knitting bag, though - filled with items that need sewn together.

As a hand knitter, you follow charts and patterns to make interesting stitches.  If you can acquire a machine with "brains," (punch card or electronics), fantastic fancy patterns can be created with the machine tracking all that.  However, even a very simple machine without a punch card or electronics (like the Ultimate Sweater Machine) can do fancy patterns - but you'll do more work keeping track.

The machine's speed, a primary advantage, can be leveraged in a number of ways:

1.  Sizing:  by knitting lightning fast, you can make great, big accurate gauge swatches and knit your garment pieces exactly the right size and shape.

2.  Experimentation:  It's hard to express the value of trial and error in my knitted designs.  If I make a mistake or a change, ripping out a day's worth of work isn't nearly so difficult as ripping out a month's worth!  I'll often knit several neckbands or other details before I'm satisfied.  After a while, you develop a steely-eyed willingness to rip, which great hand knitters know is essential for truly excellent work.

3.  Productivity:  got a slipper pattern you love?  Knit a pair for everyone on the Christmas list!  I once knitted 17 pairs of slippers in neon colors for my entire department and other colleagues at work on my antique sock machine.  Another Christmas, I cooked up a thread lace afghan in white chenille, and knitted four of them for my siblings.

4.  Beat boredom:  sometimes in hand knitting, I get tired of the object before I get finished with it.  In machine knitting, you can knit something and move on quickly, so boredom's not such a problem.

4. Charity:  Knit for a good cause!  Project Linus, the Guideposts Sweater Project, Chemo Caps, or any of dozens of other organized charities, hospitals, shelters, and ministries can use your knit goods.  Your knitted baby blanket may be the only one the mom receives, and she marvels that anyone would actually knit for her. My friend Mineloa Grumbles used to say that she loved knitting for children served by local shelters and ministries because sooner or later, she'd see her knitted items being worn by those kids.


  1. Just wondering if you hand-knit using the English or Continental method. I would think knitting as a "leftie" would have it's own challenges.

  2. I knit in the right-handed way, both English and Continental. I usually use Continental method. I crochet left-handed.

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  4. I could not find your mail Hello Vanda

  5. Excellent article, thank you for such a great summary on the difference and similarities between the two methods. I especially like the fact that you do both, so it's not biased. Best summary I've read!