A stocking frame was a mechanical knitting machine
A knitting machine is a device used to create knitted fabrics in a semi- or fully automated fashion.There are numerous types of knitting machines, ranging from the simple, non-mechanical, to the highly complex and electronic. All, however, produce various types of knitted fabrics, usually either...
used in the textiles industry. It was invented by William Lee
William Lee (inventor)
William Lee was an English inventor who devised the first stocking frame knitting machine in 1589, the only one in use for centuries. Its principle of operation remains in use....
Calverton is a village in Nottinghamshire, England, situated approximately 8 miles from Nottingham.The inventor of the stocking frame, William Lee, was born here in the 16th century...
Nottingham is a city and unitary authority in the East Midlands of England. It is located in the ceremonial county of Nottinghamshire and represents one of eight members of the English Core Cities Group...
in 1589. Its use, known traditionally as Framework knitting, was the first major stage in the mechanisation of the textile industry, and played an important part in the early history of the Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution was a period from the 18th to the 19th century where major changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transportation, and technology had a profound effect on the social, economic and cultural conditions of the times...
DescriptionThe machine imitated the movements of hand knitters. Lee demonstrated the operation of the device to Queen Elizabeth I, hoping to obtain a patent
A patent is a form of intellectual property. It consists of a set of exclusive rights granted by a sovereign state to an inventor or their assignee for a limited period of time in exchange for the public disclosure of an invention....
, but Elizabeth refused, fearing the effects on hand-knitting industries. The original frame had 8 needles to the inch, which produced only coarse fabric. Lee later improved the mechanism with 20 needles to the inch. By 1598 he was able to knit stockings from silk
Silk is a natural protein fiber, some forms of which can be woven into textiles. The best-known type of silk is obtained from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm Bombyx mori reared in captivity...
, as well as wool, but was again refused a patent by James I
James I of England
James VI and I was King of Scots as James VI from 24 July 1567 and King of England and Ireland as James I from the union of the English and Scottish crowns on 24 March 1603...
. Lee moved to France with his workers and his machines, but was unable to sustain his business. He died in Paris c.1614. Most of his workers returned to England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...
with their frames, which were sold in London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...
The commercial failure of Lee's design might have led to a dead-end for the knitting machine, but John Ashton, one of Lee's assistants, made a crucial improvement by adding the mechanism known as a "divider".
DevelopmentA thriving business built up with the exiled Huguenot
The Huguenots were members of the Protestant Reformed Church of France during the 16th and 17th centuries. Since the 17th century, people who formerly would have been called Huguenots have instead simply been called French Protestants, a title suggested by their German co-religionists, the...
silk-spinners who had settled in the village of Spitalfields
Spitalfields is a former parish in the borough of Tower Hamlets, in the East End of London, near to Liverpool Street station and Brick Lane. The area straddles Commercial Street and is home to many markets, including the historic Old Spitalfields Market, founded in the 17th century, Sunday...
just outside the city. In 1663, the London Company of Framework Knitters was granted a charter. By about 1785, however, demand was rising for cheaper stockings made of cotton
Cotton is a soft, fluffy staple fiber that grows in a boll, or protective capsule, around the seeds of cotton plants of the genus Gossypium. The fiber is almost pure cellulose. The botanical purpose of cotton fiber is to aid in seed dispersal....
. The frame was adapted but became too expensive for individuals to buy, thus wealthy men bought the machines and hired them out to the knitters, providing the materials and buying the finished product. With increasing competition, they ignored the standards set by the Chartered Company. In 1728 the Nottingham magistrates refused to accept the authority of the London Company and the centre of the trade moved northwards to Nottingham, which also had a lace
Lace is an openwork fabric, patterned with open holes in the work, made by machine or by hand. The holes can be formed via removal of threads or cloth from a previously woven fabric, but more often open spaces are created as part of the lace fabric. Lace-making is an ancient craft. True lace was...
The breakthrough with cotton stockings, however, came in 1758 when Jedediah Strutt
Jedediah Strutt or Jedidiah Strutt – as he spelt it – was a hosier and cotton spinner from Belper, England.Strutt and his brother-in-law William Woollat developed an attachment to the stocking frame that allowed the production of ribbed stockings...
introduced an attachment for the frame which produced what became known as the "Derby Rib". The Nottingham frameworkers found themselves increasingly short of raw materials. Initially they used thread spun in India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...
, but this was expensive and required doubling. Lancashire
Lancashire is a non-metropolitan county of historic origin in the North West of England. It takes its name from the city of Lancaster, and is sometimes known as the County of Lancaster. Although Lancaster is still considered to be the county town, Lancashire County Council is based in Preston...
yarn was spun for fustian
Fustian is a term for a variety of heavy woven, mostly cotton fabrics, chiefly prepared for menswear. It is also used to refer to pompous, inflated or pretentious writing or speech, from at least the time of Shakespeare...
and varied in texture. They tried spinning cotton themselves but, being used to the long fibres of wool, experienced great difficulty. Meanwhile the Gloucester
Gloucester is a city, district and county town of Gloucestershire in the South West region of England. Gloucester lies close to the Welsh border, and on the River Severn, approximately north-east of Bristol, and south-southwest of Birmingham....
spinners, who had been used to a much shorter wool, were able to handle cotton and their frameworkers were competing with the Nottingham producers.
Influence on the Industrial RevolutionIt was then that Richard Arkwright
Sir Richard Arkwright , was an Englishman who, although the patents were eventually overturned, is often credited for inventing the spinning frame — later renamed the water frame following the transition to water power. He also patented a carding engine that could convert raw cotton into yarn...
arrived with his new experimental spinning machinery. He initially built a works operated by horsepower but it was evident that six to eight would be needed at a time, changed every half hour. He moved to Cromford
Cromford is a village, two miles to the south of Matlock in the Derbyshire Dales district in Derbyshire, England. It is principally known for its historical connection with Richard Arkwright, and the Cromford Mill which he built here in 1771...
and set up what became known as the water frame
The water frame is the name given to the spinning frame, when water power is used to drive it. Both are credited to Richard Arkwright who patented the technology in 1768. It was based on an invention by Thomas Highs and the patent was later overturned...
. Strutt, as his partner, set up mills Belper
Belper is a town and civil parish in the local government district of Amber Valley in Derbyshire, England.-Geography:Belper is situated eight miles north of Derby and is centred in the valley of the River Derwent...
Milford is a village in Derbyshire, England, on the River Derwent, between Duffield and Belper on the A6 trunk road.Until the end of the 18th century it was no more than a few houses near the point, about a quarter of a mile further south, where a roman road from the Wirksworth lead mines forded...
. Thus the area joined Nottingham in producing cotton stockings, while Derby
Derby , is a city and unitary authority in the East Midlands region of England. It lies upon the banks of the River Derwent and is located in the south of the ceremonial county of Derbyshire. In the 2001 census, the population of the city was 233,700, whilst that of the Derby Urban Area was 229,407...
, with its mills originated by John Lombe
John Lombe was a silk spinner in the 18th century Derby, England.-Biography:Lombe was born in Norwich in approximately 1693, the son of a worsted weaver...
continued largely with silk, while Leicester
Leicester is a city and unitary authority in the East Midlands of England, and the county town of Leicestershire. The city lies on the River Soar and at the edge of the National Forest...
, a farming area, continued with wool
Wool is the textile fiber obtained from sheep and certain other animals, including cashmere from goats, mohair from goats, qiviut from muskoxen, vicuña, alpaca, camel from animals in the camel family, and angora from rabbits....
By 1812, there were estimated to be over 25,000 frames in use, most of them in the three counties, and the frame had come back to Calverton.
PostscriptA legend later developed that Lee had invented the first machine in order to get revenge on a lover who had preferred to concentrate on her knitting rather than attend to him. A painting illustrating this story was once displayed in the Stocking Framer's Guild
Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters
The Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters is one of the Livery Companies of the City of London. It was incorporated by Oliver Cromwell in 1657 and was granted livery status in 1713...
hall in London. In 1846 the Victorian artist Alfred Elmore
Alfred Elmore was a Victorian history and genre painter. He was born in Cork, Ireland, the son of Dr. John Richard Elmore, a surgeon who retired from the British Army to Clonakilty....
produced a variation on the story in his popular painting The Invention of the Stocking Loom, in which Lee is depicted pondering his idea as he watches his wife knitting (Nottingham Castle Museum).
- Ruddington Framework Knitters' Museum
- William Lee - The Triumphs and Trials of an Elizabethan Inventor
- Hosiery in Online Encyclopedia Originally appearing in Volume V13, Page 790 of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica
- Wigston Framework Knitters Museum, Leicestershire