From Hand Knitting to Frame Knitting
To watch a length of yarn being converted into a piece of fabric by the manipulation of two, three or four knitting needles is to watch a very practical application of human ingenuity.
When one or more pieces of knitted fabric are sewn (stitched) into an article of clothing that has the qualities of elasticity and recoverability, there is the completion of an operation that has been to the benefit of mankind.
Hand knitting had been done in Spain and Italy as long ago as the year 1200, at that time for the benefit of important churchmen, princes, noblemen - with a few courtiers and rich men allowed to copy this form of dress. By 1435 refugees from Europe were knitting pieces of fabric that were made into caps in Coventry. Henry VIII King of England from 1509 to 1547, started a new fashion for men when he received a gift of hand-knitted stockings of pure silk yarn and wore these with very short breeches. There followed from Europe stockings for men knitted from fine worsted yarn.
By the time Elizabeth I was Queen, from 1558 to 1608 hand knitters in England were copying these silk and fine worsted stockings, they also started a lucrative trade by knitting stockings in coarser wool. Soon the knitting of stockings was practised throughout Britain, the demand was such that poor people and youngsters were taught to knit as a means of survival. There was an important export trade in British hand knitted stockings to France, Holland and Germany.
It was inevitable that someone would devise a machine that could do the job of a hand knitter. This happened in 1589 here in the Midlands. A romantic story is told of how a young clergyman named William Lee was interested in a young woman named Janet Thruston, who knitted for her livelihood.
This is a simple description of hand knitting. Two needles are used, one needle is held in each hand. A series of loops are formed on the left hand needle. The right hand needle is inserted into the first loop on the other needle. The thread is passed round it and it is drawn through. The stitch just worked into it, is slipped off on to the fabric web already knitted.
William Lee asked Janet Thruston "Would it not be so much quicker to make a whole row of loops in one movement instead of one stitch at a time?" To receive a sharp reply "No doubt it would, but it cannot be done that way, so stop being stupid and let me get on with earning some money". Lee was not a practical man, but he communicated his ideas to craftsmen in wood and metal, in particular to one John Aston.
This is not an attempt to describe the result of their work. The drawings are reproduced from "A History of Machine-Wrought Hosiery and Lace Manufacturers" by William Felkin F.L.S., F.S.S., published in London by Longmans, Green & Co in 1847 when Felkin was aged 72. In the Hinckley & District Museum in Lower Bond Street Hinckley is exhibited a frame that was constructed in 1740 and is very similar to the drawings by Felkin. This year Bill Partridge wrote a paper that for the first time gives a possible answer to the question "From where did William Lee get the iron-wire to make the first bearded needle" This paper has been published in conjunction with the Framework Knitters' Museum, Chapel Street, Ruddington, Nottingham.
A skilled hand knitter like Janet Thruston could knit many types of fabric, plain fabric that could be narrowed and widened, rib stitch, tuck stitch, lace fabric and others. Lee's frame of 1589 has been developed by first framesmiths, then by machine builders, so that today we can do anything that the hand knitter can do.