A Piece of Knitting History at Mebane Historical Museum

Karin Fuhrer-Thornton, a Mebane resident and local business owner of Clay Street Printing, gave a presentation the evening of Monday, January 20 at the Mebane Historical Museum. The owner of an early 20th century hand-powered circular sock machine (above), Fuhrer-Thornton demonstrated how she uses the century-old machine to create her own wool socks and other types of hosiery. 

On the evening of Monday, January 20, guests at the Mebane Historical Museum were treated to a unique presentation by Mebane resident Karin Fuhrer-Thornton. Fuhrer-Thornton, who runs Clay Street Printing alongside her daughter Sugaree, owns a rare circular hand-powered sock machine, which produces wool socks that Furher-Thornton has actually produced for sale at the Mebane Autumn Fest.  

Fuhrer-Thornton’s rare circular hand-powered sock machine was on display at the Mebane Historical Museum for the last few weeks, but on the evening of January 20 she showed a collection of local residents how the machine actually works. She demonstrated how she prepares a new sock to be loomed, utilizing skills she acquired via YouTube videos. 

The information below was provided in a leaflet to visitors at the Mebane Historical Museum and guests at the sock machine presentation demonstrated by Fuhrer-Thornton (Source: Jacquie Grant, MNZM)

The first circular sock machines were small but heavy English and French hand-cranked machines which produced circular stocking lengths. 

Early models could go back as far as the 1860s, and were hand-powered. They could produce narrow tubular lengths of knitted fabric. 

Clever inventors soon made improvements and machines were developed that could produce seamless stockings complete with turned heel and toe. In 1866, Mr. Mac Nary from Saxony was one those inventors. In 1867, D Bickford entered the market in the United States with the American Family Knitting Machine. Circular hand-powered knitting machines were widely circulated in the United States and Great Britain and gradually spread to most developed countries in the world. 

In 1878, the Griswold made its debut on the market. Ribs and patterned socks were now possible, and Griswold became the name many in the trade call all hand-powered machines, especially in New Zealand. The Griswold appears to have been the impetus for others to copy and improve the design. 

Interestingly enough, many English machines of different brands have interchangeable parts and were cast from the same moulds; and as in our times there were insolvencies and bankruptcies with inventors moving to different towns and sometimes countries and starting again. It just shows that nothing really changes. 

Improvements and modifications were continually being made to designs and there are often subtle differences between machines of the same brand. This can and does cause problems for buyers of these antique machines when buying from auction houses, as it is impossible to tell if a machine is a working model, or has been made up from parts of several machines. This seems to happen more often with the Canadian or American machines that were built from cast pot metal (aluminum) rather than the hardened steel of the English machines. 

During World War I, many hundreds of thousand pairs of socks were knitted for the troops by women and men as part of the war effort. Photos in the Harrison Sock Machine instruction book show women assembling and testing the machines in a huge production line, giving testament to the fact a huge number of these machines were produced - the last manufacturer giving up around 1980 after resurrecting the American Auto Knitter and using the original moulds and parts, which were still available. 

After the armistice was signed in 1919, things changed. Women wanted to be more independent socially and economically. The circular sock knitting machine was one way for a lot of women to gain some semblance of independence - or so they thought. 

In the USA and no doubt the UK as well, as massive marketing campaign started to convince women they could have financial independence knitting socks at home. Ladies and gentlemen were offered special deals including buying shares in the companies. 

These companies were hard task masters and many socks were sent back with instructions to unravel and correct the work. No doubt a lot did master the art, but many didn't and every now and again a machine turns up that has had none or very little use. 

Fuhrer-Thornton indicated that she purchased her circular sock machine on Ebay, and believes it is one of the New Zealand-based machines from the era between 1900 and 1920. Although she mentioned there are a lot of faulty machines out there on the market with non-original components, Furher-Thornton mentioned, “I’m lucky. I think I got a good one.”

The contraption connects itself to the edge of any smooth surface via a screwdown vice grip, and weights are added to the bottom of the sock being knitted to keep the device properly aligned. 

In addition to the leaflet information, there was an old advertisement extolling the many advantages of purchasing “The Auto Knitter,” as such devices were known in the early 20th century. 

“The Auto Knitter is a hand-knitting machine for making seamless hosiery of all kinds,” the advertisement exclaims. “It is designed primarily for home use, and can be carried and set up anywhere, because it weighs only twenty pounds and clamps upon any table ledge or bench. It is practically noiseless and works smoothly and easily, requiring but little effort to operate. It is strongly and substantially built by expert machinists, and is fully guaranteed for three years.” 

As she went into her presentation, Fuhrer-Thornton carefully thread some knitting wool through a collection of prongs, and then connected the wool to a piece of mesh that went down into the circular knitting device. Once she was ready, she began to crank the hand-powered handle and the wool began churning quickly, prong by prong, around the circle. Within a matter of seconds, a sock was working itself into being. 

“Socks are made complete from top to toe, without removing from the machine,” the period-era advertisement explains. “Different sizes of socks can be made on the same machine.” 

In order to create the heel, Thornton had to adjust the height of the various prongs on the circular device, allowing for the deepening of the wool to create the extra space. When she was finished, Fuhrer-Thornton had created a thick wool sock with a strong seam at the toe that is virtually undetectable by the eye. 

“When it’s finished, the toe part actually gets folded over. Usually when you knit it by hand, the seam is always in the top. But this gets folded over. This seam, you can’t even see there is a seam,” she indicated.