Textile History

Harnessing nostalgia : literature review part 2

Here we are again, back in a pile of research and articles through which I’m trying to tease out how we can generate emotions through design, to better fulfill goals of identity communication and clothing sustainability. Ready?! Let’s go!

Nostalgia : perceptions and applications

The word “nostalgia” means a painful longing to return home (from the Greek nostos, ‘return home’, and algos, ‘pain’, Davis, 1977). In this regard, it is usually associated with memories of childhood – our first notions of home, and a period many wish to return to as a perceived simpler time.

For many centuries, nostalgia was seen as a disease (Davis, 1977; Sedikides et al., 2008) or negative mental state (Sedikides and Wildschut, 2016; Youn & Jin, 2017; Ju et al., 2016), and wider research fields have only recently begun to regard nostalgia as a positive force with healthy consequences for optimism and wellbeing (Cheung et al., 2015; Muehling et al., 2014; Routledge et al., 2012; Sedikides and Wildschut, 2016; Zhou et al., 2008).

Nostalgia is social, it induces empathy and has been found to reduce prejudice and increase openness (Cheung et al., 2017), increase optimism, social connection, and self-esteem (Cheung et al., 2015) and create meaning (Routledge et al., 2012). The growing recognition of nostalgia as both legitimate and healthy supports the argument that nostalgia may be a solid emotive base for a kansei design methodology.

Elsewhere, Sego’s (2010) study into retention habits of mothers found that mothers are likely to retain items that embody a memory. It is a logical continuation to extend this to children’s clothing, in order to explore how nostalgia can be used to en- courage use, care, and retention of garments. Cooper (2005) identified a need for more research into how consumers increase attachment towards their possessions, in order to ensure the lifecycle of garments is increased, leading to benefits for sustainability. How attachment to a garment increases its lifecycle is also explored by Twigger-Holroyd (2017) who identifies emotional attachment as a key factor in how consumers preserve and care for their garments. This can happen not only with handmade items but also with shop-bought items (Twigger-Holroyd, 2017). This benefit for sustainability and reduced consumption is a useful by-product of the more significant conclusion – at least, in the scope of this project’s objectives – that clothes can generate emotional attachment and connectedness, and that this attachment often arises from the lived experiences and memories that the clothes participate in, and the impressions and feelings these clothes consequently trigger throughout their lifecycle.

Batcho and Shikh (2016) define nostalgia as “longing for one’s remembered past,” but this is a limited definition. The power of nostalgia extends far beyond our own lived experiences and our consequent memories, which often – and notoriously – become warped over the years. The power of nostalgia lies in its potential to evoke emotional connection and resonance with pasts we distort for ourselves, simpler times we wish we had experienced, and memories we create out of nebulous and often fictional histories. This distinction between personal and historic nostalgia has been identified by numerous authors, and is generally regarded as positive (Muehling et al., 2014) — even redemptive and “triumphant” (McAdams et al., 2001, in Muehling et al., 2014, p.74).

The fusion of the personal and the imagined could be interpreted as leading to more creative and fulfilling manifestations of nostalgic indulgence, allowing us to reinterpret and relive our past in a way that reinforces and connects us to our present and future. The literature supports this: Cheung et al. argue that nostalgia “has implications for the future” (2015, p.283) as it can improve social connections and self-esteem. Sedikides and Wildschut (2016) champion nostalgia as a motivational, future-thinking force that at once recalls the past and connects it to the future. This is an exciting and powerful interpretation for design methodology, as it opens up potential both for individualised emotional connection with objects, and a method for preserving historical elements within contemporary design.


Batcho, K.I. & Shikh. S. (2016) ‘Anticipatory nostalgia: Missing the present before it’s gone’, Personality and Individual Differences, 98, pp.75–84.

Cheung, W-Y., Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2015) ‘Induced nostalgia increases optimism (via social-connectedness and self-esteem) among individuals high, but not low, in trait nostalgia’, Personality and Individual Differences, 90, pp.283-288.

Cheung, W-Y., Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2017) ‘Nostalgia proneness and reduced prejudice’, Personality and Individual Differences, 109, pp.89–97.

Cooper, T. (2005) ‘Slower Consumption Reflections on Product Life Spans and the “Throwaway Society”’, Journal of Industrial Ecology, 9(12), pp.51–67.

Davis, F. (1977) ‘Nostalgia, identity, and the current nostalgia wave’, Journal of Popular Culture, 11(2) pp. 414-424.

Ju, I., Kim, J., Chang, M.J., Bluck, S. (2016) ‘Nostalgia marketing, perceived self-continuity, and consumer decisions’, Management Decision, 54(8), pp.2063-2083.

Muehling, D.D., Sprott, D.E., & Sultan, A.J. (2014) ‘Exploring the Boundaries of Nostalgic Advertising Effects: A Consideration of Childhood Brand Exposure and Attachment on Consumers’ Responses to Nostalgia-Themed Advertisements’, Journal of Advertising, 43(1), pp.73-84.

Sedikides, C. & Wildschut, T. (2016) ‘Past Forward: Nostalgia as a Motivational Force’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20(5), pp.319-321.

Routledge, C., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Juhl, J., & Arndt, J. (2012) ‘The power of the past: Nostalgia as a meaning-making resource’, Memory, 20(5), pp.452-460.

Sego, T. (2010) ‘Mothers’ experiences related to the disposal of children’s clothing and gear: keeping Mister Clatters but tossing broken Barbie’, Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 9(1), pp. 57-68.

Twigger-Holroyd, A. (2017) Folk fashion : understanding homemade clothes. London: I.B.

Youn, S. & Jin, S.V. (2017) ‘Reconnecting with the past in social media: The moderating role of social influence in nostalgia marketing on Pinterest’, Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 16(6), pp.565–576.

Zhou, X., Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T., & Ding-Guo, G. (2008) ‘Counteracting loneliness: On the restorative function of nostalgia’, Psychological Science, 19(10), pp.1023-1029.

Textile History

Knitting Machinations : episode 3

Miserable machinations

Last time, we learned how Lee’s knitting machine spread to France – amongst not a little scandal and trouble. The idea outlived the man, and production on knitting machines improved and grew quickly through the 1600s and into the mid-1700s. By 1750, much of this production was done in the home, with the whole family involved. It was, by all accounts, a bleak and thankless career, with most families barely scraping by. After the frame rental, materials, spinning, seaming, candles, machine oil, etc etc profits were meagre. One knitter wrote to a newspaper in 1837 explaining that his outgoing expenses came to one pound two shillings and eightpence, but he only earned 15 shillings. In the mid-1800s, if a knitter worked 12 hours a day, they would be left with about 5 shillings for a week’s work. Children were employed in tasks like seaming – an eight year old girl could optimistically make about 4 shillings a week working from seven in the morning to ten or eleven at night.

To put this in context, at the time a pint of beer cost about three pence (thruppence), and there were 12 pence in a shilling. So frameworkers were making enough for about four or five pints a week, which had to cover all their expenses for their families.

To add insult to literal injury, most of these workers were practically indentured to suppliers – instead of receiving a cash wage, they had to obtain their food and goods from the hosier who bought their product. This was called trucking, and often meant the frameworker had to pay inflated prices.

A doctor in Nottingham – where framework knitting, mostly in the home, was particularly important and widespread – noted in 1833 that these framework knitters were in terrible health. Pale, malnourished, thin, dyspeptic (a delightfully visceral Victorian word for irritable and depressed). They lived in poverty in sparsely-furnished homes, and their conditions were considered worse than other textile-industry workers who left their homes to work in factories.

Most other textile industries had transitioned from domestic to factory-based production during the Industrial Revolution, but framework knitting resisted this in a really interesting way. Since the knitting machines could be accommodated in the home from the early days of the machine’s invention, by the time the industrial revolution came around many families had already invested in the equipment and wanted to make use of that investment by continuing to work at home. Given this existing industry, why would factory owners bother trying to compete – the equipment was expensive, and they likely wouldn’t find skilled workers to hire anyway because they’d all be doing it at home already.

Into the modern day

Despite all this, machine knitting thrived over the next few centuries, and industrial knitting became a backbone of the UK economy. Of course, it did end up in factories eventually, as we know. A livery company – the particular moniker for London’s trade associations and guilds – grew up around it: the Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters still exists. Their centre is in Lutterworth, in England, and their motto is “speed, strength, and truth united”. In recognition of his invention, and his refusal to let it die, William Lee is featured in their coat of arms – although the company wasn’t incorporated until 1657, after Lee’s death, and was granted livery status in 1713.

If anyone is further interested in these worshipful companies, known as livery companies, there’s an article about them on Wikipedia. You might be surprised at the industries they cover. For example, the Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers encompasses modern licensed taxi drivers. A few new ones have been created over the years, like the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists. They generally have mottos – my favourite is that of the Worshipful Company of Woolmen, whose motto is “lana spes nostra”, or “wool is our hope”.

I’m interested in these, and you should be too, not for their rather charming olde-worlde names but for their mere existence as support bodies for crafts and skills. To varying extents they provide services such as mentorship, scholarships, networking opportunities, events, archives. The Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters even has what it still calls an almshouse: a name that conjures up Dickensian images of workhouses and well-intentioned but poorly-executed Victorian philanthropy. But today, this almshouse provides fully modernized living community to people of limited means who have retired from jobs in the knitting industry or allied trades. I just find that absolutely amazing. This centuries-old union, born of the guild system in basically feudal Britain, now provides homes and events and community, so people in need of it can live independently with dignity, and socialize and basically hang out with other retired knitters.

But what does this mean today?

As more and more people of my generation enter craft and trades professions, we read so much about the dangers of this type of work. Not the dangers of past centuries: cotton lung, mangled limbs, malnutrition, coal dust. But new dangers: as many workers in such professions are self-employed, we have no union or health insurance or paid sick days or holidays, no pension plan. We have to fight for every contract, against clients who are constantly trying to lowball us. We have to overwork ourselves in underpaid part-time jobs to make ends meet. We have to excel in every sector – production, social media, shipping, accounting – because there’s no one else to do it for us. We hold ourselves to incredibly exacting standards, always in comparison with those who seem to be doing it better than us, who seem to have it all figured out. We may not be fighting upper class factory bosses but we’re our own worst critics. And some of the old dangers still linger: underpaid work, lack of awareness of the value of manual labour, overwork, long hours, no days off, and dyspepsia.

So I think we should learn from these centuries-old institutions, that may no longer form as central a part of daily life for workers as they used to in the 1500s, but which still provide essential services and support. We’ve come a long way from Queen Elizabeth banning William Lee’s knitting machine. We’ve come a long way from huddling by candlelight over needles finer than a toothpick, knitting silk stockings for pennies. I don’t know necessarily where I’m going with this, but maybe… worshipful company of listeners, why don’t we unionize?

Much of the research surrounding William Lee and the early knitting industry comes from various internet sources, but specifically the very interesting book Knitting Technology: a comprehensive handbook and practical guide, written in 1981 by David J Spencer, and an article I found online by Denise Amos through the Nottinghamshire Heritage Gateway.

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.

Textile History

Knitting Machinations : episode 1

Sometimes one must admit when a project just didn’t work. Between the busyness of working in retail customer service and full-time yarn dyeing, my Patreon project just never took off. I am a bit disappointed in myself (and so very grateful to the patrons who stuck with me) but I still want to continue with the spirit of exploring research and textile history. So I’ll try to be publishing more here, with no pressure on anybody, and I hope you enjoy what will follow. First up, a series of three articles on the history of knitting machines.

So what exactly are knitting machines? As hand-knitters, many of us know very little about this key sector of the fashion industry. This blog series dives into the history of knitting machines, and their impact on the textile industry and workers. 

From September 2017 to August 2018 I lived in a small town in the Scottish Borders studying knitwear design. This degree was entirely machine-based knitting : some of the other students in my program couldn’t hand-knit at all. This got me wondering about all the differences between machine knitting and hand-knitting : two completely different processes to create essentially the same fabric. 

I had played with knitting machines before, and even taken a course at the fantastic Centre des textiles contemporains in Montreal to learn how to use my little domestic machine. But my Master’s was the first time I had been in contact with industrial machines in any context : machines capable of churning out garments at an astonishing rate, operated by computers, fueling the fast fashion industry. I was also working on hand-powered machines from the mid to late-20th century, a time when the fashion industry as we know it today was just starting to emerge. Getting to know these machines, using them and producing on them, gave me a whole new way of thinking about the creation of fabric and clothing. It contextualised mass production for me : made me rethink how I interact with store-bought and fast-fashion clothing.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to explore the history and context of knitting machines, and how they contributed to how we now think about clothes.

So what exactly are knitting machines?

Hand knitters are aware that knitting machines exist, but I’ve noticed that many of us seem to regard them as quasi-mythical beasts. How do they work? Wait, each stitch has its own needle? Wow, stockinette must go so fast! When I began to work more with knitting machines, I quickly realized how, for a device that effectively creates the same fabric as we do with our hands and two needles, the process couldn’t be more different. I’m struggling to think of a parallel. Like playing the same melody on a violin versus a piano? The result is, broadly, the same, but the road you take to get there, the actions you perform, the skills you acquire, the ways you have to focus your attention, are so different.

For example, knitting several feet of stockinette on my machine may take me just a few hours. But I lose the flexibility of working stitch by stitch: increasing here, decreasing there. Cabling and lace need to be thought out further in advance, set up across a whole row, transferring stitches in the required pattern for each repeat across the whole bed of needles before the carriage can pass over and knit the row. Knitting in the round and purling are both much more cumbersome processes requiring an extra bed of needles, and reducing the variety of stitches and structures you can achieve. But, I can make a whole cardigan in an afternoon, and that level of satisfaction is hard to beat.

A brief history of knitting machines

Knitting machines have been around for a long time, and like hand knitting, the basic principle has remained fairly unchanged since the first iteration. In this episode of the Humble podcast, I’m going to explore the origins and development of the knitting machine, and the – at times surprising – effects the concept has had on the industry of knitting.

The English clergyman William Lee is credited with inventing the first stocking frame knitting machine. He happened to be about 26 years old when he did so, which places him firmly on my all-time 30 under 30 list. There are two stories floating around as to why he decided to invent a machine that performed a job that many thousands of women were already being paid to do, and which they did extremely well (does that sound familiar? A man swooping in to “revolutionise” a women-led industry? History certainly does repeat itself, but I digress…) .

One story is that the girl he liked was more interested in knitting than in him. The other story is that his wife didn’t knit fast enough. I’m not sure what I think of the former story: if he thought that building such a machine would impress her, I don’t think much of his logic. If some guy tried to woo me by making a machine to replace knitting, I’d tell him to get lost. Or perhaps, if I had the energy, I’d do what Queen Elizabeth I later did, and move through the courts to shut him down. But more on that later.

Universal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock

As to the latter theory, that his wife didn’t knit fast enough, I find this more convincing. Knitting stockings could supply a significant income for women working in cottage industries at a time when there wasn’t much else for them to do, and work was often largely seasonal. It provided a subsidy outside of the times of the year when women could get work in the fields as temporary labourers. For women who didn’t have men to support them, the money earned from stocking knitting meant valuable independence. 

In this period of the late 1600s, we see the beginnings of widespread moral and religious ideas about women’s work that pervaded the industrial era and post-industrialisation pre-modern capitalist society, when policy makers, workers, entrepreneurs, and even royalty were beginning to confront the potential and reality of a world built by machines instead of hands.

Basically, if William Lee’s wife was a slow knitter, I can understand why he’d want a machine to help her knit faster. Next post, we’ll find out how that went for him – and for the rest of the knitting industry.