Products of the knitting frame: clocked silk hose made and fully fashioned on a knitting frame and a fine woollen shawl which was made on a special frame equipped with long sinkers and an eyelet attachment to transfer loops from one needle to another.
Hand knitting probably developed as an industry rather than a domestic employment in Britain during the fifteenth century, when the woollen industry was expanding rapidly. Acts of Parliament concerning clothing refer to knitted woollen caps, while household books mention knitted hose. The demand for these had been created by a change in fashion. The long robes worn by men were beginning to be replaced by doublets and short trunks and so the legs and the hose which covered them were on display. Previously hose had been cut from woven cloth, possibly on the bias, and then seamed from toe to welt. While warm enough, it was not very sightly as it did not mould itself to the shape of the wearer. The wealthy began to purchase knitted silk stockings, at first from Spain and Italy, but then from English suppliers during the sixteenth century. These were often elaborately embroidered, particularly in the section above the ankle known as the clox. It is said that when Queen Elizabeth I's silk woman, Mrs Montague, presented her mistress with a pair of knitted black silk stockings the Queen resolved never to wear cloth hose again.
Hand knitting flourished to meet the new demand, particularly as a secondary employment in rural areas where wages were low and additional income was needed. In the East Midlands long staple wool from local sheep had been spun into worsted thread and sent to weaving centres like Norwich and West Yorkshire: there was no weaving tradition in the region itself and this may be why hand knitting became a well established industry in Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire by the sixteenth century. Tradition has it that William Lee, the inventor of the stocking frame, came from Calverton in Nottinghamshire and if this is true he would certainly have been familiar with the knitting process. But the only definite contemporary evidence we have about Lee places him in London, where about 1600 he was in partnership with a courtier, George Brooke, presumably in the hope of gaining a patent for his invention of a machine to make silk stockings. As London was the centre both of the silk industry to provide thread and of the Court to purchase the finished product, it is likely that Lee developed his machine there even if the tradition of its invention in Nottinghamshire in 1589 is correct.
Lee failed to gain the patent of monopoly he was seeking. His first frame was only equipped with jack sinkers and so could not produce such fine fabric as hand knitters. The government anyway would have been reluctant to endanger the livelihood of the hand knitters at a time of severe under-employment which saw the creation of the parish relief system in 1601. William Lee therefore took his machine to France, where attempts were being made to promote the manufacture of luxury goods such as silk. He was certainly working in Rouen about 1610 and presumably died in France shortly afterwards. His frames were used to establish a silk knitting industry which flourished in northern France, particularly around the town of Troyes.
His brother James brought the stocking frame back to London and improved it by adding the fixed or lead sinkers so that a finer fabric could be produced. The use of the frame spread only very slowly: there were fewer than a hundred machines in use by the outbreak of the Civil War. A Company of Framework Knitters was formed in London and incorporated by charter in 1657 and again in 1663. This enabled trade to be regulated by master framework knitters, who took on apprentices and trained them for a period of seven years to become journeymen. Attempts were made to control the quality of products, to keep out foreign competition and to limit entry into the trade by registering apprentices. Some manufacturers of hose objected to such tight controls on their activities and began to leave London and set up their trade in the East Midlands, the original home of the stocking frame. Population had been increasing since the early sixteenth century, so there was a demand from the less wealthy for cheaper hose made out of wool, or later cotton, rather than silk. The frame was adapted to utilise the worsted yarn already being spun in the East Midlands, while the establishment of the framework knitting industry there in turn encouraged the production of silk thread. The first textile mill in Great Britain to utilise water-power to drive machinery was a silk mill in Derby designed by George Sorocold between 1702 and 1718, first for Thomas Cotchett and then for Thomas Lombe. The first pair of cotton stockings seems to have been made in Nottingham in 1730, but it was not until improvements in cotton-spinning techniques later in the century enabled a stronger thread to be made that cotton began to supersede silk for lighter hose. The movement of the knitting industry from London continued so that by 1782 nearly 90 per cent of the twenty thousand stocking frames in use in Great Britain were located in the East Midlands and the percentage remained very much the same throughout the nineteenth century although the number of machines increased. Generally Nottinghamshire specialised in cotton goods, Derbyshire in silk and Leicestershire in worsted. Other important centres of framework knitting were the Scottish Borders, Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire and Godalming in Surrey.
During the eighteenth century numerous adaptations were made to the stocking frame to increase its versatility. Lee's machine could knit only in stocking stitch, that is plain on the outside and purl on the inside, although machine-made stockings were often embroidered by hand afterwards. A ribbed fabric, that is one plain and one purl stitch in sequence, looked more decorative and had greater elasticity than plain stocking stitch. Frame knitters often laboriously reversed every other stitch by hand to achieve this effect. The tuck presser, which was introduced in Nottingham in the middle of the eighteenth century, enabled patterns of zigzags and lozenges to be knitted, but the most important invention was the Derby rib frame developed in 1758 by Jedediah Strutt. He first utilised what the contemporary historian and textile manufacturer William Felkin later described as ‘a new and great principle, that of applying external means for mechanically selecting and operating upon any individual thread, needle, lever or bar, independent of the rest'. An iron frame was attached to the front of an ordinary stocking frame which contained vertical bearded needles operated in the same way as the horizontal ones, but which entered between them to reverse every other stitch and so create a ribbed fabric. The attachment was often used to knit a ribbed welt for the top of the stocking, a job done by the topper, the body of the stocking being knitted in plain stitch by a middler. Turning the heel was a complex process involving many alterations to the frame, and often the stocking was pressed off or removed from the frame and the loops were picked up again on a separate frame operated by a footer, who finished off the stocking.
Other modifications to the frame enabled a wider range of goods to be made. An eyelet attachment enabled loops to be removed from one needle to another, thus creating a pattern of holes in the fabric. This was the beginning of a series of inventions resulting in the development of the machine-made lace trade which became very important in Nottingham during the nineteenth century. The same eyelet attachment, with the addition of deep sinkers to lengthen each stitch, also enabled openwork shawls to be made. In 1795 Crane of Edmonton in Middlesex developed the warp frame by adding warp threads, as on a weaving loom, to the frame and forming looped stitches on these. This type of frame produced a firm but non-elastic fabric which could be made in a variety of patterns and proved particularly suitable for gloves, which became a widespread industry in the early nineteenth century.
The invention of a thread carrier at the end of the eighteenth century saved the knitter laying the thread across the needles by hand and, like Kay's flying shuttle on the weaving loom, enabled wider pieces of fabric to be produced.
These could be cut into shirts, pantaloons, vests and other garments and eventually extended the limited range of goods which could be made on a conventional frame. However, it was also possible to cut stockings from this fabric and seam them up the back, thus producing several stockings from one piece of knitting without the need to adjust the frame for the narrowing and widening necessary to fashion hose. These cut-ups or spurious articles, as they were known, created great hostility among the knitters of fully fashioned hose since the prices charged for them undercut those of their own products. In the end, however, wide frames were to prove an asset to the industry by enabling it to diversify. Other frames were built to produce several stockings at once, a development made possible by the addition of several slur-cocks rather than only one to release the jacks. They became known as ‘three-at-once' or ‘four-at-once' frames.
By about 1800 the stocking frame had been developed to the limits of its versatility, being able to knit forty distinct types of fabric which could be made into a variety of garments. The way forward lay with the application of power, as in the spinning and weaving industries. The internal organisation of the industry, however, together with an abundant cheap labour force and changes in fashion kept powered machines out of the hosiery trade for a further fifty years.