This Wildman brand rotary knitting machine was used for knitting tubular knits at the Munsingwear Corporation, which was a Minnesota knitwear manufacturer for nearly 100 years, circa 1890-1980. It was on exhibit at International Market Square, which is the former Munsingwear headquarters. Originally belt-driven, at some point perhaps in the 1950’s it was apparently converted to run on a 220 volt General Electric brand motor.
The MHS Conservation Department, in particular Objects Conservator Tom Braun, put a great deal of work into this piece to bring it back to its current state. It needed to be cleaned overall but more importantly a broken leg needed to be repaired. Now it is whole, clean, and ready to be exhibited. Even the needles on top perform their intended action now! A quote from Tom: “I am very excited that when the hand wheel on this unit is turned (clockwise only please!) the whole machine moves as it was designed to. Most exciting is that the needles can be seen to move in and out in a knitting motion.”
While we initially assumed we’d find synthetic fibers, analysis of lint found in the gears showed that this machine worked with 100% cotton fibers. To learn more about its operation, Dick Kaminski and Ted Mommsen, former Munsingwear employees responsible for customizing and operating this machinery, visited the Conservation lab and spoke with Tom and Linda McShannock, curator, about their experience with the machine.
This is one of our favorite things for what it tells us about the company, the direct link it establishes to the products it made, and the beauty of the object. Wildman machines were in use as early as the 1920s and continue to find use in the knitwear industry. It created the raw material from which the majority of Munsingwear products were made. This knitting machine will be a key piece in the upcoming exhibit “Underwear – A Brief History” at the Minnesota Historical Society.