The Technical Development of the Knitting Machine in the Eighteenth Century

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The variations in fashion within the growing demand for knitted clothing had a decisive effect on the evolution of the prototype of the simple knitting machine built by Lee. This machine could only execute the stocking stitch; the fashioning of products was limited, and any more complicated forms of clothing had to be stitched together by hand. These difficulties were taken into account by various redesigners. Some of them aimed at small improvements in the construction of the machine itself and at making it function more efficient. This type of redesign was undertaken primarly in the largest machine knitting centres, in which the machines themselves were also being produced. References are made, for example, to many small improvements introduced by knitting- machine constructors in Languedoc. However, only further archival research into this powerful centre of the eighteenth century French knitting production will enable the type of technical improvements to be determined. Other constructors attempted to build new models of the machine. First, we must mention on the first place the Swedish inventor, Christopher Polhem, who patented his knitting machine in 1749. This was clearly a new model of the machine because the two earliest specimens of Lee's knitting frame had been imported to Sweden in 1723. while the other arrived in the thirties of the eighteenth century, and both are currently found in the Tekniska Museet in Stockholm and in the Bergslagets Museum in Falun. (II. 18) So Polhem was familiar with the principles of construction of the machine already in use in Swedish manufactures, and designed a simpler version of it. It consisted of three treadles, while the working part of the machine with the needles was set in motion by a type of lever, not by means of a wheel.23 Nevertheless, on the basis of the photograph of the model it is difficult to establish the advantages of this construction of the machine. It appears to be simpler than Lee's machine, but it must have had constructional drawbacks, since it was never introduced into Swedish knitting manufactures. (II. 19)

The original knitting frame, over the several scores of years dating from the moment of its introduction into a manufacturing type of production, was subject to many minor improvements. Consequently various types were created. Four of the hosiery machines in use were mentioned in Dziennik Wileriski (Vilno Daily) in 1820. This classification is important because it reveals different types of knitting frames were known of Poland in the early nineteenth century. The types described as "common" were the simplest machines similar to the Lee's frame. In a second type of machine the worker did not have to tighten the stitches with a press manually, but using a crank. The third of the types mentioned, represents the improved resolutions of the eighteenth century. It consists of "a single row of rakes, a piece for tightening the work, two wheels called 'roulatte', which running across the frame in the right and left direction replace the function of springs, rollers, press and other parts used in the forming of the stitches".24 The quotation refers to a simplified machine made by Jandeau from Chalons-sur-Marne. However, it only enabled the production of the thickest stockings only owing to the necessity of a sparse distribution of needles. (II. 22)

The above-mentioned paper also describes a fourth type of English machine used for the making of striped stockings in which "instead of tin-plate springs and horizontal parts called 'ondes', there are spiral springs made from wire and vertical pieces".25 The most important improvement to Lee's simple machine made in the eighteenth century is not presented very precisely. It was connected with the widespread vogue for various types of stripes in cloth and knitwear as well as ornamentation: ribbed, obtained in weaving by different resolutions to the rep weave of warp or weft. The fashion of stockings and pin-striped trousers and simple patterned ornamentation brought about a considerable influence on English production, as at the same time, the rapid development of French knitting, particularly in Languedoc, constituted effective competition to the production of the British Isles. The large quantitative output of this production had to be offset by a high standard and rapid fulfilment of the new demands of fashion. For this purpose, however, it was necessary to perfect the machine. A definite improvement in the standard of silk products was the constructions in the middle of the eighteenth century of a knitting machine with sets of 38 needles, while the former ones had smaller sets of 22 to 34 meedles. This enabled the prodection of a wider, finer and more compact knitted fabric, used for larger garments. At the same time, between 1725 and 1742, a different type of knitting machine was introduced to knitting production in Nottingham, in which a special arrangement of needles and blades formed on the fabric surface the impression of grooves in zig-zag from. This invention was attributed to French or Irish knitters.26 However, the improvements to the machine did not make any real difference to the production of knitwear with striped or zig-zag surface.

Jedediah Strutt built a machine for making knitwear with a ribbed surface (rib hosiery frame). He was a brother-in-law of William Woollett. owner of a large knitting establishment in Derby. His complicated knitting frame, apart from horizontally arranged rows of needles, as in Lee's machine, also had vertical ones. These supplementary tows of needles from stripes of a desired width on the fabric. The first patent is from 1758, the second from the following year.27 Strutt making use of the practical experience of Woollett, significantly transformed Lee's model, departing from the uniformly waving arrangement of the needles and blades. The multidirectional arrangement of needles in rows constituted a real technical advance until then the structural improvements had mainly centred on increasing the number and diminishing the gauge of the needles. This invention initiated further improvements to the knitting frame, which were originated in the environment of textile engineers in central England. The constructional principle of the knitting frame also served as a basis for a lace making machine. These machines will be discussed at the end of this work showing the situation of European knitting at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, prior to the discovery of the rotary machine and the beginning of mass production.

We hve already mentioned that the first types of wooden frames were banned in Saxony and Bohemia at the beginning of the eighteenth century. But in Saxony, until the second half of the nineteenth century, work was still being done on the wooden knitting machines. This Saxon machine differed from the Lee's model in the construction of the wooden part transmitting the drive from the treadles to the working part. Instead of the single wheel of the English machine, the Saxon one had two wooden wheels on each side. As well as this, in this machine there was a preponderance of part made from hard wood, but otherwise in its working part it did not differ from the simple knitting frame of William Lee's construction. (II. 21) F. G. Wieck and S. Sieber claim that these machines, thanks to the preponderance of wooden parts, were easier to operate then the English ones, while the products obtained were of similar quality. Only a few of this type of Saxon machines have survived and these come from the nineteenth century as, for example, the frame dating from 1860 in Chemnitz preserved in Schlossberg Museum and also in Leicestershire Museum. (II. 23) This model, so important in the history of the Saxon technique, has not been mentioned by H. Mottek or F. Frölich. Only in the middle of the nineteenth century were these locally produced machines gradually being replaced by steam- driven machines. However, the knitting machines of Saxon construction, were not used in neighbouring Thuringia.28 (II. 20) One such machines, detable to 1811, (thus earlier than the relics preserved in Saxony) is kept in the knitting factory of the Jansen family in Schijndel in Holland.

Martinus Jansen (1802-1879) worked on this machine in Saxony in Karl-Marx-Stadt (Chemnitz) before emigrating to Holland. However, on arrival at his destination, he soon switched over to production using English machines.

There is no room in this book to examine the interesting structural transformations of knitting machines, which took place in the second half of the eighteenth century, connected with the changing demands of fashion in clothing, and particularly the changes in patterned stockings. These structural transformations started within leading English knitting and were gradually introduced to production in other European countries. The question of direct connection between the fashion of patterned knitwear and laces and the structure of specific machines was discussed in my book Fashion and Technique Textile in Europe between Sixteenth and Eighteenth Centuries. I was interested in the modification of the early textile machines: those used making ribbons, for knitting and making laces. The changes mentioned above were caused by the variations in taste of west-European fashion. Technological historians have focused their interest mainly on the overestimated increase in output capability. I have discussed different variants of the original English knitting machine, especially the Swedish and the Saxon one. The modifications of the knitting machine were particularly important, for in the eighteenth century they made possible the manufacturing of netted, open-work, striped, double looped and warp knitted garment, as well as those of a ribbed or zig-zag surface.

Technical solutions leading to the transformation of the simple knitting frame in the years 1760-1800 prepared the ground for the investion of the rotary knitting machine. The trend was towards the creation of different types of machines for the production of specific products of variable froms. So it was a question both of replacing the laborious work of hand embroiderers in adorning machine-made stockings, mittens and gloves, and of finding a mechanized resolution to the production of open-work textures. These modifications were so numerous that only the most important can be mentioned here.

Among the patents for inventions during 1675-1800 appears, for instance, the patent from 1682 for. F. Ammonett, C. Hayes and G. D. Guthard "The manufacture of draped milled stockings", from 1765 "Knitting machine for making and knitting of stockings, stocking pieces, and other goods usually manufactured upon stocking frame" build by W. Taylor and F. Jones. Up to ;1797 there was about fifteen different patents for knitting machines. Some of them do not have probably any practical value but the number shows the significance of hosiery in textile production. Thus, for example, Josias Crane and J. P. Porter patented in 1769 a slide bearing, which supplement the simple knitting frame. It enabled the production of diverse mittens, gloves, hoods and fcprons using different shades of yarn. The needle machine invented by Else and Harvey in 1700 was not into use. John Morris fared better when he patented an improvement, registered in 1784, of a machine which facilitated the production of open-work and mesh knitwear. The numerous small improvements led to a change in the appearance of the knitted surface not only in the sense of loosening its structure or creating colourful ornamentation, but also *bf evoking a resemblance to the resolutions applied in pattened wearing. Different variants of these machines were used for the production of silk, woollen, and especially the increasingly more popular cotton knitwear.29 Small changes in the complicated arrangement of needles and blades enabled knitwear with fancifully shaped surfaces to be put into production. However, these products were mean for a narrow circle of consumers and the rapid evolution in production methods and its relatively short duration conected with a changing fashion are the reasons why the construction of these versions of the flat knitting machine is little remembered today. The first patents for a rotary knitting machine also appear at the very end of the eighteenth century (Decroise from 1798).30 This invention revolutionized the production of a part of the knitted garments destined for mass consumption and facilitated their fashioning. The introduction of this machine enabled the transition, in European knitting, from workshop to factory production.

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