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.