Sometimes the ghosts of knitting past are machines

Posted April 02, 2012, at 4:34 p.m.
Last modified July 30, 2013, at 7:05 a.m.

The history of knitting is filled with the ghosts and shadows of knitters who went before us, taking their stories with them and leaving behind the work of their hands stored in mothballs and cherished by their families. Stories of the tools they used and devised to aid them with the task of knitting also filter down from past to present. My mother, who grew up in Harmony, recalled her father cranking out — literally — socks for his family on a hand cranked sock knitting machine.

“I don’t know how it worked,” she told me, “but didn’t he make that thing go.” She told me that he clamped it to the kitchen table and on winter evenings after the chores were done he’d churn out a sock or two.

Harmony was a good place for my machine knitting grandfather to live. It is home to Bartlett Yarns, a spinning mill established in 1821 not long after my mother’s family helped settle the town. It’s possible my grandfather took his fleeces to the mill to be processed into the yarn he used for hand-cranked sock making. This is only conjecture on my part, but it sounds plausible and I like to think that my ancestors had warm feet and hands thanks to wool that was grown, processed and spun in their very own town.

As it turned out, though my grandfather did not live to see this happen, Harmony in the 1970s also became home to the manufacture of the Harmony Auto Knitter, a hand-cranked rotary knitting machine used for sock making, perhaps similar in its workings to the one my grandfather used in the 1930s.

An interview with George Fricke, an owner of the company in the 1980s, written by Elsie McCarthy in the late 1990s and posted at angoravalley.com/CSM/harmony.html, details the history of the auto knitter which had been around for many years and was manufactured in Buffalo, N.Y.

McCarthy’s father, Ralph, had used an auto knitter to make socks to sell and Fricke, who took over Bartlett Yarns in 1973, became interested in starting a company to manufacture the knitting machines. Fricke sought the help of Kerry Bogan, who owned a machine shop in Harmony, and together the three men tinkered until they came up with a model that caused the resurrection of the auto knitter.

Photographs of and information about the Bogan Harmony Auto Knitter, the Fricke Harmony Auto Knitter 1982 and the Fricke Auto Knitter 1984 are posted at oldtymestockings.com/sock_machines_american.html.

A Harmony Auto Knitter also is on display at the Harmony Historical Museum in Harmony.

Apparently the Harmony Auto Knitter company went out of business about 20 years ago. But with the current popularity of knitting — particularly socks — and with the skill being embraced by a new generation of knitters, perhaps it’s time for the Harmony Auto Knitter to rise up and be cranked again.

Snippets

Author Rachael Herron has measured her life by knitting. Her book, “A Life in Stitches: Knitting My Way Through Love, Loss and Laughter,” puts her knitting life into perspective. Clara Parkes, who writes the online Knitters Review weekly magazine, says in her forward, “For me, the essays in this book … show how knitting can infuse itself in a far broader, deeper human experience. They’re a pleasure to read.” I second that thought.

Herron writes with wit and insight about her life of knitting, including a story about when she was 12, living with her family on Saipan, a tropical island in the western Pacific where she developed a desire to knit gloves; her first experience of living alone as a young woman with very little money and needed cheap yarn; and learning to spin.

One doesn’t have to be a knitter to enjoy Herron’s writing, but if you do knit, you’ll really enjoy what she has to say.

The cost of the book is $14.95. To obtain a copy of the book, call your local bookstore or look for it online. For information, visit chroniclebooks.com.

Call Ardeana Hamlin at 990-8153 or email ahamlin@bangordailynews.com.

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