The invention of the stocking hand frame

'The Reverend' William Lee 'of Calverton in Nottinghamshire' is generally credited with inventing the stocking hand frame in 1589. 'The advance it represented, by mechanising complex hand movements at a single stroke, was 150-200 years in advance of its time.' [5]

The concept of its operation was so brilliant that, through an evolutionary process of technical refinement, modification and innovation by many inventors throughout the world over the succeeding centuries, it laid the foundations for today's weft and warp knitting and machine lace industries.

Unfortunately there is no dated documentary evidence concerning Lee's life, efforts and achievements prior to 1589 [6]. Imaginative descriptions and paintings from a much later period provide a mythical and confusing back-cloth to the event. The first extant illustrations of a frame were drawn for Colbert by the French spy Hindret in 1656, and the earliest existing stocking frames appear to date from about 1750.

Lee's original frame was undoubtedly crude, and knitted poor quality woollen stockings with a gauge of only 8 needles per inch (25 mm). It required two men to operate it. Not until 1750 were frame knitted stockings accepted as comparable in quality to those knitted with pins. Lee is believed to have knitted a pair of silk stockings in 1596/7 [7], although a reported gauge of 20 needles per inch seems to be too fine for that period. A gauge of 16 needles per inch was only commercially attained after 1620, when Aston applied lead sinkers (dividers) in the hand-frame.

Frustrated in his attempts to obtain a patent from either Elizabeth I or James I by the fear of unemployment amongst hand pin knitters, William Lee and his brother James took their nine machines and knitters to France at the invitation of Henry IV in 1609. Lee set up a workshop in Rouen and signed a partnership agreement with Pierre de Caux in 1611, with a further agreement in 1614.

The protection of Protestant workers in France ended when Henry IV was assassinated in 1610 and it is believed that (at an unspecified date) James brought most of the machines and knitters back to London and that William died in poverty in Paris whilst hiding from persecution. England then prohibited the export of stocking frames, but Hindret's accurate drawings and knowledge enabled frames to be built in Paris from 1656 onwards and thus the knowledge of their operation spread across Europe.

Gradually London declined as the centre of frame-work knitting and, by 1750, the major areas could be broadly classified as Derby for silk, Nottingham for cotton and Leicester for wool knitting.

Improvements in the spinning of cotton yarns led particularly to an increase in knitted underwear and open-work point lace fabrics, in addition to cotton hose. The knitting industry then expanded rapidly until 1810 when over-production resulted in stagnation, unemployment and the Luddite riots. It was not until conditions improved in the second half of the century that new innovations and inventions in knitting technology received encouragement and practical application.

10 Knitting technology 2.5 The bearded needle

From a logical viewpoint, Lee's hand frame has more in common with a knitting peg frame (Stuhl) than with a pair of hand-held pins. There is evidence of a prior art of peg frame knitting dating back at least to 1535 in Strasbourg [8].

Lee quickly discarded the idea of trying to imitate hand-held circular knitting. His brilliance lay in his adaptation and integration of the straight peg frame with the foot- and hand-controls of the hand-operated weaving loom, and with the employment of a hooked loop holder (the bearded needle) for loop intermeshing.

The bearded needle has an extended hook or beard that is pressed to enclose the newly-formed loop so that this loop can be drawn through the previously-formed loop as the latter is being released.

Lee set the needles in a row across the width of the frame, whose working parts were more intricate than that of the existing hand-weaving loom. Skilled hand knitters could only form up to 100 loops per minute whereas Lee's first frame could achieve 500 to 600 loops per minute, and the later silk hose frame could produce 1000 to 1500 loops per minute.

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