Old knitting machines never die, they just end up in the attic or under someone's bed. These machines (and by vintage, I mean circa 1950-1960s or earlier) are very well made - mostly from metal. However, they will be lacking in later innovations. Early machines did not have tension masts (some had them attached directly to the carriage). Early machines often did not have sponge bars, they may have had metal strips instead. They may have a different way of handling the yarn, eg moveable sinkers and static needles. They will not be able to do automatic lace (using a lace carriage) because their needles are too stiff. Vintage machines often used non-standard gauges, eg 5.5mm. In all cases, it will be very hard, if not impossible, to purchase spares for these machines. They will no doubt knit beautiful stocking stitch, once you get them working. But the yarn tension may be an issue, and any patterning you might want to do will be done by hand. Slip, tuck, fairisle, lace etc are not impossible on older machines, but they are more time consuming. These items are of curiosity value only, and should be priced as such. Alas, sellers often charge too much - the machines are not really worth much unless you are a collector, but you will often see vintage machines going for lots more than their original selling price online (bearing in mind they were sold pre-decimalisation too!). How much would you pay for a 60 year old car, unless you were a collector?
Things to ask:
- Does it have a tension mast?
- Can it do any automatic patterning?
- Can I still buy spares for it?
- Is it fairly clean, or filthy, or is it completely rusty? Dirt can be cleaned off but serious rust is irrepairable
- Is it a modern gauge so that if I buy small accessories from another brand, they will still work? (Modern gauges are 3.6, 4.5, 5, 6.5, 8 (USM) and 9mm).
I have nothing against vintage machines, as an engineer I find them fascinating to look at. Mark at Metropolitan has a fascinating collection - he usually acquires them when they are donated to him for free. I would, however, miss the modern innovations later machines offer.
Damaged or incomplete goods
Most knitting machines and accessories came in convenient carry cases and boxes which had places for all the parts, but even so, over the years things can get seperated. Make sure you scrutinise any pictures and check that you can see the main parts, and that they are in good condition. With the exception of Silver/Knitmaster (aka Studio, Empisal), knitting machines are no longer manufactured. Whilst some spares are still available, replacing parts or major items such as carriages can be very difficult and very expensive.
Things to ask:
- Can I see the carriage / tension mast?
- Are all the parts present and correct?
- Is there a manual?
- Are any items damaged?
- Is the bed flat (ie has it been dropped)?
It's always worth asking the seller to check the manual if available. There is a pictorial list of what should be with the machine at the front. Small items such as transfer tools, needles etc can be replaced (see note about gauges above), but a knitting machine without its carriage is just a large metal doorstop. Cracked or damaged plastic can indicate the machine has been badly treated. A bent bed is useless.
Dirty or rusty goods
A grimy machine isn't always beyond redemption - oil attracts dust but can be removed with care (surgical spirit aka denatured alcohol is the best). Surface rust on needles can be removed by soaking overnight in a solution of strong tea. However, deep rust is beyond repair.
Postage and packing
It's always advisable to pick up the machine yourself if at all possible. You can check over the machine for damage and missing parts, you can see it working, and you can always back out if need be. If it's not possible to collect in person, you must insist the seller packs the machine very, very well. The original boxes, plus lots of bubble wrap, plus a strong plastic bag or another box. It should look as if it'd bounce. Parcels travel on conveyor systems up to the length of about a metre, so if the seller can cover it with "manual handling only" stickers that might help it to arrive in good condition (presuming the seller can be bothered - despite my offer to pay extra, I still took delivery of a damaged machine). If the seller can make it longer than 1.2 to 1.5 metres, it HAS to be manually handled. Parcel conveyor systems use 5-10cm waterfalls - drops between each conveyor - and sometimes the handling can be careless - so your machine should be packed to withstand being dropped. Even metal bed machines have plastic end caps and plastic does not age well. It's worth paying extra for over the top packing, or making the trip to get the machine - you could always make it into a short weekend away, perhaps?
Think what gauge of yarn you want to knit, and purchase accordingly. Standard machines (4.5mm) are the most widely available - but the "standard" yarn thickness of the time was akin to today's modern 4ply. If you want to knit with thicker yarns, you should look for a midgauge (6.5mm) or chunky (9mm) machine.
There are machines with plastic beds and metal beds. Plastic beds are great for beginners but they rarely come with matching ribbers, and patterning is always by hand. The LK150 is a lovely starter machine, as were the Brother KX machines (one of which is even convertible). I never got on with the classic Bond (aka USM/ISM) - the bed is in sections and was never flat, the carriage kept falling apart, and there was no tension mast or sponge bar so needles floated about. But some people do wonderful things with them. If you can afford a metal machine, you will outgrow it less quickly. As with a computer, try and buy the best you can afford.
Selecting a machine - base specification
This is the minimum specification I would look for:
- Overhead tension mast (looks a bit like a tv antenna)
- Some kind of automatic patterning - punchcard is ideal, electronic is best, 4 or 8 button at the very minimum
- Ability to add other accessories in the future, eg a ribber, a lace carriage, an intarsia carriage
- Made by the "big four" - Toyota, Passap, Brother or Knitmaster - these were the most common so spares availability is better.
If you are completely new to machine knitting, I would avoid Passap first time around. They are lovely machines, but they are fixed double beds and they can be harder to learn because you cannot see if there's an error. Their patterning is different and there is less information available for them. I would always recommend starting with a single bed machine and then getting to know the ribber once you are comfortable with the main bed. I would also avoid Toyota - they are great little machines, but they withdrew from the market earlier so bear in mind that spares are getting scarce for this machine.
As regards model numbers, I can only speak for Brother as I don't have as much experience with the other makes. The Brother 710 is my minimum spec (it has 8 button patterning), the early 800s used a quirky sideways punchcard arrangement, which is actually quite handy for on-the-fly designing. The KH830 upwards are proper 24st punchcard machines - they use a roll of stiff paper or plastic, not dissimilar to the organ roll in an old-fashioned pipe organ. The KH900 series are the electronic versions - they work well as long as the electronics are in good order. If not, you'll need an electronic engineer to be able to fix them.
Finally - don't let the red mist descend and pay over the odds for something if you're not sure about it. Post a link to it on the main MK group on Ravelry, and ask other people to take a look for you if you are not sure. They can tell you if it's a good deal or an old crock. I use an auction sniping site (Auctionstealer) to place bids on Ebay. It means I place a sensible bid and then I forget about it - if I don't win, it wasn't meant to be, and I don't get into a bidding war for more than I want to pay.
An honest seller will be happy to answer questions and help you with your purchase. However, a lot of knitting machines are sold off as part of estate sales, and darling nephew has no idea what he's selling sometimes, nor what he ought to charge, so caveat emptor applies.