Of William Lees Device

The knitting frame, invented in 1589 by William Lee from Calverton, was the most perfect tool-type machine of the period and its complexity aroused the admiration of contemporaries. In the petition of English knitters, dated 1658, we can see their pride in the excellence of the machine they were using. They declared that the frame was "composed of above 2000 pieces of smith, joiners' and turners' work, after so artificial and exact manner that, by the judgement of all beholders, it far excels in the ingenuity, curiosity and subtlety of the invention and contexture all other frames or instruments of manufacture in use in any known part of the world".1 The great French encyclopaedia in 1751 brings Perrault's raptures, typical of the Age of Enlightenment.2 These praises were not exaggerated. In fact, the 360-needle machine for the production of silk hosiery consisted of 2066 metal parts and constituted the most complicated mechanism introduced into industry in the seventeenth century.

P. Lewis writes lately: "The stocking frame was probably the most sophisticated textile machine in common use in western civilization in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was said to have been composed of more than 2000 parts and, by 1750, fabrics could be knitted with as many as 38 needles to the inch, though 20 to 24 were more common".3 Contemporaries appreciated it quicker than they had the filature for reeling silk discovered already in the thirteenth century.4 It was not the first textile machine to move a row of needles or shuttles by means of a lever; three years before its discovery, Anton Miiller, the inventor from Gdansk of a machine for simultaneous weaving 4-6 ribbons, was killed by drowning in Moltava. A model of the multi-shuttle machine for ribbons Was built by van Sonnevelt in Holland in 1604.5

The French did not easily accept the leadership of the Englishman Lee in the discovery of the knitting machine because of its fast and almost simultaneous introduction in both countries. Several authors repeat after J. Savary and the contemporary journals unconfirmed information about a mysterious locksmith from Caen in France who supposedly built a similar machine in the middle of the seventeenth century.6 These are secondary discoveries similar to the inventions of the Swede Christopher Polhem.7

So the knitting machine was invented by William Lee. There is no documented information about his life and history of the invention except for oral tradition. The inventor, forgotten and unappreciated in his lifetime, became a subject of interest only after the diffusion of the machine, thus decades after his death, he was compared to William Shakespeare. Perhaps archival research in various European countries would bring new data.

K. G. Ponting in his very important paper tried to show how open to discussion was all information about the life of inventors: "So little is known about William Lee, the inventor of the stocking knitting frame, and so much legend has grown up around him in the centuries since his death that it has seemed desirable to set out the few facts which we have that beyond question refer to William Lee the inventor, and to examine them critically so as to see if they alter the balance between fact and fiction in the life of this English genius". The Cambridge university records do not clearly show that one William Leigh having matriculated in May 1579 was the inventor. The ecclesiastical and local records in Nottingham are not very helpful. They do not prove that William Lee was vicar or curate at Calverton. Perhaps it was a William Lee, the father of the inventor, vicar of Calverton, who had three sons, William being the eldest of them, and who died in 1607. He discharged his eldest son who takes this patrimony earlier giving him in testament only "one ring of gold, in the value worth 20 shillings". The first authentic document is the partnership agreement between William Lee and George Brooke from 1600 and the second one was the petition to the Court of Aldermen in the City of London from 1605. After that our inventor was admitted to membership of the Weavers' Guild in the City of London. The next information comes from Rouen with the contract of 1611. The usual presumed date of his death 1610-1611 is incorrect as he was still alive in 1614.8

Authors of books on Lee write about his family relations, education and motives for undertaking work on the construction of the machine. This scanty data supplement the technical information on the development of the invention itself. The most difficult problem was the construction of the mechanism for passing the stitches from one needle to another without breaking yarn. Attempts at gaining the support of Queen Elizabeth were unsuccessful because in 1590 the machine was producing only thick woollen stocking. Only in 1599 could the machine, with double the number of needles, blades and general capacity, also knit silk stockings. There exists a contract from 1600 between William Lee and George Brooke pertaining to machine production in England, published by E. W. Pasold.9 M. and A. Grass found in archives in Rouen a contract from 1611 between W. Lee and de Caux, de Format and Le Tartrier providing the establishment of a manufacture in Rouen producing both woollen and silk stockings. Eight knitting machines and six English experts were to work there. W. Lee was to build further 32 machines. This contract proves that the murder of Henry IV in 1610 and the removal of Sully did not end the hopes of the inventor as to the possibility of the effective use of machines in France.10 Apart from this contract, however, there is no other data on the fate of the manufacture and the inventor.

We do not know the full extent of English hand-knitting production which makes research into the introduction of the machine difficult. Accelerating the production of thick woollen stockings did not lie in the interest of the mass of hand knitters. Much greater possibilities existed in the domain of the production of silk stockings. This yarn, owing to its sleekness, travelled through the rows of blades and needles more easily. We shall return to the structure of the knitting machine in Chapter VII. But here we must pose the question to what degree could this tool-type machine in its earliest version revolutionize knitting production?

The greatest speed achieved in hand knitting was 100 stitches per minute, while on the machine it was possible to knit 1000-1500 stitches in the same time. The first of W. Lee's machines made only 500-600 stitches per minute.11 These effective technical norms were seldom achieved even after the machine had become fully established in the late seventeenth century. Both in England and in Fournier's manufacture in Lyon machine production norms in 1667 were 10 pairs of woollen stockings per week or 3 pairs of unicoloured ones and 2 pairs of patterned silk ones. At the same time, hand-made items were considered much superior and were more expensive than the early machine products.12 Work on the machine was restricted to daylight and each correction required laborious treatment. That is why the knitting machine in the initial stage of development encountered great resistance. Still by the early nineteenth century it could produce only flat knitwear which had to be stitched up while as early as fourteenth century the use of five needles made the execution of more complicated types of garments possible.

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