Handmade: Machine knitter sees a renewed interest in hobby

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

Detroit resident Rhonda Morton knows how to knit by hand, but sitting at one of her many metal knitting machines, cranking out everything from doll clothes to dress pants, is her real passion.

Morton, who lives in Detroit, learned to knit with needles back when she was in junior high school, but it wasn't until 1983 when she attended a computer show at Cobo Center in Detroit that she discovered machine knitting. "I heard a noise made by a lady who was knitting on a machine. I went over to inquire about it, and she gave me her card."

A couple years later, Morton, a retired Detroit police officer, started taking machine knitting lessons from a woman, who lived in Shelby Township. "I bought the top bed of the machine and the ribber. You got six lessons with the machine. Then two years later, I was stuck making hats because I didn't know where else to go for lessons." But, luckily, she started attending monthly meetings at the woman's house, where she learned more techniques from others in the group, which led to her knitting fine gauge garments.

"I also started going to seminars. The first one was in Grand Rapids, where they had 10 to 12 vendors and demonstrators showing techniques, and selling patterns and accessories."

By that time, there was no turning back. Morton was hooked. She started attending seminars across the country, including Peru, Indiana; Nashville, Tennessee, and Atlanta,  in addition to other cities here in Michigan – namely Lansing and Port Huron, where she joined a machine knitting club.

"I went there (Port Huron) on a regular basis," she said. "If I wasn't working, I'd zoom over there, because for a long time, there was nothing close by to learn machine knitting."

Morton, 68, said when she first started machine knitting "It was at its height, but then the pendulum swung to no participation, and now it's swinging back with more people interested and getting into it."

She's not sure why there's been a noticeable increase in the number of beginners casting on, but she's certain there's been a change in attitude toward machine knitters. "I see more and more people trying to buy used machines, especially Brother electronics. People (once) thought machine knitters were cheaters -- like you're cheating when you knit, but that's not the case. It just allows you to do more faster, and be more creative," explained Morton.

She also said machine knitting can be another alternative for those who once knitted by hand, but were forced to give up their hobby after developing arthritis.

 Morton also remembers when there were more  publications on machine knitting. In fact, she had a subscription to five, including two out of London, England.

These days, Morton machine knits with a group of women in Mount Clemens. "It's an informal club," she said. "We don't take our machines, but we usually have a demonstration. It forces members to go beyond their comfort level in manuals." And, when weather permits, she attends the Michigan Machine Knitter's Meeting at the Chelsea District Library.  

Gloves and a scarf with a cable pattern made by Rhonda Morton.

Morton sometimes gives machine knitting lessons either in her home, or the home of her students. She currently has a student who lives in Farmington, and was asked by a woman in the Mt. Clemens group to teach her how to knit the St. John Suit, which she once won a blue ribbon for at the Michigan State Fair.  

One of her favorite fibers to knit is an acrylic "dress yarn" called Diamante. Wool is another favorite, and back in 1998, when she and her husband, Pierce, celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in Australia, she mailed back "a lot of wool." She also orders acrylic cone yarns from Peru, IN, and sometimes buys yarn from JoAnn Fabric & Craft Stores. 

Because she knits about 15 hours a week, I asked Morton if she sells any of her work. She said, "I have, but most of the time, it's just baby blankets, because I know from sewing that people don't want to pay you for your work."

As with hand knitting, the sky is also the limit for machine knitting. "There are always new techniques, and people find out what they can do with their machine," said Morton, who, hasn't knitted by hand since 2014, when she made a lap blanket for her sister who lives in Chicago. 

Detroit News columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, jbrown@detroitnews.com or facebook.com/DetroitNewsHandmade.

Contact Rhonda Morton at cksister@aol.com.