A couple of totally separate things crossed my path the other day that got me thinking about the longevity of the work we do as designers and the things we use as consumers. It’s easy to get caught up in the here and now and think the things that are admired and important to us today will stay that way for all time (or at least a good, long time). But really, how often does that actually occur? Certainly, some product categories come about and then we keep improving on them over years and years like the automobile. Others, like the 8 track tape deck, enjoy a much shorter life span.
Right now we are seeing the birth of another new product category and I was reminded of that with the first of the two events I mentioned above. All that day, the tech blogs were alight with the news that Steve Jobs himself had shown up unannounced to unveil the Apple iPad II. It goes without saying, the iPad is arguably one of the hottest products available today. Touted for its artful, high-quality design, entertainment value, and productivity enhancement — it’s hard to pass a week or even a day without tripping over some reference to this pinnacle of product design. So successful, it is helping to spawn a whole new computing category. With Apple in the game and others quickly jumping in, it’s reasonable to expect that we will be living with this unique category of device for a few years at least. However, beyond that, who can say if anything like an iPad will be around 50 or even 20 years from now. Will it keep evolving like the automobile or will it disappear completely like the fun loving 8 track player?
Still, in the here and now, the iPad is king of the cool product roost. Who doesn’t know about it? Who wouldn’t want one? Who isn’t trying to knock it off? Yet, I might argue that all of those things were true about the second item that crossed my path that day. It too had an apparently illustrious heyday and now it is almost completely unknown to the general public.
This second thing came to me via my wife. She was homesick and surfing the net to pass the time. An avid knitter, she was looking for a yarn ball winder. An admirable piece of mechanical ingenuity in and of itself but it did not compare to what else she found – a circular knitting machine. Also known as sock knitting machines, they are a compact, mind-numbing collection of interacting metal parts that resemble something that you might find under the hood of H.G. Wells’ Time Machine. You really have to see one working to even believe it does what it is supposed to do. Watching videos of these things working away is endlessly fascinating.
Once you see it, it makes perfect sense that in the evolution of ‘sock making’ from all handmade to the massive industrial processes we have today — some machine of this type must have existed. However, I had never seen one and I would wager that most folks of our generation haven’t either. I would go so far as to say that if most people came across one in their attic or antique store, its function would be an enigma if it were not loaded with yarn and actively pouring out its satisfying fuzzy tube (note: it also does heels and toes right along with the tube — its really ingenious).
So to bring this into iPad terms, who didn’t know about the sock knitting machine? It seems like it was fairly well-known and widely used by the early part of the last century. Reportedly, hundreds of thousands of socks were made on request of the government by civilian women on machines such as these to support the troops in WWI. In an odd twist of fate, after the socks were knit, the government then asked the ladies to give up their machines to be melted down for tanks and guns which is why we aren’t tripping over these machines today in every other yard sale.
Who wouldn’t want one? I would think anyone who was stuck making socks with needles which was most everybody in those days. Knitting a single pair of socks can take many hours or days even for a speedy knitter (believe me – I’ve watched…slowly). This machine can reportedly crank out a pair of socks in a couple of hours. In fact, there is evidence that these machines were even being marketed as a liberating device for women. Not only saving them time from making things for their own use but also as a way to make a living in their own homes. With slogans like “Better than a hundred hands” and “Knit your hours into dollars” how could you say ‘no’?
Who wasn’t trying to knock it off? After its invention in England (still looking for a credit here) in the late 1800s, its manufacture was improved and spread across Europe and North America for the next 60 or so years. It seems there were a handful of companies making these when they were popular, Anslie, Legare, Auto Knitter, and Gearhart to name a few. Only Auto Knitter, which started in Montreal, Canada, is still around today in New Zealand, proudly bragging they offer the “first modern hand cranked circular sock machine to be manufactured world wide this century”.
It is probably easy enough to imagine why there is not one in every home today like the automobile or TV. Changing times and the efficiency of mass manufacturing after WWII no doubt made it unnecessary or perhaps socially low-brow to make your own socks at home. As we changed from an isolationist, agricultural nation into a world power, making your own socks was probably seen as a quaint reminiscence of ‘yesteryear’. I’m not saying that things should be held on to when they are no longer needed or that we shouldn’t lavish attention to those things that are near and dear to our hearts right now. It is more that I think it is simply a curious thing how things come and go and it’s probably frightfully hard to pick out the long-time winners from the one-hit wonders when you are living with things in the moment.
So, was the sock knitting machine really an iPad-like device of its day? Perhaps not to the full extent that the iPad has managed to capture our attention today, but it seems to have certainly been a well-known technological marvel of its time. If nothing else, it makes me want to find out more about those things in history that were truly the iPads of their day. Who designed them? How did they affect their time? What became of them? Are we still living with them today and if not – why? One thing I can say about the sock knitter is right now my wife and I are looking to pick up one of these decades-old machines and put it back to work. 50 years from now, we might not be using anything like an iPad anymore but we’ll definitely still need socks.