The Foundation of the Knitting Industry

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Investing in frames

William Lee Stocking Frame

During the early seventeenth century, knitting frames remained an expensive investment and few were built.  Even in the 1660s, frames could cost as much as £20 to £30 each, more than a worker’s yearly wage.  The hand knitters did not have to pay such high costs and could knit as long as they had a pair of knitting needles.  Demand for the output of hand knitters and framework knitters allowed both branches to expand during the two centuries after Lee’s invention.


To make the knitting frame profitable, framework knitters generally only produced high value, fine-gauge garments using silk and fine worsted yarns.  The frame could also be used for long runs of standardised products.  In comparison with framework knitting, hand knitting had low set up costs, new knitters could be taken on without the need to buy or rent expensive frames.  Hand knitting was also cost effective in that it used women, old people and children during the winter months when agricultural work was at its lowest.  It often provided a second income for the knitter and lower rates of pay were acceptable.  The work was also undertaken during the evenings by artificial light, unlike framework knitting which needed daylight to operate the fine mechanisms of the frame.  With framework knitters focusing on high value products, the lower value market was left open for hand knitters to supply.  Hand knitting was also able to compete with the frame by being more versatile in the creation of bespoke tailored garments.
The early framework knitting industry still maintained its centre in London with four or five hundred frames employed there in 1664.  Outside London, the East Midlands had built on the work of William and James Lee.  Around one hundred frames were in use in Nottingham and fifty in Leicester.  A further fifty frames were located in Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Surrey and Hampshire.


The industry moves to the East Midlands

Involvement in the knitting industry from this early period started to generate considerable profits for its workers.  A petition by London framework knitters in 1655 noted that raw materials cost only about 15% of the retail price of silk stockings.  The balance of between 8 shillings and 16 shillings a pair was retained by the framework knitters, hosiers and retailers.  The worsted stockings, more commonly knitted in the East Midlands at that time, were less favourably priced at between 1 shilling

and 6 pence and 2 shillings and 6 pence.  East Midlands framework knitters benefited from lower house rents and food prices than framework knitters in London.  These factors together with the lower wages and freedom from guild regulation were important in moving the industry away from London to the East Midlands.

Fancy stockings in Leicester

William Gardiner recorded that around the middle of the eighteenth century ‘The manufacture in Leicester chiefly consisted in making pink stockings for the lower orders; and, for the higher, pearl-coloured with scarlet clocks.  In the dress of men the waistcoat flaps came down nearly as low as the knee; and the stockings made long enough to reach the top of the thigh, were gartered on the outside and the top rolled down as far as the leg….The chief [export] article was white and brown thread hose for Spain, Portugal and the West Indies.’

Saxony Frame

A presentation frame with some metal parts replaced by wood. The design is typical of a frame from Saxony, Germany. A box rail with two drawers for holding needles is located in front of the bench and the frame includes decorative wooden inlay. The machine was presented to Leicester Museum in 1849 by John Biggs and Sons. John Biggs was Lord Mayor of Leicester at the time. It was one of the first exhibits to be put on display at the town’s new museum.


The Resurgence Of Knitting

In the age of high tech and ready-made, old-fashioned knitting is making a comeback via social media. We’ll ask why.


Knitting is as old as the hills and as new as the wifi, Blackberrry, do-your-yoga generation. Your grandma did, or does it. So – it turns out – does the hotshot next door.

With needles and yarn and the old clickety-clack of fingers flying, it is may be the humblest of clothing crafts. Its popularity has risen and fallen over generations depending, historians say, on national stress and the economy. (See imgages of knitting over the years.)

Right now it’s come back. A way for information workers to make something that feels real. To chill out. To feel back to the land. To make community.

– Tom Ashbrook

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Happy Valentine’s Day Felicia!

Good morning and Happy Valentine’s Day. This is your new vlog (video blog) all about knitting. Each week I’ll help you film and edit a new video post where you discuss the ins and outs of your love, KNITTING. I know what you’re thinking, what kind of present involves the recipient having to do something, let alone having to do something that takes lots of thought and time over and over again? Kinda sounds like that $10,000 we won for our wedding huh? All we needed to do was first spend $2,000 and then the prize was ours, plus payments for the next 5 years on a bunch of stuff we never wanted in the first place right? Well ya I guess it is kinda like that, except instead of just one day of pictures that you pay for for the rest of your life, this will help you work on one of your favorite activities while sharing your talent with your friends and followers in a fun and unique way. You can give lessons to your sister a country away, or simply share your thoughts on the latest purling craze. And don’t worry, I will help you every step of the way with whatever you need. Let’s have fun with it. I love you very much honey and can’t wait to see you down here again.


Fashionable Stockings from the 1500s

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The Tudor court

Hand knitting in England expanded as an industry in Tudor times (1485-1603). Knitted caps and stockings were highly fashionable. From the time of Henry VIII, fine knitted silk stockings imported from Spain were part of court fashion. Previously, a piece of cloth was cut to the shape of a leg and the edges sewn together to create a stocking. By the time of Elizabeth I, knowledge of how to hand knit stockings had spread around England and documents refer to the industry in places as far apart as London, Kingston (Surrey), and Richmond (Yorkshire).

The first knitting frame

The increasing popularity of knitted stockings at court and beyond created opportunities for entrepreneurs to make money. In 1589 William Lee of Calverton, Nottinghamshire, successfully converted the actions of hand knitting with two needles into a mechanised process. This was the first knitting frame. Like the hand knitting process, the knitting frame produced a shaped piece of fabric that was then sewn together to create a garment.

Failure to get a patent

Lee wanted to protect his invention by obtaining a patent from Queen Elizabeth. Lord Hunsdon, a courtier, promoted the case for the knitting frame to the Queen, but without success. The woollen fabric produced by the early frame was considered to be too coarse compared with fine silk stockings. The frame was also seen as a threat to the hand knitting industry which might lead to many people losing work. Lee responded to the Queen’s comments and improved the frame by increasing the number of needles per inch from eight to twenty. This knitted a finer fabric. Unfortunately for Lee, his supporter, Lord Hunsdon, died in 1596, dashing any hopes of securing a patent for the frame.

French tribulations

Convinced of the value of his machine, Lee crossed the Channel to France where Henry IV promoted religious tolerance and actively encouraged the development of industry. Lee’s brother James, nine workmen, and nine frames, accompanied Lee on the journey. From a base in the town of Rouen, Lee began to establish his business. A contract was drawn up with Pierre de Caux to supply frames and train apprentices so that production of garments could commence by 26 March 1610. The business seemed to be progressing well, but unfortunately for Lee, the political scene changed rapidly when Henry IV was assassinated in 1610. In the uncertainty, Lee travelled to Paris and died a broken man around 1614.

London and Nottingham

After Lee’s death, James Lee returned from France with eight frames and seven of the workmen. James promptly disposed of the remaining frames in London and returned to Nottinghamshire where Lee’s apprentice, Aston, had continued to work on the frame and made a number of improvements. The route of James Lee’s return resulted in the establishment of two knitting centres, one based in London with the older frames, and one in Nottingham using the newer frames.