Knitting in the British Isles

The British Isles, and particularly southern England, distinguished themselves, in the fifteenth century, by the extensive production of hand knitting. The question of guild organization, which were always rather weak in that country, is not of great importance in view of the many and varied relics coming from archaelogical excavations. They give eviden evidence of the existence of large knitting extablishments in the oldest part of London and in South-East England.5 Archival data on these craft workshops would give new light to the beginnings of English knitting. Knitting craftsmen were also working in smaller towns, such as Worcester in the sixteenth century.6 The knitting production in the British Isles, which utilized indigenous raw materials, has not been elaborated until now. It was particularly widespread on the Norman islands of Guernsey and Jersey. W. Cunningham wrote about the Jersey "type of stockings in 1596 in Leicester".1

The last studies in Pasold Fund editions discuss some detailed questions of English hand knitting though a detailed history of hand-knitter guilds is still a waiting its author. Already M. Hartley and J. Ingilby present the history of a hand- knitter of the Dales. "After the caps also the stockings were produced. About 1510 there occurred a change in fashion of supreme importance to hand knitting. Men's hose were divided into two and became upper and nether stocks, from which we get our name stocking; and eventually the term hose became synonymous with stocking as it has remained ever since. An early mention of knitted hose was in 1519 when a pair cost 5d. at Nottingham. These were, in all probability, coarse worsted". Later on the authors observed: the invention of the stockings loom in 1589 "was to have little effect on ordinary knitting for very many years". The expansion of the trade in garments hand-knitted by people in their homes still continued. An Act of Parliament of Edward VI, 1552, had mentioned "knitte hose, knitte petticoats, knitte gloves, knitte sleeves". In Elizabeth's reign the production of worsted stockings was encouraged by the Queen as a branch of the wool trade, ┬┐nd it became an integral part of the economic life of the nation. Her reign marks the beginning of a state organization for poor relief: and knitting, amongst other crafts, was taught to provide work. A handicraft that aimed to produce quantities of goods had to reach a high degree of efficiency and skill, so that knitting schools were started in towns up and down the country. At Lincoln, one begun in 1591 and continued throughout the next century. The authors show how hand knitting was taught to the poor children together with spinning on a spinning-wheel. Hand knitting had settled in Norwich, Dorset, Hampshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire.8

Writing about the Monmouth caps K. Buckland took a general view of the different confirmations of guild's organizations and charters from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Yet in the late sixteenth century the Monmouth cap was a suitable present for an aristocratic father. Even in 1661 "The best caps were formerly made at Monmouth, where the Cappers' Chapel doth still remain, being better carved and gilded than any other part of the Church. But on the occasion of a great plague happening in this town, the trade was some years since removed hence to Bewdley in Worcestershire".9

J. Thirsk wrote about the fantastical folly of fashion which created the English stocking knitting industry in 1500-1800. She shows how "the stockings knitted from wool were beginning to share some of the favour originally bestoved on knitted silk. Documented references in the eary decades of the sixteenth century suggest that knitted stockings were then mostly worn by children and country folk". She provided some records dating from 1519, 1530 to 1550. J. Thirsk has stressed how valuable the production of stockings of all types was as by-employment, particularly in rural areas. Making knitted stockings for sale it added considerably to the earnings of whole families. She wrote: "By the beginning of the seventeenth century stockings were made in Wales, Cheshire, Gloucestershire, Cornwall, Devon, Nottinghamshire. Northamptonshire, Yorkshire, Northumberland, Cumberland, Westmorland and Durham.

The local wools of these counties ranged from fine Cotswold to hairy, coarse Welsh and northern yarn. The texture of the stockings must have varied similarly [...] Worsted stockings were finer, though the term 'worsted', evidently covered a wide range of qualities, some being finer than others". An important remark of the authoress concerns the individual style of this product. "Stockings, like other peasant craft goods, were never standarised wares".10 I have to return to this question in the Chapters VII and VIII. Here the most important question remains how the production was organized. Did guilds of the late Middle Ages produce mainly caps and the big production of hand-knitted stockings was rather organized in putting-out system. This question must be solved by further archive research.

P. Croft wrote about the English stocking export trade. Its success in winning a considerable place in domestic trade has even been compared to that of the better known new draperies. The authoress gives us much important data. Thus the types of stockings exported fell into four major categories. The first was of straightforward knitted woollen stockings, short (to the knee) or long (to the thighs). Most were of medium thickness, but it is possible to find a few shipments of coarse woollen stockings, presumably for heavy duty wear. Coarse woollen stockings were mostly the product of the northern counties. Smoother and more expensive were worsted stockings, knitted from the finer yarn used to produce smooth [...] They too were available as short or long stockings. Jersey wool stockings, originally made in Channel Islands but later widely copied elsewhere, were finer than worsted [...] Both woollen and worsted stockings were hand knitted, though as seventeenth century wore on, machine frame knitting slowly began to expand in the regions. The cheapest variety of stockings, however, was not knitted at all. but made of woven kersey fabric.

The fourth group was the leather and silk stockings. The authoress analyzed the port books. For instance, in 1576, 94,5 of the export were cheap kersey stockings, "hand knitting for export was scarcely even in its infancy". In 1618-1619 the lead of worsted stockings had grown. "A total of 246, 268 pairs was exported, followed by 132,574 pairs of woollen stockings and 115,983 pairs of kerseys". About 1668-1669 "the kersey trade was dead". In the export to the North of Europe the port of Hamburg received considerable amounts of woollen stockings, but occasional cargoes were sent to Norway, Stockholm and Gothenburg in Sweden, Copenhagen and Elsinore in Denmark, Gdansk and Elbl^g in Poland. The stockings were also exported to the Netherlands, France, Iberian markets and Italy. The authoress gave a very detailed analysis of this export in different times. It is a very important paper showing the dominance of knitted stockings. The same picture has been confirmed by new archaelogical excavations.

T. Rath has shown how long the tradition of hand knitting in Tewkesbury survived. This centre with its advantageous geographical position at the junction of the Severn and Avon had groun a market for industrial products by the sixteenth century. A hosier is mentioned in the borough records as early as 1446.

There is no indication that the seventeenth century hosiers were engaged in anything other than the well established woollen hand knitting industry of the area. The manufacture of hose was associated with the traditional woollen manufacture with a common source of yarn supply and enterpreneurs involved in both industries [...] The testimony of contemporary authors supports the Proposition that in the early eighteenth century the Tewkesbury hosiery industry was largely based on hand knitting and possibly the production of woven stockings.

The author had difficulty assessing the degree of interrelationship and cross-fertilization between the traditional hand-knit woollen hosiery production and the cotton knitting of the Tewkesbury region, But his information about woven kersey stocking is very important."

The Scottish hand knitting developed later than in England. l.C.M. Barnes wrote:

It is unfortunately impossible to state precisely when the art of hand knitting was first introduced into Scotland. Indeed the whole Scottish wool trade, as well as the introduction and spread of hand knitting in Scotland, are subjects on which much research remains to be done. We can. however, be certain that by the seventeenth century the art of hand knitting was fairly extensively practiced at least on the east coast, in the ccnlrui lowlands and in the borders of Scotland. By the middle of the eighteent ccntury the industry was increasing rapidly and Aberdeen had became the most important centre in Scotland for the production of hand- knitted stockings.

The authoress shows the increase of foreign export of worsted stockings from Aberdeen in the years 1743-1795. Much of this production was made by women, as well as by old men and boys. "A women who is considered as a good knitter, will finish two pairs in a week, if the worsted is spun to her". The norms of hand production were similar in different parts of Europe. The evidence for the production of knitted goods can be found in archaelogical excavations in Scotland from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Maybe it is possible to gather information on Scottish hand knitting from the sixteenth century. I have found some information concerning the Scottish merchant Hanuss Schot who sold knitted stockings in the small Polish town of Warta in 1590. Scottish wandering peddlers were rather numerous in Poland in that time. They may have been selling not only English but also some Scottish knitted goods.12

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