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Early invention mechanized sock knitting 

By Staff | Dec 21, 2018

CAROL SHETLER/The Luminary Joy McCracken of Lairdsville demonstrates an early 1900’s sock knitting machine to Brenda Diehl, formerly of Muncy.

WILLIAMSPORT The reality of the phrase “Necessity is the Mother of Invention” was affirmed by Joy McCracken when demonstrating a sock knitting machine during the coffee hour at the Taber Museum in Williamsport on December 13, 2018.

In raising sheep on her rural Lairdsville farm, McCracken oversees the entire process of the production of wool fibers in her weaving and spinning projects. During summers, the speaker is a docent at the Home Textile Tool Museum in Orwell, Tioga County, PA.

McCracken said, “Mechanization of knitting began with latch hook work in 1802 in France. By 1849, an Englishman patented the process thus destroying the livelihood of those who made items by hand.” It was noted the invention caused many displaced weavers to come to America where the new industry didn’t exist.

The speaker turned the account to America when she said, “A man named Griswold had an iron factory producing cannons for the Civil War. After the war he was looking for a new product and noticed the round hole of a cannon could be used to make socks that were seamless for better wear.”

Adding hooks and barbs, a crank and weights, the ‘gizmo’ would become an important component during World War I. In most towns, the Red Cross had work rooms where women made various items for the war effort. “Knitting machines were given under the stipulation that thirty pairs of socks be produced in ninety days. The total national output was 5,400 pair per day, but 55,000 pair were needed,” McCracken said.

CAROL SHETLER/The Luminary Maynard Bogart (left) and Ray Harman, brought a sock knitting machine, a donation to the Gen. John Burroughs Historical Society in Montoursville where the men are society board members.

As soldiers spent large amounts of time in trench warfare, wet feet caused ‘trench foot’ sometimes leading to amputation. And so, millions of socks were needed.

Getting into the specifics, the speaker said, “Four hundred yards of yarn were needed to create a sock. By machine, the process took forty minutes compared to a week when done by hand.”

The knitting machine was set on a table and in addition several items needed to assist the creating process such as hooks to catch and retrieve a dropped stitch. A light weight oil is used often to keep the rotation of the crank in smooth operating order.

The speaker joked that, “The technical high learning curve taught me to swear like a sailor.” She also noted that the current rare existence of the machines is due to scrapping them for metal during WWII.

A display of items McCracken made included her first attempts at wrist and leg warmers. Advancing to include heels was more difficult. Tassel topped hats were also among the items.

In noting the meeting topic, Ray Harman and Maynard Bogart from the General John Burroughs Historical Society in Montoursville, came with a knitting machine donated to them. “A woman brought it in and it’s complete with original instructions. We didn’t know how to use it, so we brought ours for show and tell and to learn. Our machine was made by the Gearhart Company in Clearfield, PA. On eBay, the price of a machine in working order runs from eight hundred to fifteen hundred dollars,” Harman said.

The program coordinated well with the social room’s Christmas holiday decorating theme of sleighs, sleds, skates and stockings which is free and open to the public through mid-January.

Songs with socks or stockings incorporated in the wording was selected and sung by seven members of the Williamsport Music Club. Examples the animated group presented were ‘. . Dance with girl with a hole in her stocking,’ from “Buffalo Girls Won’t You Come out Tonight,” to words from “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” with the phrase “All the stocking you will find hanging in a row.” Laughs occurred when in a ditty the singings bemoaned receiving More Socks!

Museum Director Gary Parks announced that the December program concluded the 2018 series of programs highlighting the year for 2018.