Photo by Pat Leigh
Repairing the sock-knitting machine donated by Jane Weagant (center) took a multi-generational approach, with Lukas Whatley (right) doing the bulk of the repair and Dorothea Campbell helping with fine tuning to return the old machine to working order.

By Ashley Lodato

On Saturday (June 2) from 1 – 4 p.m. at Rockchuck Ranch (formerly Tice Ranch), the Public School Funding Alliance will be showcasing the programs it supports in the Methow Valley School District. Free and open to the public, the event is not a fundraiser — it’s a chance to learn more about the enrichment provided to the local public schools as well as a celebration of PSFA’s 15 years of community-supported donations. Hope to see you there.

People gripe that kids these days don’t know what old-fashioned contraptions like typewriters and cassette tape decks are, but sometimes a member of Generation Z will surprise you with an intuitive understanding of antiquated machinery. Such is the case with 15-year-old Lukas Whatley, who recently restored a broken 19th-century circular sock-knitting machine back to working order.

These turn-of-the-century sock-knitting machines revolutionized sock production, which had been previously relegated to women and their knitting needles. Most notably, the machines were a game-changer for soldiers in the trenches during WWI, because “immersion foot” (aka trench foot) — caused by persistent wet feet — was causing infections, amputations, and even death. Dry feet was the answer to immersion foot, and a plentiful stockpile of wool socks was the best way to stay dry. With sock knitting-machines cutting production time down from several days to about 40 minutes per pair, supply could suddenly keep up with demand.

Jane Weagant gave the Shafer Museum a circular sock-knitting machine, but it wasn’t functional. So the Shafer took an unconventional approach and called the Independent Learning Center and asked if there was a mechanically minded student who might relish the challenge of fixing it. And sure enough, Lukas Whatley was up for the task.

Lukas tinkered with the machine and eventually got it running with one catch — he could only make it knit a sock using cotton string, not wool. But a circular sock-knitting machine expert (a rare employment niche), Dorothea Campbell, just happened to be scheduled to do a sock-knitting machine demonstration at the Shafer last week.

Dorothea says she was amazed by Lukas’s mechanical prowess, saying “I never dreamed a youngster could do such a fine job of assembling one of these complicated machines and making it work.” She and Lukas fiddled with a few things and eventually got the machine fully running with wool yarn. Lukas said it was really wonderful to see the machine he had worked so hard on actually produce a sock.

Guess who is turning 50 today (May 30)? I’ll give you a hint: He doesn’t like it when I write about him in my column but tolerates it — and so many other things — in the name of marital harmony. Please wish Jon Albright a happy half-century when you see him.


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