So I've been working with my knitting machine for the last few days, and I have to say so far I am really enjoying it. Even making the ribbing, which I thought I would absolutely hate, has been kind of fun in a mindless zen-like way. Since the machine can pretty much ONLY knit in stockinette, you do ribbing by stockinetting the section, then dropping the stitches that should be purled and hand-hooking them back up in the opposite direction. It's not quite as bad as it sounds, since the machine comes with a hand hook tool that makes this pretty easy, and the knitting is in a more or less natural position to do this with.
I have decided that I'll write a full review of the machine. So far, the majority of my experience is in making one of the patterns from the included pattern book - the men's style sweater (identical to woman's, except it has ribbed edges rather than rolled.) But seeing as how this is the last pattern, I think it brings in some of the most complicated things, and runs through most of the machine's abilities - stockinette stitch, making rib stitches, seaming on the machine, shaping with increases and decreases. It does NOT contain fair isle or intarsia techniques, but I am working on those independantly as well.
This is a review of the Bond America Ultimate Sweater Machine Deluxe kit, which is the same as the standard USM except it comes with a few accessories like one extension kit that adds 20 needles, intarsia keyplate, and row counter.
Setting up the machine might be a bit tough for those who aren't real do-it-yourselfers. First comes assembly, which is not very hard. The instructions that come with it are simple. All you need to do is bolt together the two halves of the bed. If you have an extension, you just bolt that between the two halves. The only trouble I had here is that the edge of my left half didn't want to easily line up with the edge of the right half or the edge of the extension. I fixed this by trimming the small strip of foam cushioning that stuck out from under the needle retainer. Things can get more complicated if you are trying to attach two machines together - some advanced users do this so they can have more needles in a row, useful for very wide projects - but for a standard/deluxe model, I found it quite easy. Once it's assembled, you have to then clamp the machine to a table. It comes with a non-skid mat you can simply set it upon, but I don't think this is a good idea. To work right, the knitting hanging from the machine needs to be weighted, and it seems like it would easily tip off the table if it weren't clamped down.
The kind of surface it attaches to is pretty specific - it needs to be a flat-edged, solid table, with at least 2" of room between the table edge and any other structures - and not everyone has that kind of table available. Including me. One thing that works perfectly, though, is a quick trip to the hardware store. One 2x12 and two large C-clamps are all you need (about $15). Attach the USM to the board following its instructions, and then you can clamp the board with its C-clamps to nearly any horizontal surface; counters, tables, etc etc. One thing I really like about this is that you can then unclamp the board, but leave the machine still attached, and it's easy to store out of the way like that. I suppose you could just detach the machine from the board, but somehow when it is clamped down to the board, it seems a lot more secure.
When getting started, it seems a little complicated at first. As mentioned previously, there needs to be downward tension on the knitting to get the rows to knit right, so most projects start with a weighted hem. This means that most projects also end with (or have somewhere in the middle) removing the hem and finishing that edge. You start by placing the hem on the machine, then knitting a starting row with provided elastic thread. One of the accessories sold by Bond is what they call Ravel Cord. It's basically heavy-weight nylon string that you use to cast on instead of the elastic thread, because when you are ready to remove the hem, it just pulls out. I saved money and time, and found the best of both worlds, with a $1 pack of thick elastic cord from the sewing supplies section. It pulls out easily, but has a little give too. Once the first row is cast on, you pull the hem off the needles so that it hangs down, and start knitting with real yarn.
I have heard of some people having trouble with the carriage jamming. I have found this, so far, to be mostly due to user error. Times when I was manually adjusting things, or had just started a section of seaming (you can do this right on the machine, by inserting the needles through the edges of two pieces together and knitting a row), usually left one or two needles adjusted slightly incorrectly and the carriage would jam against them. Almost every time, I found it was due to how I had done something, and a slight push on the needle to get it started in the right direction was all that was needed.
Doing stockinette stitch with a yarn in the correct gauge has so far been flawless, and fast. This is where the machine really shines. You hardly even have to pay attention, except at the end of each row; when you finish a row, the carriage has to move past the working needles into an unused or empty section, and you have to make sure you take up the extra yarn that feeds out. Other than that, it's pretty mindless work. I don't have problems with dropped stitches, and I think that is because I pay attention to the weight tension on the growing piece. There must always be weight hanging from the knitting, and especially from the edges. This is where the (not included) claw weights would be very useful, to pull the edge bits straight downward. I had a great tip from another knitting blog, (I'll have to look this up later because I don't have the link here), about how to fashion your own with cheap forks and fishing weights.
With regular knitting I sit on the couch and watch/listen to TV. With this, I have got a lot of use out of podcasts and audiobooks on my iPod to keep me entertained while I work.
So far I have not ventured into the realm fair isle very far. I had worked out a technique to do fair isle faster than the way it is presented in the instructions, and this seems promising, but it will need some more tinkering, because right now it drops stitches after long floats (more than 4 stitches or so). The instructions call for you to knit the main rows using the carriage, and then do the fair isle second color stitches manually (easily done by moving needles on the machine with your hands, but less fast). My method lets you knit across one row for the main yarn with those needles active, then again for the second color with only those needles active. But again, it will need some work. Also, it's only appropriate for SOME fair isle patterns. Once I perfect it, I will write it up more carefully here. I have not tried Intarsia at all, perhaps I will have to add to this review once I have.
I have little qualms about this so far. Again, I think that (barring having received defective pieces), with care it should go pretty smoothly. I can see accidentally breaking or bending needles, though, and I expect I will have to replace some somday. The plastic parts are not as well machined as I would have liked, so I expect that with repeated use, I may encounter more problems, but so far I have had none. I guess I would say that nothing feels flimsy, or badly made, but none of it feels precision engineered either, and that does show. One of the accesories they sell is silicone lubricating spray, to replace the wax for the keyplace - I would highly recommend this. I had some already, and you can go get this at any hardware store rather than order it online, but again I can't stress enough how silicone lubricant is far superior to the wax. I get less jamming this way, even when doing trickier things like seams along sideways borders.
It depends on how you want to compare this. For a casual knitter, it may be too much money. For a knitter who's in more 'deep' and wants to move faster, or wants to produce simple items to sell, this is probably a godsend. And for someone who wants to get into machine knitting, there is pretty much no more affordable first step than this. I would encourage anyone who is interested to look for online deals. At a Jo-Ann's store, they price the ISM at $150.00 in my town, and the USM at $180, and they don't even sell the USM Deluxe in our store. But I found the Deluxe on sale for $150, a great deal as far as I'm concerned.
Compared to Hand Knitting
I have said it already, but I'll repeat it. Stockinette stitch is blazingly fast. The machine is almost worth it just for that alone. It's also very regular. I don't have a lot of problem with variation in my stitches, but I know some knitters do, and the stuff this machine produces is perfect. Some things don't come as easily to the machine - number one being anything that requires purl stitch. Before you close this review in disgust, I'll tell you that there are a lot of ways to compensate that, and you can definitely DO those things using the machine. It's just not near as fast as stockinette work is. You can also combine the machine with hand knitting, which I think is a really good way to go about it, but again that's personal choice.
It also has a width limit, which is fine for people who make clothing in the average to slightly plus size range, but not good for XXL and up sizes, or things like one-piece afghans. The extension kit, adding 20 needles, makes it easy to go up to XXL and perhaps XXXL for some things, but for larger than that, or single panel afghans of an acceptable size, you need several extension kits, or multiple USM beds. It's actually pretty easy to hook up more than one bed if you have them, but that's the major if. At the price of one machine, it's a bit less attractive to think about buying two.
For a knitting machine, it is affordable (the next simplest one on the market today is about $500 I believe), but the cheap cost comes at the price of some versatility. It can only machine knit in stockinette stitch, and it handles increases and decreases about at the same speed that regular knitting goes. Anything more complicated than that requires more work. However, I feel that most of the simpler additional stuff is not at all, or at least not much, slower than it would be by hand, especially if you average it out. However, stuff like garter stitch or seed stitch is probably far too much work to bother with on this machine, as the involved setup would eat up any time saved. It's a good start for someone who wants to get into machine knitting, but not a good tool for the hand knitter who loves intricate and complicated work.