Diffusion of the Knitting Frame in the British Isles

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Fragmentary data on the life-history of William Lee tell us that he devoted the period from 1589 to the beginning of the seventeenth century to perfecting his invention and to the construction of a new model which enabled the production of silk stockings. At that time he was loosely connected with the London knitters' guild, while the contract from 1600 evidences an attempt at starting production on a large scale. This attempt failed and Lee left for France. The last information about him comes from Rouen in 1614.13 After his death, the inventor's brother James Lee returned with a part of the machinery and apprentices to London, while other experts went to seek their fortune in Venice and Holland.14 There is little information on the initial period of the establishment of the knitting machine in England, and the time of English revolution did not favour the spread ?f the new branch of textile production on a larger scale. The stimulus to the uitroduction of the machine in the mid-seventeenth century was the fear of French competition, since in France the knitting production developed rapidly with state support. In 1785 there were 45,000 knitting machines in France, i.e., twice as many as in England. Ude cites with reference to 1788 15,000 machines for cotton, 8,000 for linen, 25,000 for wool and 20,000 for silk. Thus there would have been a total of 68,000 machines in operation in France.15

After 1611 the inventor's brother stayed for a short time in London and then returned to his native county Nottingham. P. Lewis discussed the improvements of the knitting frame in the early seventeenth century. "Robert Thoroton recorded that Aston, a miller and apprentice to William Lee, made an addition to Lee's machine which according to Henson consisted of placing two fixed sinkers between each pair of jack sinkers, whilst Felkin states that one fixed sinker was added at this time. They agreed that this occurred a short while after the death of William Lee and after the return from France of his brother James Lee, who is believed to have entered into partnership with Aston in Nottingham were they commenced building frames with Aston's improvement around 1620".16 This enabled the production costs of the knit goods to be decreased. The establishment of the "framework knitters" company in London in August 1663 is a decisive date in the development of English machine knitting. At that time, in 1664, according to Henson's calculations, 400-500 machines were working in London itself which with an average of two workers per machine amounted to more than 800 knitters. About 50 machines and 100 workers worked in the area around London in Berkhamstead, Herts, Chesham, Tring, Bucks. About 50 men, therefore up to 25 machines, were in Godalming, Farnham, Surrey, Odiham and Hants. In Nottingham and its immediate area there were more than 100 machines and 200 workers, while half that number was employed in Leicester. There were no more than 10 machines at that time in Dublin. Althogether Henson calculates the number of knitters as 1200 working on 650 machines, not taking into account those doing preparatory work and finishing. Three-fifth of the production was based on silk. From thick silk yarn as well as from wool stockings, waistcoats, trousers and breeches were manufactured.17 During England's post revolutionary economic development knitting production increased rapidly. S. D. Chapman has best assessed the extent of this production in the county of Nottingham, calculating in increase in the number of machines and their distribution in the years 1660-1700. Data from archival sources show a slightly lower number of machines than the overall number given by Henson. From 30 knitting workshops in the years 1660-1670 to 77 in the years 1691-1700 and in sum 234 new workshops. In 1739 more than 1200 of the total number of 3000 knitting machines in central England are working in Nottingham shire.18 The meticulous listings by name of knitting workshops owners together with the map of the locality are capable of showing numbers of employed workers to which archival data has been lost. This is why the overall calculations by Henson can only have an inexact value.

The history of the company of machine knitters indirectly shows the development of English knitting during the period from the middle of the seventeenth to the middle of the eighteenth century. The company defended the interests of its members, although ist most combative activity belongs to a later period.19 At the same time some scholars demonstrate the existence of a putting-out system during that period. Small producers would buy or hire machines from trades people.20 This small tool-type machine was suitable for workshops of small producers, in the same way as the later spinning Jenny. It is difficult to assess the extent of this production in different regions of England.21 \Jre deals only with knitting in central England, while elaborations from the field of industrial archeology usually give data from a later period.22

Technological improvements in machine knitting after 1750 concealed from gcholars the slow but steady development of this branch of production in the first jjalf of the eighteenth century. Henson's calculations pertaining to 1723 and 1753 gjjow a considerable numerical jump in the century under discussion. Data for 1727 are given after Wells and in the paragraph below, for comparison, wit the data derived from Henson's calculations.23

Number of machines in southern and central England

London 2500 Leicester 500

Surrey 600 Nottingham 400

Towncester 150 in villages around

Leicester, Nottingham Odiham (?) Reading 100 and Derby 3750

Total 3350 Total 4650

It emerge from these statistics that in southern and central England in 1772 there were about 8000 knitting machines working, thus about 16.000 masters and journeymen, not counting those workers engaged in the processing and spinning of the wool, silk or cotton, and in the finishing of the machine products. Numerical data from 1753 show a considerable translocation in knitting production. In London itself there were only about 1000 machines instead of 2500, while the number in Godalming and Odiham had decreased to 350, the number of machines in Nottingham increased from 400 to nearly 1500 because approximately 800 knitters moved there from London. In Leicester the number of machines doubled reaching more than 1000. In Derby a knitting manufacture of silk products was established, operating on about 200 machines. The production of thick woollen knitwear considerably increased both in the counties of Leicester and Warwick, particularly in Bedworth, and in the counties of Nottingham, Derby and Chesterfield. In the latter three counties there were already more than then thousand machines working, while in 1727 their number Was assessed at 3500. The production of cotton knitwear, in particular, inqreased W the counties ofWorcester, Gloucester, Somerset, Northampton and Oxford. A ®nall production centre developed in Kent around Canterbury, in the environs of Exeter, as well as in Tewkesbury.

T. Rath does not think that the information of Henson about the forty frames in Tewkesbury in 1714 is certain. According to his research the first mention of a framework knitter in this centre is only in 1750. "A conspicuous rise in the lumber of framework knitters being apprenticed is noticeable in Tewkesbury in t^e 1750 and 1760 s." Unlike the East Midlands industries which spread in Plages sourrounding the town, the Tewkesbury industry was.concentrated in J^c town. And the conclusion of T. Rath paper are very important for all the hosiery history in England of eighteenth century: "Tewkesbury's growth and •^velopment as a centre of the framework industry during the middle and late decades of the eighteenth century corresponded with the rapid expansion of the East Midlands industry. The Tewkesbury manufacture had its roots in the long established hand knitting of wool and cotton in the area and the growth of framework knitting was based on skills, techniques and business connexions developed over a long period".24 The production on the frames also spread to Ireland. Altogether about 500 machines worked there, of which 200 were in Cork and 100 in Belfast, operated by skilled Huguenot emigrants. Scotland was always an important centre of hand-made hosiery and the machine spread there slowly.

The origin of framework knitting in Scotland was shown by C. Gulvin. The first company was the New Mills Woollen Manufactory at Haddington in East Lothian founded in 1681. A year later three London stocking makers transported two knitting machines. "The frames, whose export was illegal under English law, were stripped down and the carcases or insides were carried north in the panniers of packhorses rather than being sent by sea which would have courted the official gaze of the customs officers at the ports." The first venture was not successful and the firm failed. The author suggests that this failure layed in not producing a competitive product either in price or quality. But some frame makers worked in Scotland about 1700 and in 1739 a manufacture with 12 frames worked in Edinburgh. Frame knitting was probably also established in Glasgow about 1743. I. C. M. Barnes also wrote about framework knitting, which definitely made its appearance in Aberdeen in 1750. She writes clearly: "Until the 1790s there had been two main factors tending to encourage hand as opposed to frame knitting; there was firstly the lack of machinery for preparing wool but just as important was the overwhelming cheapness of the women's labour; there was no need for expensive frames and skilled workmen when the women of the countryside could so easily be exploited".25 Nevertheless by the middle of the eighteenth century there were already a small number of machines working in Edinburgh, Haiwick, Jedburgh, Perth and Glasgow. Henson calculates the total number of knitting machines on the British Isles in 1753 at about 14,000. Despite the fact that already processed cotton and silk yarn was being purchased, there were several thousand workers engaged in the production of knitwear. The number of machines will only be known after thorough research through the archives. Nevertheless, already now it is possible to observe the decentralization of this production through the whole of central England which testifies to the transition to putting-out production and dispersed manufacture. The improvements of the machine introduced in the second half of the eighteenth century enabled the changes in knitting production from wool to cotton and resulted in its increasing sensitivity to the trends of fashion. We shall return to this topic in Chapter VIII.

The best conclusion of this chapter concerning the use of knitting machines in England was done by S. Chapman:

Lee's stocking frame appears to have achieved technical success by 1589 at the time when hand knitting was still growing and offering attractive employment opportunities to under-employed families in both town and country areas. Shortage of work, particularly through the winter months, was the principal political as well as economic problem in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and successive governments were reluctant to patronize the invention. The first commercial success of the frame was in making silk stockings in London, but the competition of France and then low cost producers at Nottingham restricted its growth, and from the end of the seventeenth century the industry began to migrate into the provinces at an accelerating rate, a movement which the framework Knitters' Company proved powerless to prevent. The growth of the provincial industry was not hampered by paucity of technical skills, or in Nottingham, its principal centre, by guild restrictions; but it owed much to the migration of enterprise, capital, and advanced techniques (in the form of stocking frames) from London. Its prosperity was largely founded on feeding the London jnarket with the cheaper, more standardized hosiery that was obviously in growing demand during gnd after the age of Defoe. Nevertheless the hosiery industry at Nottingham and Leicester and other towns in the locality was built up slowly, merchant hosiers establishing themselves on a modest scale ^vith converted premises and a small inheritance from trading or farming, gradually building up the business with capital generated within the business. In the course of two or three generations the hosier's established their own market in Cheapside, and by frequent journeyings to London acquired ¿0 intimate knowledge of metropolitan demand. Supported with capital from all ranks of local society, and lured by cheap labour and machinery, they had ample means to explore new ways of appeasing the metropolitan appetite for cheaper versions of the extravagant fashions of the age. At the end of our period hand knitting was still a significantly larger industry than frame knitting, but political and economic conditions were ripe for innovation, and the success of Jedediah Strutt's "Derby rib" frame (1758) was about usher in a generation of mechanical contrivance that would enormously extend the range of products and markets of the industry.26

So only after about 1750 that the major period of expansion of English mechanical hosiery began.

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