Framework Knitting

In 1589, William Lee from Calverton in Nottingham invented the first knitting frame. This made it possible for workers to produce knitted goods around 100 times faster than by hand. This was the first step in the mechanisation of the textile industry and led to framework knitting playing a key role in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. William asked Elizabeth I [and later James I] permission to grant him a patent for his invention. Both she and James refused. One of the reasons might be because they thought the new machine would take work away from hand knitters, leaving them in poverty. William then went to France to try and make his fortune, but alas, died there a penniless man. His brother bought the design back to Britain and then the framework knitting revolution began. Lees brother and other workers set up a framework knitting business in London, Spitalfields and a charter was granted forming the London Company of Framework Knitters. The greatest concentration of machines were in London. The East Midlands began to increase the numbers of machines until Nottingham and Leicester had the greater proportion of machines. By 1782 the East Midlands could boast 90% of the country's stocking frames. The breakthrough with cotton hose came with the introduction of Jeremiah Strutts attachment for the frame which produced his 'Derby rib' in 1759. However, to overcome the problem of using cotton, which was not of a similar texture to wool or silk, new machinery and patents had to be taken out.

Framework knitting was done in the house, typically with the machine near to a window to allow the knitter to be able to see what he was doing. This job was done by the 'man of the house' whilst the women tended to be the 'seamers' which was the sewing of the flat garment together to make a stocking. The children would also have a role to play in winding the cotton from a hank or yarn swift onto a wooden cone which, in turn was then placed on the top of the frame and then used to thread the machine.

It would have been quite a time consuming job and the frames would only be rented out to the knitters. The houses were adapted to house the frames more often that not it would be the 'narrow frame' that would be in the home. As this was the smallest frame, also called a 'One-at-once' because you could only knit one panel at any given time. It wasn't until the frames began appearing in workshops that they got wider, as wider frames could produce more items.

A breakdown of what the framesmith would have to find money for before he'd make any sort of profit [if any at all]. If he were ill then he would still have to pay his frame rent and any sundries that he would need.
  • Yarn bought in
  • Winding the yarn
  • Seaming and stitching the garments
  • Rent of the frame
  • Standing frame rent, if in a small workshop
  • Fancy embellishments/Embroidery.
  • Replacement of needles.
  • Machine [animal] oil and candles.

The Frame - A description

The machine consisted of a wooden frame, and a bench type seat which was more often than not 'strapped' by long leather 'belts' nailed across the ends of the bench to provide a more comfortable seat which was slightly springy. As you can imagine sitting for 10 hours at a time could get rather uncomfortable. There were either three or four foot controls, which were long wooden bars and they were connected via footmen [metal rods] to the back of the machine. Which then in turn connected to the presser bar and needle bars. There would be a 'roller' bar on the front of the machine which allowed any cloth to be rolled to stop it from dropping on the floor. It did straight knitting. It had a separate needle for each loop - these were low carbon steel bearded needles where the tips were reflexed and could be depressed onto a hollow, closing the loop. The needles were supported on a needle bar that passed back and forth, to and from the operator. The beards were simultaneously depressed by a presser bar. The first machine had eight needles per inch and was suitable for worsted. The next version had 16 needles per inch and was suitable for silk.

The mechanical movements
  • The needle bar goes forward; the open needles clear the web.
  • The weft thread is laid on the needles; the jack sinkers descend and form loops.
  • The weft thread is pushed down by the divider bar.
  • * The jack sinkers come forward pulling the thread into the beard of the open needles.
  • The presser bar drops, the needle loops close and the old row of stitches is drawn off the needle.
  • The jack sinkers come down in front of the knitting and pull it up so the process can begin again.

*A 'Jack Sinker' was a thin iron plate operated by the jack to depress the loop of thread/yarn between the needles.

The Luddites and the frame-breaking riots

By the early 1800s, there were around 45,000 frames in use across Nottinghamshire, Mansfield, Sutton-in-Ashfield, Southwell, Bulwell, Arnold, Hucknall, Nottingham, Ruddington and Keyworth - Leicestershire including Hinkley, Loughborough and Shepshed and Derby, Belper and the smaller towns and villages around them also became centres for framework knitting. With a change in fashion at the beginning of the 19th century, there was a decline in the framework knitters regular 'fancy work'. The smaller 'Narrow' frames could only produce small quantities of quality goods at a time, whereas, the new larger frames could produce wider lengths of material and the use of 'cut ups' became a major grievance for the knitters, who saw the introduction of these larger machines as a threat to their skills and a reduction of standards. Because of this framework knitting wages were falling. Workers were living in extreme poverty and, all too often, being exploited by master framesmiths. The knitters sent a petition to parliament, but didn't get the help they needed. Years of hardship ended in frustration and the Luddite rebellion erupted in 1811. Starting in Nottingham, the Luddites attacked the factories that were owned by the worst master framesmiths, by smashing the knitting frames and attacking the owners. Outbreaks of violence soon spread across the Midlands. The government sent troops to protect the factories and passing a law to make frame-breaking punishable by death. Factory owners took to shooting the Luddites although some were sympathetic to their plight and the uprising was quashed by brute force in 1816.