Textile History

Knitting Machinations : episode 2

Many needles make light work

Last time we learned about how William Lee wanted to build a knitting machine – either to woo a lady, or to make his wife’s stocking production more lucrative.

Whatever his rational, Lee built a machine. Almost immediately, people started to pay attention. Important people, the kind of people whose attention you really want if your goal is to sell lots of machines. Except, the important people didn’t see things his way. And it didn’t go so well for him.

Lee came up with his original stocking hand frame machine in 1589. It was by all accounts crude and basic: it knit stockings at a gauge of eight needles per inch (approximately eight stitches per inch) and required two men to operate it. While 32 stitches in four inches sounds perfectly acceptable to us nowadays, as we’re used to fingering-weight sock yarn, at the time stockings were knit with incredibly fine wool or silk threads and hand knitters achieved a gauge of 20 stitches per inch.

However, Lee’s machine was faster: it could achieve 500 or 600 loops (ie stitches) per minute, whereas hand knitters could only achieve 100. There’s an interesting experiment: can you knit as fast as a stocking knitter in the 1580s? Try to crack 100 stitches a minute and get back to me.

Lee applied to Queen Elizabeth I for a patent, but she refused, reportedly on two grounds: firstly, that the rough woollen stockings the machine was capable of producing were too uncomfortable, and secondly, because she was worried about the effect it would have on hand knitters who might be put out of work. The concept of industrialisation leading to heightened production hadn’t yet taken off in Elizabethan England. Nor had it taken off in Scotland: James VI also refused a patent.

Qu’ils tricotent des bas

However, the French were more open to the idea. Lee and his brother James took nine machines, and accompanying knitters, to France in 1609, where he set up a workshop in Rouen. They were invited there by Henry IV, who was known as Good King Henry or Henry the Great – doubtless because he was a fan of knitting. Crucially, Henry was a Protestant. This didn’t make any difference at all to the knitting, but it did make a difference to William and James’ fortunes after he was assassinated in 1610. William and James’ efforts in France were therefore short-lived: when Louis II succeeded him, the heady days of religious tolerance were over.

We’re not quite sure what happened next, but some of the machines – and the knitters – must have made their way back to England – probably brought back by James. William himself died in poverty in Paris, hiding from persecution.

Despite the best efforts of various powerful entities, Lee’s invention survived. After Lee’s death, the original design underwent continuing developments and improvements. By 1620, the gauge had reached 16 needles per inch, thanks to the addition of a part called a sinker, which helps weigh down the knitted fabric. By 1750, frames were finally producing stockings comparable in quality to hand-knitted stockings. In the next post, we’ll explore the impact of this innovation on the lives of knitters.

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