CAPE GIRARDEAU — A family-run machine shop in south Cape Girardeau has been the unlikely center of a revival of the knitting machine industry.
David "Pee Wee" Erlbacher has been a machinist for more than 50 years. He and his daughters have run Erlbacher Gear and Machine Works since 1955 and decided recently to start making sock knitting machines. In the past 26 months they have produced more than 225 knitting machines and sold them in 11 countries. Erlbacher said he took an interest in knitting machines when he saw one and thought it would be a good project to work on when the making of custom gears slows down.
"In 50 years, it has been the most difficult thing we've worked on," Erlbacher said.
Erlbacher said he bought a 1924 model Gearhart knitting machine online that was missing a lot of parts. After a great deal of work on it, Erlbacher said, he had the first patent for the Gearhart sock knitting machine in the United States in more than 85 years. Now Erlbacher produces nearly 35 machines a month with parts made in the United States. The machines can be used to knit socks, sweaters, scarves, hats and more.
Erlbacher said the company got a positive response from the knitting community and the machines were "brought in with open arms."
According to Erlbacher, the knitting community was happy to have a place to make parts for their machines.
Daughter Jamie Mayfield handles sales, training and customer service, and daughter Grayson Erlbacher runs the machine shop.
"This has been the best family project we have ever done together," David Erlbacher said. "It's taught us how to deal with people from other countries, showed us how to be patient with people and brought us closer together."
The company focuses on customer service which, Erlbacher said, has brought an increase in sales. Erlbacher said most of their advertising comes from word-of-mouth and customer service.
"If you sell it and service it, you get to sell more," Erlbacher said.
Part of the company's customer service has been holding a convention for those who have purchased its products. The first weekend of April, customers are invited for a three-day convention to receive service and updates. The last convention brought more than 100 people.
For Erlbacher, manufacturing the knitting machines has brought a connection to the past.
"It's very important for somebody to help preserve the past," Erlbacher said. "These were a very important part of World War I and the start of World War II."
Erlbacher said there were more than 200,000 knitting machines in American Red Cross hospitals in World War I. As soldiers recovered, they knitted socks for themselves before they returned to the trenches. Now, machine knitting has seen a revival domestically.
"This has been a big deal for the knitting community," Erlbacher said. "A lot of people have gotten back into knitting. People want American-made handcrafted things."
Erlbacher's next convention is scheduled for April 4 to 6 at Ray's Plaza Conference Center in Cape Girardeau.