A Superficial History of the Circular Sock Machine

Last October, I managed to find one of the proverbial hen’s teeth – a Griswold CSM (circular sock machine).

It’s been a hell of a learning curve but everybody who has ever learned CSMs warns you it will be. Now, several months in, I can make a sock. Just about!

Before and After. 1930 Griswold (Foster Victoria) csm

My machine came from a factory in Leicestershire, that started in 1930. I thought it was possible my machine was slightly older than that – but only yesterday an expert who has seen many of these machines tells me it is a later incarnation Griswold, and totally consistent with 1930 – but still as well made and almost identical to, a much earlier Griswold or Berridhe Griswold. It doesn’t have the pretty decals of some of the machines originally intended for home use. In fact it was so heavily used in the factory that it was almost down to bare metal when I got it – with traces of a hideous, plasticky, industrial grey paint on it. When we removed the last vestiges of that, underneath were flecks of its original black paint. That turned out to be entirely intact on the wheel that drives the crank. So we repainted it with Hammerite (no fancy powder coating for us but just a quick protective coat of Hammerite on the principle there was nothing to lose, as it barely had paint on it to start off with).

A few years back, I documented some knitted items at the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth. I was disappointed to spot the Bronte sisters’ stockings were machine made, and put them aside, as I had limited time, to document something else instead. The same thing has happened to me at several museums since – the curator or somebody else will proudly pass you something they assure you was hand knitted by Thomas Carlisle’s mother, or similar, and one look at it tells you it was in fact machine made.

Machine knitted items will no longer bore or disappoint me now I know a little more of their history.

In our period of interest (late 18thc – early 19thc), machine stockings were still knitted flat and seamed up the back when finished. There were a number of machine (frame) knitted stockings in the items from the wreck of the General Carleton, for example (1780s). Machines were useful when vertical striped stockings were fashionable at points in the late 18thc. This could be achieved more easily with a machine than a hand knitter working in the round.

It was only when machine needles with latches were invented, that the circular sock machine really took off. And understanding a little more about them has helped me really, truly, for the first time, properly appreciate the feat of the Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales – because by the time some of the extant Yorkshire hand knitted stockings were rolling off needles, the csm existed, and would almost certainly have been a better option for these hand knitters. You can knit a sock (or stocking) in a couple of hours (in my case, as I’m going slowly and still learning) but someone competent could probably knit a pair of socks or stockings in little more than an hour. Even if a hand knitter was going at Shetland style rates of 200 stitches per minute, it would still take way longer to hand knit than to crank a pair out.

In 1816, Marc Brunel (father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel) invented a circular knitting machine – although it had its limitations. Leicestershire man, Matthew Townsend developed the latch needle in 1849 – this worked well with the csm and combining the two things led to the more widespread adoption of these machines that could knit a stocking in the round. These machines caught on faster in the US than the UK as a technology. Connecticut born Henry Josiah Griswold (born 1837) was the first to develop the ribber as it is known now, adding the horizontal ribber needles in 1878. Like Isaac Singer, Griswold travelled to and for a time, lived in the UK where his machines, the Griswolds, developed a great reputation. He later returned to the US and his firm was sold to a Leicester company, Berridges, who continued to brand them as Griswolds. I managed to get a Berridge Griswold manual on eBay, for my machine, which still has some of the original owner’s pencilled notes in.

For a while these machines could only do a plain stocking stitch. We know that professional frame knitters would also have to be competent hand-knitters – in ‘Their Darkest Materials’ I wrote about the stocking knitter Jeremiah Brandreth, who was executed for treason in 1817. Jeremiah whiled away his last days in his prison cell, hand knitting a purse for his wife. In other words – the frame knitter stockinger might have to hand knit the ribbing, if there was any, on the welt of the stockings.

This was a game changer. A 1×1 ribbed cast on could also be used as a selvedge (in stocking stitch, the csms require some manipulation for a selvedge that doesn’t unravel – the hung hem being one basic way of doing it). Seeing the ribber in action on a csm is a thing of beauty.

The csm reached its apogee during WW1 when good socks that didn’t have knots or cause blisters, were in high demand, to prevent trench foot. The Red Cross gave women a csm and 30lb of wool – if you made that yarn into socks for the troops, you got to keep the machine.

1919 ad for a Foster machine. (Same machine as mine, a decade earlier).

For a time, csms were marketed alongside sewing machines – at one point, Griswolds and Singers were sold together. (Hence the black shellac and gold decals, no doubt). After the War, csms were heavily marketed to women as a key to economic independence – anyone with a csm could make a living. But by WW2, the machines were of more use to the war effort as scrap metal – and thousands were donated to be melted down for ordnance. This is why antique and vintage machines are now rare as hen’s teeth. This is why they sell for a lot of money when they do turn up.

In the UK, “Griswold” became the generic name for csms a bit like we still say “Hoover” for all vacuums. This means not all Griswolds are Griswolds. Csms were also popular in the US and Canada. Makes of other vintage csms available include – and this is by no means a comprehensive list – Harrison, Legare and The Automatic Knitter.

1919 Harrison ad. Another very well made British csm machine

There are several manufacturers of new machines (see below) and these may be a safer bet for the beginner although if you’re on this blog, you’re probably like me and would prefer an “old” one. The problem then is, you have the not inconsiderable learning curve ahead of you yet at the point you’re searching for a csm, have no real working knowledge of them. You could buy a lemon. They turn up sporadically on eBay but often sold by a person who can’t work it – bought it on impulse and gave up on it, inherited it, found it in an attic… they will say things like “the crank handle goes round so I assume it’s working”. Be very aware that, as with a sewing machine, the fact the obvious moving bits kind of move doesn’t mean you have a working machine. Parts may not be available. You could get a “cut n shut” of the csm world – ie: a Frankenstein made to look like a csm, assembled from various patched together corpses of csms. Best advice if you want to buy vintage is – go on one of the established csm FB Groups, put a link up, and ASK. Someone may be able to advise whether the machine looks dodgy or sound. You will almost definitely have to buy a set of new needles – cylinder and ribber and these currently, are mainly supplied in the US (see below).

Some machines come with all kinds of original accessories like a brass cast on “spider”, maybe some wooden cone holders, in some rare cases, the original wooden box. A machine with several cylinders and dials is worth much more than a machine with only one cylinder. The dials are the ribber attachments (the lid that looks like flower petals in the case of the exquisitely made Griswolds). Bear in mind the cylinder you get is what you’re stuck with. An 84 cylinder holds 84 needles so for a woman’s sock you might have to use much finer yarn than you would to hand-knit a sock. If you typically make yourself socks with say 64 stitches cast on, then a 64 cylinder would work better for you or a 60. Dials in older machines typically have half the slots of the cylinder – ribber needles are shorter and different. So an 84 cylinder would have a 42 dial. Hopefully that eBay listing has clear shots of the cylinders and accessories. I wanted an 84 cylinder machine because I knew I wanted to make living history stockings and they need to get over folks’ thighs. Luckily, 84 cylinders are the ones more commonly found with Griswolds in the UK.

Even if the entire thing was intact and worked, you WILL still have to adjust the yarn carrier to time the machine – easy once you understand what is going on but it takes a while to get there and you can’t risk £100 worth of needles – and you will still have to make other small adjustments – you learn by your mistakes, and you will fully understand the quirks of your machine when you’re done. (And maybe buy a set of needles and a set of ribber needles too if your machine is old). I thought challenging myself to learn nalbinding in a few days was a big ask but this has truly been the “hardest” thing I ever learned. I took it slowly and can now make a sock and even a ribbed sock.

I had the added complication of trying to learn during a pandemic. Normally, the person I bought it from could have given me a quick lesson; in Before Times, I could have gone to the Framework Knitters Museum and got some tips and information. As it was, I managed by heavy reliance on asking stupid questions on Facebook Groups, Ravelry Groups and watching YouTube til I was sock machined out. I also joined Sock TV for a couple of months.

Peak difficulty for many new csm knitters is learning to use the ribber attachment. (The bit that looks like the lid on a tin can). If I had had a brand new machine, tuned and adjusted I may have learned to rib from the start but as my machine was a vintage one, I felt I’d need to thoroughly understand all the processes, and be able to confidently make heels and toes, before I risked messing about with the ribber – and in my case, it was a wise decision. Some knitters have been known to put that stage off for a long time or forever. You can make a mock rib by removing, say, every 4th needle – and can start with a hung hem indefinitely, if that’s your preference but I love using the ribber, even if it can be a challenge. You need the yarn carrier adjusted perfectly for the ribber to work, and it would be daunting, knowing nothing, and if you have an old machine, possibly having no manual or much help to do that. (PDFs of manuals are available in various places online). But historical knitters now the perils of 19thC manuals.

If there’s enough interest I will come back and post some CSM tips to help get you started.

As a recent virgin myself, I can still recall vividly all those things which cause heartache, stress and frustration. I do love my machine so much. I kicked myself for years that I didn’t get one in 2000 on eBay when they could still be got for £20… We put out feelers a long time before, and when one came up, were lucky enough to pounce and get it for what we felt was a reasonable price. They are the proverbial hens’ teeth.

A superficial look at my Griswold/Foster Victoria csm
Some of my first projects, machine etc.

Suppliers of new CSMs:

Makers include Erlbacher Gearhart (US), Chambord (Canada) and Autoknitter (NZ).

Vintage/antique CSMs can be found on eBay – but it’s advisable to run a listing past one of the Facebook CSM groups for advice, before you bid, or buy from one of the few established sellers who recondition. Again, ask on CSM groups, for advice and recommendations.

Needles can be got from https://www.angoravalley.com (US).

Resources:

Facebook Groups (Vintage Krankers is a UK based one and there are others if you run a search). YouTube videos – again so many you just need to run a search and fill your boots.

http://www.frameworkknittersmuseum.org.uk

Circular Sock Knitting Machine Society

2 thoughts on “A Superficial History of the Circular Sock Machine

  1. Freyalyn Close-Hainsworth February 20, 2021 — 12:35 PM

    Oh you have done well! I borrowed a working one from Sally Pointer a few years ago. She uses it qutie happily for demonstrations and making socks for sale, though it’s her ‘spare’ one. I could not get it working. What I wanted to do was knit lots of tubes in my sock yarn and then happily spent time handknitting heels, toes and ribbing on to them, but I had to give it back after a year unused and with a few broken needles. (She’d sent it with spares).

    So I have huge admiration for you.

    I’d love to have one up and running, but have neither the space nor the time to get it working well.

    Like

  2. Stephanie Maskell February 19, 2021 — 9:42 PM

    As always, a fascinating post. I had no idea that Singer’s sewing machines and CSMs were sold together. It opens a world of home business makers that is little known to me.

    Although it may be arduous I think a modern ‘manual’ written by you would be invaluable to CSM enthusiasts. Information is pretty far-flung and not easy to find for the general CSM user.

    Like

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