There are three types of knitting machines at Corgi: old, domestic models; double-bed machines; and single-bed machines. All require hand framing – that is, the worker must pull the carriage up and down by hand.
The domestic machines are white and lie flat on the table. They were designed for individual use and are nowhere near as strong as the other two types. They exist at Corgi because Lisa Jones, who took over the company with brother Chris from their father 14 years ago, had one during her textiles design course as a student. She used it to make her final exam pieces and, when she joined the family company, began experimenting with it for new designs.
The advantage of these machines is their flexibility. They can make almost anything, but slowly and do well if they last 10 years. They are programmed by punch card, with the designer using something resembling a hole punch to mark out the pattern.
The double-bed machines consist of two rows of needles, sitting at an angle of 45 degrees and at right angles to each other. They are used for most of the exciting patterns – the ribs, the cable knits, the tuck stitches (very in this year). One of Corgi’s big selling points is the number of gauges it has for all its machines. It can make anything from single-ply to 12-ply cashmere.
Then there are the single-bed machines, with just one of those rows of needles. They are the only way to do intarsia work, where single colours of yarn are put on individually by hand. Although in theory every thread can be different, the designs tend to be concentrated in the middle of the pieces. Every year Corgi makes a sweater with a different Beatles design on it for Apple in Japan, for example, usually just 15 to 25 pieces. It takes about two hours to knit that front panel. (See previous post for some more examples).
My other favourite machines are the hand-wound sock knitter, which dates back to the turn of the century. It is still the only way that you can make cable-knit socks, as the sock has to be taken off and the needles turned around. The inside of the modern machines look exactly the same, just surrounded by casing, automatic feeds of yarn and a computer control.
Then there’s the sock presser. Wooden moulds are used to hold the individual socks before they are inserted between heated wooden panels. You turn a huge handle with red knobs on to press the socks.
One of the vanities of examining production is to assume that every machine is the best for its particular job, at least in the luxury market. But that’s not necessarily the case. This sock presser, for example, is 90 years old. You could buy a much better modern one that uses metal moulds, as seen at Bresciani. But then its capacity would be 10 times what Corgi needed, and cost £40-50,000. Investment has to come gradually or be forced by particular necessity.
It’s nice therefore when you see old machines that perform some unique function. Like the single-beds or the hand-wound sock knitter. And even though hand framing isn’t necessarily better, it is certainly different - you can spot a hand-framed cable knit anywhere by the lovely openness of its weave.
Thank you Huw, Chris and Lisa.