by Lela Nargi
Inside a complex of old manufacturing buildings in Seattle’s west Georgetown neighborhood hulks a single, fiendishly heavy, German industrial knitting machine. It’s the kind of machine that’s usually found in large groups, churning out hundreds of thousands of identical sweater pieces into expansive factory rooms. Here in Seattle, though, the machine pushes out into the night scarf after computer-code-patterned scarf, no two alike, each one patiently awaited by a buyer who donated $150 to a Kickstarter campaign back in 2015.
The story of how the machine came to be here in this space runs at least partly concurrent to the story of its gentle human overlord. This is Fabienne Serriere, founder of KnitYak, a mathematician/computer programmer who, as a kid growing up in California, learned to hand knit then quickly set about turning her hobby into a vehicle for engineering intarsia insects. When the bugs ran their course, Serriere set her knitting aside—for years, until Ravelry emerged and re-stoked her passion. Only now, the passion was for socks. “I tried toe up, and knitting sideways and every other direction, and every modification—anything I could think of that was weird, trying to make socks more elegant,” she says.
Fabienne Serriere of KnitYak.
She was living in Germany at the time, where “People would come up to me on the subway and tell me I was knitting wrong,” Serriere says. For someone who created for the thrill of achieving a certain mathematical poetry in the way stitch repeats lined up, this sort of militant commitment to the status quo didn’t sit well.
Around this time, Serriere was invited to a gallery in Amsterdam to participate in a hackathon.
Serriere wasn’t quite sure what kind of machine she would override with her own coding in order to produce a tech-based artwork. But she paired up with two other hackathon participants, Travis Goodspeed and Arjan Scherpanisse, and came up with the idea of doing a mash-up of the [11th-century] Bayeux Tapestry—which depicts the beginning of the Norman conquest of England—with a 1980s 8-bit video game—epitomized by boxy pixelations like the Super Mario Bros. Riffing off an earlier hack by another trio of hackers, Serriere and her teammates spent a day tracking down a Brother KH930 knitting machine. They spent three more, frantic, days designing a top-scrolling video game that pitted banjos (good) against dinosaurs (bad), and that would, after games, have the Brother knit the avatars and names of winners on a long banner.
“In retrospect, it’s shocking how hard it was,” remembers Serriere, referring to the group’s efforts to make the knitting machine do their bidding by working off the old hack, which “wasn’t as far along as we thought”—then design and build the game, and also make a custom touch screen that let players design their avatars.
Challenge miraculously complete, Serriere sought to broaden the kinds of hacks she could accomplish. “Back then, the way you input a pattern into [an ‘80s knitting machine] was with buttons. If you wanted five rows of black stitches followed by four rows of white, you did it manually by pushing the two buttons that many times,” she says. “Knitting stores also sold floppy disks with collections of mostly-repeating patterns you could use” to supplement the few patterns that came preloaded into the machine: a two-color approximation of argyle, for example, and “strange teddy bears.” But there was no way to tell it to knit the pattern you wanted—something Serriere was diligently working towards. She didn’t realize it at the time, but hacks like the ones she was interested in were catching on, creating a small movement that caused the price of Brothers spike.
In 2011, Serriere bought back her Amsterdam project and spent the next six months “doing everything I thought I could do with the [knitting] machine, pushing things to their logical extreme, and documenting it all online.” At last, she managed to force a machine that was meant only to churn out repeating patterns, “very laboriously” stitch up double-knit bottle cozies; they had repeating checkerboards from the machine’s inventory on one side, and variations of computer-hacker-favorite-beverage Club-Mate’s man-with-a-hat logo on the other. Serriere also eventually succeeded in making one-off, double-sided scarves that friends clamored to buy. But with the amount of labor each one required, between time spent on the machine and time spent on hand finishing, “It was ridiculous,” she says. “I would have had to charge $500.”
Still, a seed had been planted and Serriere started to think about automating one-offs. Could an industrial knitting machine churn out 1,000 scarves, each with its own unique pattern? Could Serriere crowdfund the not inconsiderable cost of one of these machines? Could she turn hacked-machine knits into a business? These questions were shelved while Serriere and her husband traveled. Finally settling in Seattle, a year later Serriere began to put the pieces of her idea together.
She researched machines and settled on the German Stoll over the Japanese Shima Seiki. She found a used model, raised $124,000 from Kickstarter to buy it, $10,000 worth of software to run it, and $14,000 for yarn. Then, she took off for Reutlingen, Germany, where the Stoll factory is located, for eight weeks of free training. All the other attendees worked for manufacturing companies that bought Stolls for knitwear production. Except for one German fashion designer. She and Serriere teamed up in what would become a fortuitous partnership. “You could stay after class to keep working if someone else was there with you—basically, you need someone who can call the paramedics if you get caught in the machines,” explains Serriere. “Everyone else went out drinking at night; we spent hours abusing the machines—which is what they’re there for; mechanics come in to fix them every morning.”
The Stoll knitting machine.
Back in Seattle, Serriere worked up her own code to control her new machine. Then, in June of 2017, KnitYak went into production. The first scarves out from the machine beds were patterned with 2D spirals based on a math rule called elementary cellular automata, destined for KnitYak’s 795 Kickstarter backers. This past November, Serriere was also able to release a new project, Mandelbrot fractal scarves, each of which comes with its pattern’s source code. “It’s an insane amount of work,” says Serriere, who’s about to hire her first employee. But through the interest she’s generated through almost a decade’s worth of effort, “There are all these people who are now interested in knitting machine hacking.” (Ravelry’s Open Source Machine Knitting group currently has 543 members.) But more than that, “I’m just thankful there has been a demand, and that people like my products.”
A scarf in production.
Lela Nargi is the author of several books about knitting, including Astounding Knits and Knitting Around the World. Visit her at lelanargi.com.