In the possession of the Victoria and Albert Museum are a pair of Romano-Egyptian socks. These socks were found in the burial grounds of ancient Oxyrhynchus, a Greek monastic centre on the banks of the Nile in Egypt. It is thought that the socks were made about 1500 years ago.
The yarn is wool. The fabric structure resembles knitting but is in fact 'nalbinding'. This method of fabric making predates knitting. It is where loops of yarn are interconnected by a thread by means of an eyed-needle. The socks have a division for the big toe. This division is probably to accommodate the thong of a sandal.
Socks, also stockings, were the 'bread and butter' production of thousands of hand-knitters in Britain and in many other countries.
In 1589 the Rev. William Lee invented a hand frame that did the basic skill of a hand-knitter, it made the stocking-stitch fabric that could be increased or decreased in width. The frame used bearded needles. The frame was used to make both socks and stockings.
It was the invention of a different needle, a latch needle in 1847, by Matthew Townsend of Leicester that led to the rapid development of circular knitting, including socks.
Within a dozen years of the invention of the latch needle a machine that was undoubtedly the forerunner of a certain type of knitting machine, was exhibited in Cologne. This is how the historian William Felkin described the invention:-
"A small domestic knitting frame having 84 needles, it did not weight more than 14 or 151bs, and might be adapted to any table for ladies to work. It is said to produce 10,000 to 35,000 loops per hour, and to be worked with great facility."
The first exclusively domestic knitting machine was patented in America in 1859 by Jonas B Aiken. Aiken's machine won prizes at public fairs and exhibitions across America. Newspaper editors in southern states saw that with it 'a Negro girl or boy could do all the fine and course knitting necessary for the house and plantation'.
But the machine was not a success. It required substantial instruction and practice to turn a machine-made tube of knit fabric into socks or stockings. Aiken's instruction manual revealed that grandmothers still had to wield the needle if she wanted heels and toes to her seamless machine knit legs.
Other machines were being patented between 1867 and 1869 and many inventors claimed to be able to form heels and toes. In Britain domestic circular knitting became synonymous with the name 'Griswold'. In 1891 Henry Josiah Griswold (1837 - 1929) born in Madison, Connecticut formed the London and Leicester Hosiery Company and leased a factory in Winifred Street Leicester.
Improvements to the Griswold Knitters were soon made by others directly or indirectly associated with the London and Leicester Company. John Harris Cooper, William James Ford and Benjamin Kerr helped transform I L Berridge from a small scale sales agency into a machine builder. Between 1890 and 1892 Griswold sold his rights to I L Berridge and returned to America. A cottage industry in villages quickly developed using Griswold and similar machines, as illustrated by Daniel Angrave, born to a family of framework knitters in Gilmorton, near Lutterworth. In 1895 he added to his cottage a brick workshop in which he installed six hand operated Griswold Knitters, purchased from I L Berridge & Co Leicester. The small circular machines were clamped to work tables beneath windows along both sides of the upper storey. This 'top shop' was reached by a ladder from the room below where children prepared yarn on a bobbin winder. Angrave travelled to Hinckley every Friday by pony and cart to his hosier's warehouse to collect new yarn. Each of the female knitters made one dozen pairs of worsted socks per day. The business ran until the end of the First World War.
After the Griswold hand knitting machine came the ‘S and G’ semi automatic machine, which was introduced by William Spiers and Thomas Grieve. This had a single cylinder and dial, like the Griswold, but was set on a substantial cast iron base, with a shaft and a fixed and loose pulley, driven from a line shaft by belts. The length of the sock or hose was controlled by a chain, on which studs were set. These studs stopped the machine when a predetermined length of fabric was made such as 1/1 rib. If the leg part of the sock needed to be 3/1 rib, the operator would have to change the needles in the dial individually, by hand, to obtain the required rib. The machine was started again and would then stop at the place where the heel was to be made. The dial needles would be changed, the operator would put the machine into reciprocating position to make the heel. A quadrant and clutch enabled the machine to reciprocate to pick up and put down the needles automatically, instead of by hand, as the Griswold machine required. In 1900 the 'XL' machine was invented by Josiah Johnson of Leicester. This was a machine with superimposed cylinders, and was described by the inventor as, "The first successful and reliable automatic sock and stocking machine, changing from rib to plain or vice versa and to any other pattern rib without any aid from the worker." This machine had a revolving cambox, but eliminated the operations done by hand on the S & G machines, thus greatly increasing productivity. Spiers and Grieve went their individual way. Spiers built a machine called the Simplex. In 1904 T Grieve invented the fashioning needle which was introduced in the Grieve fashioning machine, and then went on to produce the Acme XL machine which was produced up until 1940, and was a very popular machine to both knitters and manufacturers. In 1912 William Spiers introduced the ‘Auto swift’ revolving cylinder machine. This machine proved to be very versatile. It was faster than the previous machine, yarn changes could be made in different parts of the sock. Plating and cross plating were also possible. By the 1930s the ‘Auto swift’ was capable of making a sock with a pattern, this enabled turn-over-top socks to be made in one operation.
After the Great War, William Bentley introduced the 'Komet' revolving cylinder machine. Around 1950 the Italian and Japanese were building machines imitating the Bentley 'Komet' and later they were prepared to invest heavily in research and development of sock machines. The result of this action was that now they are producing machines far in advance of what can be produced here. Machines on which all operations are done by electric motor and compressed air, with extensive patterning range, and turning the sock automatically, and with very high speeds, give very high production rates.