Monday, June 15, 2015

Hearing Colors

No, I haven't suddenly developed synesthesia. Just a wacky idea.

I may have mentioned some time ago that I bought a knitting machine. I bought a machine that works with bulkier yarns, with the idea of being able to use handspun on it, and also to use it for prayer shawls for our church - since I am currently the only person creating them, I have to hope that not too many are needed at once otherwise. Using a knitting machine for them is much, much faster. I also figure I can pray just as effectively for someone while sliding a carriage back and forth as I can while hand knitting.

So, I got a Studio SK155 in the door - and became fascinated with it. I've spent quite some time swatching on it, I bought a second machine with a ribber, kept the ribber, refurbished the second machine and sold it again for the cost of the machine+ribber - so I essentially got the ribber attachment for free. I've knit a sweater and a prayer shawl on it.

One of the interesting things about a knitting machine is how the needles are accounted for - from a zero in the middle. Hmm, says my brain to I, middle 0.

That reminds me of something....

Middle C. On this.

And thus was begun a wacky, crazy idea.

What if I could translate music into knitting patterns? A visual representation?


Well, that SK155 has a twelve-stitch pattern repeat capability with the use of punch cards, which is fine for a lot of things, but most music pieces are more than twelve notes. Clearly this will require something different.

In the 1980s and early 1990s knitting machines went electronic. Some of the manufacturers started adding computerized "brains" for stitch patterning, and also the capability of creating one's own stitch patterns and inputting them. These capabilities are tremendously primitive by modern standards, but they did the job. They also required a port on the machine for input. Of course this port is unique to these machines. Why would it be standardized? That's just too easy.

Some enterprising people have done a little hacking here and there and created cabling that will go USB to knitting machine port, and software  to allow one to program patterns on a modern computer and then input them to the knitting machine via the cable. Many people are using it for intarsia or for "picture knitting." Knitted portraits of the family isn't really my gig, but who says it couldn't be an abstract? It could also be used for lacework, for example. And you can program for the entire needle bed, which is 200 needles wide. So I could translate a music score into a pattern, or I could basically knit the score, or...let's just say I have a lot of ideas about this.

Great! I need another machine! Only thing is, these are in increasing demand, they are no longer manufactured, and some models are actually going for more on the secondary market now than they retailed for 25 years ago.

Ya gotta love Craigslist.

I came across an ad for a likely machine on CL posted by a woman who lived on northern Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The ad had been out there for some time - probably because of the relatively limited local population and the difficulty and expense of getting to her if one wasn't already on the island. So I contacted her and asked if we could meet somewhere in the middle.

Turns out she was about to move to Surrey, BC, which is only about 15 miles over the border. So a couple weeks later I took a little road trip to Canada, and came home with all of this stuff for about 20% of its market value:

Yes, I know. It looks like a bunch of junk. But in reality, it's a computerized knitting machine with just about every accessory they ever made for it, most of it in good, though rather dirty, condition. The machine itself turns on and appears to have its brains intact. And I got it over the border without incident, though the wannabe Secret Service dude with the mirrored RayBans at the US border was about the most unpleasant individual I've ever dealt with, barking orders at me and then practically throwing my passport at me while growling "goodbye." They must take classes in rudeness.

This week I will be tearing the knitter down and cleaning it, and also refurbishing it where needed.

The next thing will be programming testing (is the brain really intact?), and then if that goes well - can I get it to talk to my Mac?

In the meanwhile, we attended a matinee performance of the Seattle Symphony yesterday - and in addition to listening to the music I found myself contemplating colors, stitch patterns, yarns, and textures to go with Brahms' Symphony No. 1. (Moss green, kind of rustic, with blues and browns laid in.)

Stay tuned for updates. Let's hope this thing works.


  1. Test it out on some ZZ Top. Only 3 chords!

    1. I was thinking "Louie, Louie" was a good choice...

  2. I loved reading this post. Hope you write an update.