I wanted to knit socks and realized that there was no way I would be able to knit enough socks even for my own family," Jill Serr commented.
"Using my spare time, it took about six weeks to make one pair. When I saw these circular sock knitting machines on the Internet I became fascinated with them and bought one."
She said that it takes quite a while to learn to use one, especially if you don't have an instructor. She followed book instructions for about three months and when she ran into trouble she contacted the manufacturer. Luckily a representative was making rounds and was going to be in the area. She stopped by, stayed overnight and gave the help needed. Serr taught a friend, Janet Fabula, and was able to offer some help to several other sock knitters in the area.
"I am aware of only four other of these machine knitters in this immediate area," she said, "though there are more on the Front Range. Many of them are involved in other fiber arts, knitting, weaving and such."
The cost in getting set up varies. You can get a machine on eBay for as low as $200. Since you can't see it before you buy it, you're taking a chance as to whether it will work, if cylinders are swollen, the crank not working, or parts are rusty or missing. If you know what you are looking for and you are lucky, you can get a machine in good condition for less. Many of these were used very little, partially because the learning curve to use correctly is quite extensive. You might find one that was used briefly and still in very good condition if it was stored properly.
If you buy a new one, the NZAK (New Zealand Auto Knitter), is the only manufacturer making them now. You'll pay $1,200 to $1,700 depending on the dollar exchange rate at the time of purchase.
The machines were developed in the mid 1800s, according to a history in "The Sock Knitting Machine 101 Book" by Donna Peters. The machines were designed to cut down on the time needed to knit a pair of socks. For many years these strange looking, hand-cranked devices were sold by door-to-door salesmen who were the first to learn and demonstrate the use of the machines. The idea was not well received by traditional hand-knitters, and interest did not catch on very quickly.
During Word War I, there was such a shortage of socks that the American Red Cross gave machines to people who would agree to knit a quota of socks for the infantry. The effort was a success and the machine gained a good reputation across North America and Europe. Several companies produced them including Creelman, Griswold, Imperia, Home Profit Master Machine, Auto Knitter and Gearhart to name a few. Many women purchased these machines in the earlier days because the manufacturers promised to buy back the socks that they made. When the finished socks were sent in, they were often rejected by inspectors. Specific standards were so strict that it was almost impossible to satisfy the manufacturer. One row too many, or not enough on the cuff, sock, heel or toe, and the socks were not accepted. Surely this discouraged many of the women who thought they could make some extra money at home.
Production ceased in the 1930s, and resurfaced briefly in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, these machines are turning up in attics, garage sales, antique stores and auctions.
Serr has three machines, including a NZAK which was purchased new. Her Green Harmony had been purchased in 1940 and never used. It was stored in a closet for years. A friend of Serr's learned of it, bought it in perfect unused condition and sold it to Serr. The antique Creelman manufactured in the mid 1800s is the machine that Serr demonstrated during Heritage Day at Pioneer Town. This machine was purchased from Laura Schickli, who restores the machines. They had known each other previously when Serr helped a bit with a book Schicki was writing titled, "Beginning Circular Sock Machine Knitting Notes."
The machines are not limited to sock making. It's possible to knit scarves, mittens, tote bags, and even dolls, ponchos and blankets.
Serr says that she isn't ready to tackle fancy patterns or other projects yet, though she does enjoy knitting the basic solids and stripes. She takes orders for "custom made socks," taking measurements to fit each individual. She sells her socks at the Purl and Pottery II and the Manna Health Food Store in Cedaredge. Informal groups called "crank-ins" get together on occasion. The circular sock machine knitters meet to exchange ideas and "talk shop." The Circular Sock Machine Society of America, or CIMSA, holds conventions each year at locations throughout the United States.
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