Accounts of the Rev. William Lee's invention of the hand knitting frame in 1569 leave many questions unanswered and ripe for speculation.

Felkin [1], attributing the description to Henson, writes that in perfecting the needles for his machine Lee ‘spoiled much wire’. This prompts a question that has long concerned me, namely ‘from where did Lee obtain the wire to make his bearded knitting needles?’ In an endeavour to find an answer I first re-read many of the books and papers [2] in my library; how fulfilling an exercise this proved to be!

From all these, Felkin [3] states only what some would regard as obvious: ‘The needle is made of carefully selected and tempered iron wire’. Willkomm, in Rowlett's translation [4], has little more indicating: ‘This piece of wire is either flattened at one end... or bent at a right angle... whilst the other end is filed down thin, and bent to a long hook. ... These needles were formerly made of iron wire...’

All we have learnt so far, then, is that we are looking for iron wire, and reasonable amounts of it.


Wire Making

Let us first look briefly at the history of wire making. The draw-plates for making iron wire were known to have been in use in Germany by the year 1200. In Britain, there was a wire mill at Coventry in 1430, producing wire by hand. The first mechanization of a wire work (this by water power) in England was in 1566, when a man named William Humphrey persuaded a German, Christopher Schutz, to use his knowledge to build for him (Humphrey) a mill in Shropshire. William Humphrey was already an influential person, being the assay master of the Royal Mint. The craftsmen of many trades were eager to purchase and use the wire from the Shropshire mill and Humphrey became rich, powerful and jealous of his near-monopoly in the production of iron wire.


A Nearby Mill

Now a brief look at the history of Makeney near Duffield, a part of Derbyshire (see map) that, I believe, was to play an important part in textile history. At the time of the Norman Conquest, Makeney and nearby Milford were part of the lands owned by a Dane, the Earl Siward, who was unwise enough to revolt against the Normans in 1068. Siward had some success at first, he destroyed the Norman garrison at York, but later suffered brutal retribution for his actions, and lost all his lands. The Norman Baron Henry de Ferrers was given - for 'services rendered' to the Crown - these lands and other manors in Derbyshire, and he built for himself a castle at Duffield. In 1138 Henry's son, Richard, helped to repel an invasion from Scotland and as a reward was created Earl of Derby. In those days, if a nobleman supported the winning side he could expect to be rewarded, but Henry's grandson, William de Ferrers, made a miscalculation in 1174. He supported King Henry II's sons when they rebelled against their father. They lost and de Ferrers became a prisoner in Normandy. He was later pardoned and allowed to retain his estates, but Duffield Castle was demolished. About the year 1190 William went on a Crusade with Richard I, never to return.

In 1263 a later William, the sixth successor of Henry de Ferrers, made the same mistake as his ancestor. When the Barons of England rebelled against the incompetent King Henry III, he joined the wrong side, was captured at Chesterfield, and lost his lands. The confiscated estates were given to Edward, Earl of Lancaster, the King's son, later to reign as Edward I.

Part of the land to the west of Milford became a Royal Hunting Forest. In Lee's time Milford was still just a river crossing, not even worthy of a mention on a map of 1610, though Makeney is named together with a water mill. Lead ore stamping was established at Makeney in 1556 by a German named Richard Cranish. Later, Sir Jolm Zouch of Codnor Castle set up an iron wire works in a forge at Makeney in 1581. William Humphrey did not take kindly to infringement of what he regarded as his right to be the only producer of iron wire and Zouch was made to close down. Humphrey then took over the works at Makeney, and he produced iron wire suitable to be made into, among many other things, carding blocks for wool.

Did William Lee obtain the wire needed for the bearded needles of the first hand stocking frame from this source? The mill was only 20 miles from his home in Calverton and was producing the material suitable for needles. Moreover, its technology was recent, as might appeal to Lee the inventor, and its competition was limited, as indicated above. Felkin [5] speculates that…'His (William Lee's) plan would no doubt be, to secure the most clever and teachable artisans of each trade, (in wood and iron) willing to do his work, that Nottingham could then supply; and thus step by step make quiet progress under his own eye, close to his own home. It has been an old saying in this district, 'The little smith of Nottingham, can do the work no other man can'. Surely, it is not unreasonable to assume that these craftsmen would have known of the products of a local iron wire mill and that William Lee would have made use of a very suitable wire.



Manufacture of Bearded Needles in the Nineteenth Century

Henson's account of Lee's manufacture of the first beard needles [6] emphasizes the difficulty in producing a satisfactory groove. By the nineteenth century materials and methods had both improved, but the process was still essentially based on hand work.

Professor Gustav Willkomm [7] describes the manufacture of iron wire bearded needles in Germany as follows:

'These needles were formerly made of iron wire, but are now mostly made of steel wire... The manufacture of needles is usually hand work; machinery has been tried, but as yet without success. The wire is taken off the roll and cut into pieces of equal length by shears. These pieces are passed through rollers to make them as straight as possible, and the groove is then made in the proper place by a chisel. For this purpose each piece of wire is laid in a shallow channel in the bed of a press, having above it a chisel on a slide. This chisel is either struck with a hammer, or pressed by means of a screw, so that the groove is made on the round shank by the wedge shaped tool. A machine for performing these operations, that is cutting off the wire into fixed lengths and making the groove, was invented in 1858 by Gottlebe, a framesmith in Wittgensdorf, Saxony... but it has not been regularly adopted. The pieces of wire are now filed to a point on one side only, so that on one side the outer hard skin remains, in order that when this end is bent over to form a hook, the curved part may be as elastic or springy as possible. An attempt has been made to replace the hand filing, which must be done to every needle separately, by cutting them in a shaping machine, but up to the present time without success. The points are sharpened symmetrically by a grindstone, a number of needles being held in the hand at the same time ... The bending of the long hook was formerly almost entirely done by hand, by means of a pair of pliers, which had a stop for the proper length of the part to be turned over... The hinder end of the needle is now beaten flat in a grooved anvil with a hammer, when it is intended to be cast into leads, but those that are intended to be fixed without leads have a short piece bent at right angles with the pliers... Steel needles are generally hardened. They are put in small quantities into wrought iron vessels and heated to a red heat, the vessel is then opened, the needles are shaken out into melted fat, and afterwards dipped in oil, by which they acquire the necessary degree of hardness. Lastly, the needles are polished, by being put in a revolving barrel with a quantity of sawdust and filings, or shaken in a leather bag. During this operation they become hooked into one other, and require carefully separating, and sometimes straightening.'


I wish to record my thanks to those who have been most helpful to me: Dr Margaret O'Sullivan, the Derbyshire County and Diocesan Archivist; Ruth Gordon, Matlock Local Studies Librarian; Ruth Norris, Belper Local Studies Librarian; and Janet Moreton, Burbage, for presentation.


[1] William Fe1kin, History of the machine-wrought hosiery and lace manufactures, Centenary ed., Newton Abbot, David & Charles, 1967, p.45.

[2] These include: Milton and Anna Grass, Stockings for a queen, London, Heinemann, 1967; Edward N. Hoare, A brave fight, London, SPCK, [1882]; A. Latour, ‘The stocking frame’, CIBA Review, 1954, No.106, 3813-3817; Peta Lewis, 'William Lee's stocking frame: technical evolution and economic viability 1589 -1750', Textile History, 1986, 17, 129-148; Eric W. Paso1d, 'In search of William Lee', Textile History, 1975, 6, 7-17; K. G. Ponting, 'In search of William Lee',Knitting International, 1982, 89, December; Gravenor Henson, History of the framework knitters(1831), Newton Abbot, David & Charles Reprints, 1970; James Henry Quilter and John Chamberlain, Frame-work knitting and hosiery manufacture, I-III, Leicester, Hosiery Trade Journal, 1911-1914; Jane Rapley 'Handframe knitting: development of patterning and shaping', Textile History, 1975, 6, 18-51; Gustav A. Willkomm, Technology of framework knitting, translated and adapted from the German by William Tertius Rowlett, Leicester, F. Hewitt for the Leicester Technical School, 1885.

[3] Felkin, op. cit., p.47.

[4] Willkomm, op. cit., part 1, p.5. [5] Felkin, op. cit., p.42.

[6] Henson, op. cit., p.40.

[7] Willkomm, op. cit., part 1, pp.5- 7