Getting Started on the Brother KH-881 Punchcard Knitting Machine

Just before the new year we bought a punchcard knitting machine from the 1980’s from eBay. It’s a Brother KH-881, one of the last Brother models before electronics were added to the machine. Our plan is as follows.

  • Step 1: Figure out how to use a punchcard knitting machine
  • Step 2: Push things as far as we can go with mathematics and design

Needless to say, we are still on Step 1 and we’ll be there for a while. This is the first in a series of posts to catalog this journey and maybe make it slightly easier for anyone else that wants to walk the same road.

Inspiration: Electroknitting

Before we ever knew we wanted, or could want, a punchcard knitting machine, there was Fabienne “fbz” Serriere. Fabienne is a celebrity in the mathematical community for her successful Kickstarter project KnitYak: Custom mathematical knit scarves, in which she obtained an industrial knitting machine to produce a large number unique mathematical scarves based on elementary cellular automata. For example, this KnitYak scarf was generated by Rule 90, with multiple pixels in the generating row:

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Before her Kickstarter project, Fabienne Serriere had experience hacking electronic consumer knitting machines so that they would accept design patterns from a computer instead of from manual pixel selection. In this video Fabienne’s Hacked Knitting Machine Creations!, she explains how she got started:

In this video Art Zone: KnitYak – Mathematical Knitwear you can see what she is doing now with her 3,000 pound industrial knitting machine and celluluar automata:

If you’re interested in hacking a small-scale electronic knitting machine to accept computer patterns, check out Becky Sterns’s adafruit tutorial for Hacking the Brother KH-930e Knitting Machine, in which she shows you how to use a Python floppy disk emulator to feed patterns for fair isle knitting into the electronics of the machine:

All this is well and good, but for me it seemed… difficult! I’m don’t have a lot of computer/hacking/arduino skills, and the thought of having One More Project On The Computer was just exhausting. So I’ve watched these projects with interest in the same way that I watch videos of rocket launches. It’s cool, but I didn’t intend to try to do it myself. Until…

Analog knitting in Estonia

My family is from Estonia and a bunch of us met up there last summer as a reunion. While we were there we stopped in a knitting shop that sold beautiful Estonian-style fair isle scarves and shawls, and in the shop was this curious machine:

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I was told that this was a “knitting machine”, and that the punchcard determined the pattern that would be knit into the scarf. Here’s a picture of one of the punchcards that could be fed into this mysterious machine:

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This was awesome! What the heck is this! Whatever it is, it seemed like something I could actually maybe figure out how to do. When we returned to the states I consulted the magical internet and figured out how to get one of these machines. The Brother KH-881 I ended up getting from eBay is really close to the machine I saw in that Estonian shop. In fact, one of the scarves I bought in that shop turned out to be created using a standard Brother punchcard that came with my machine. So… maybe not a traditional Estonian fair isle patten after all :)

Setting Up the Brother KH-881

The eBay auction I won was for a Brother KH-881 plus a ribber and lace carriage and a bunch of other things that I still don’t know exactly what they are. The knitting machine was shipped to me in two boxes, each with just a few pieces of bubble wrap that were completely popped by the time they got to me. Here’s the box of “miscellaneous parts” that was included in the shipment. Oh boy.

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If you get a knitting machine and it doesn’t ship with the manual, then the first thing you should do is find the manual online. After going through the parts list carefully I determined that about a third of the things I was shipped were part of the Brother KH-881, and the rest were incomprehensible attachments to deal with later. It also turned out that I was missing five or six relatively key pieces, all of which I could order from eBay.

After the manual, the next best resource for machine knitting is YouTube. There are a HUGE number of videos online that you can watch to get your bearings and to learn how to manage specific problems. Two very good sources of video tutorials are the YouTube videos by June Clark and the YouTube videos by theanswerladyknits.

One thing in particular is that whatever kind of knitting machine you get, you’re almost definitely going to have to replace the “sponge bar”. Knitting Couture’s video on How to Replace the Sponge Bar helped me through this process, which turned out to be pretty gross:

If you’re feeling like nobody you know is also trying to figure out how to work a punchcard knitting machine, check out the amazing Facebook group Machine Knitting Beginners Circle, with well over 4,000 members! The admins have posted lots of videos and documents, and lots of people ask and answer questions every day. I’ve learned so much just reading the posts that pop up each day in this group.

After lots of cleaning, pulling out and replacing broken needles, and figuring out how everything goes together by watching videos on YouTube, here’s how my new friend looks!

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Another long battle with the machine and the manual got us to the point where we could Actually Knit Something Successfully (this learning process really is a lot like what I went through with 3D printing, I’m discovering), I finally got a tiny knit swatch! Along the way I learned that it is possible to impale your thumb on one of the needles and that it is not fun when that happens.

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Fair Isle Knitting with Punchcards

We figured out how to use the punchcards to make two-color designs with the help of the manual and a series of YouTube videos by Tricotosing (which aren’t in English, but you can do auto-translation closed captions for a rough translation). This video from Tricotosing about machine knitting two-color punchcard designs on a Brother KH-881 was particularly helpful:

Here’s one of our first successful fair isle swatches next to the punchcard that was used to make it. After knitting you have to “block” or steam the fabric so it won’t roll up, but we were too lazy to do that so instead we 3D printed a snap-together swatch holder to keep the fabric flat.

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You can download the .stl files for our large and small swatch holders from Thingiverse and 3D print them for your own use. We made them in Tinkercad, so you can also modify them yourself from the public file if you want a different size or style:

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What’s Next?

Next time: punching our own custom punchcards, figuring out that punching punchcards is a serious pain, and ordering a Silhouette Cameo 3 to speed up the process… stay tuned :)

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