Sunday 21 January 2024

Framework Knitting in England to 1700.

 William Lee

The invention of a framework knitting machine is generally credited to William Lee, of whom we know very little, with a date of 1589 for the invention. We do not know for certain when, or even where, he was born. Some speculation is Calverton, Nottinghamshire, where there were several Lees at that time. He is often referred to as the Reverend William Lee, but there is no actual evidence that he was a vicar. Both Oxford and Cambridge claim him as an alumnus.[i]  

According to Negley Harte the idea that he was a vicar of Calverton, a graduate of Cambridge, and that he invented the framework knitting machine in 1589, first appears in Robert Thoroton’s work published in 1677, with the information coming from one “Johannis Story, Gent.” John Aubrey on the other hand declares Lee a curate and an alumnus of Oxford, saying that he got his information from, “a weaver (by this engine) in Pear-poole Lane” in 1656, when “Sir John Hoskyns, Mr Stafford Tyndale, and I, went purposely to see it”.  John Evelyn’s diary for 3rd May 1661 says that he “went to see the wonderful engine for weaving silk stockings, said to have been the invention of an Oxford scholar forty years since.”[ii]

The story is that both Elizabeth and James refused him a patent. The first actual reference to Lee is in an agreement dated 6 June 1600. This was a partnership agreement between William Lee and George Brooke, in which it was stated that, “William Lee hath by his long study and practice devised and invented a certain invention or artificiality being a very speedy manner of working and making in a loom or frame all manner of works usually wrought by knitting needles.” Unfortunately for Lee, Brooke, who was the youngest son of the 10th Baron Cobham, became involved in the Bye Plot and was arrested in July 1603 and executed in December of that year.[iii] Lee applied for freedom of the City of London in 1605, describing himself as “first inventor of an engine to make silk stockings,” however there is no reference to the result of his application in the minutes of the Court of Aldermen.

In March 1609 Lee applied to the Weavers’ Company for admission. He was described as William Lee, “weaver of silk stockings by engine,” and became a foreign brother of the Company.  He was supposed to pay £1 for every machine he set up, but there is no indication that he ever did so. He is known to have gone to France and be in Rouen by 1612, when he was in partnership with Pierre de Caux, with whom he formed “a company for manufacturing stockings of silk and wool, upon a loom to be presently introduced into this country…”. Harte finds the next reference to Lee in a French document of March 1615 where Master William Lee, English gentleman, and two other Englishmen were listed as engaged in the ‘occupation of knitting stockings.’ It would appear that Lee died sometime after this date, as there is no further mention of him.

William Lee's machine as envisaged by William Felkin


The Company of Framework Knitters.

As has already said John Aubrey saw a machine in action at Pear-poole Lane in 1656. The following year Oliver Cromwell received a petition, “The humble representation of the promoters and inventors of the art and mystery or trade of Frame-work-knitting, or making of silk stockings or other work in a frame or engine.” The petitioners describe the frame as being composed of “above 2000 pieces of smith, joyners and turners work, after so artificial and exact a manner, that by the judgement of all beholders, it far excels in the ingenuity, curiosity and subtilty of the invention and contexture, all other frames or instruments of manufacture or use in any known part of the world.” This petition also sets out what the writers believed happened in France, stating that Lee went to Rouen with nine workmen and some frames. However, he left his workmen at Rouen to provide for themselves, seven of whom “returned back into England with their frames, and here practiced and improved their trade.” [iv] It is from this date that the Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters take their incorporation.

Another a charter was granted by Charles II in 1663, and this extended the company’s reach to the whole of England and Wales. The Company then established subsidiary courts at Nottingham and Leicester.[v]  According to Beckmann six years after this, in 1669, the number of stocking frames in England amounted to 700, employing 1200 workmen, three-fifths of whom made silk-stockings, and the others worsted. By 1714 the number of frames had increased to 8000 or 9000.[vi]

The machine

What the original machine looked like is unknown. The first image of it relates to John Hindret’s version in 1656.[vii] Pasold endeavoured to produce a working model of Lee’s original machine, which he did, “by working backwards from Hindret’s drawings, taking away every refinement, everything that was not essential to the basic operation of knitting, and in this way reconstructing a stocking frame resembling the one originally built by Lee. Using only the simple tools readily available to Lee, namely knife, hammer, saw, file, drill, chisel and scissors, and a frame for hardening the needles after they were filed and bent to the right shape, I built a simple model which functioned perfectly.” [viii] Felkin produced a drawing of what he believed Lee’s original machine looked like (Fig. 1).[ix] 

One of the original problems with Lee’s machine was that it was too coarse. It has been reported that originally it produced knitting at 8 stitches to the inch, and that it was improved to 20 stitches to the inch. This later gauge would appear to equate with hand knitted silk stockings of the period. Examination of eight surviving stockings, from burials dating between 1576 and 1652, show them as having between 15 and 25 stitches to the inch.[x] This improvement might be related to the story of John Aston, of whom there is again little actual evidence. He was apparently one of Lee’s apprentices who, when Lee went to France, stayed in England and returned to Nottingham. It is said that a James Lee, brother to William Lee, joined Aston at Nottingham, and they worked on more improvements to the machine.  Ashton’s original improvement was the introduction of fixed sinkers between the moveable jack sinker, thus allowing for a doubling of the gauge.[xi]

[i] Palmer, Marilyn (2004) Lee, William. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online at Accessed 14 Jan 2024

 [ii] Harte, Negley. William Lee’s Knitting Invention. Available at: Accessed 14 Jan 2024

 [iii] Nicholls, Mark (2012) Brooke, George, 1568-1603. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online at Accessed 15 Jan 2024

 [iv] Deering, Charles. An Historical Account…of the town of Nottingham. Nottingham: Ascough & Wellington, 1751. The entire petition is an Appendix, p301-8

 [v] London Metropolitan Archives. Records of the Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters, 1657-2002.

 [vi] Beckmann, Johann.  A History of Inventions, Discoveries, and Origins, Volume 2. London:
Bohn, 1846.

[vii] Pasold, Eric (1975) In search of William Lee. Textile History, 6 (1), 7-17 DOI: 10.1179/004049675793691839

 [viii] Pasold, ibid

[ix] Felkin, Wiliam.  A history of the machine-wrought hosiery and lace manufacturers. London: Longman, Green, 1867

 [x] Odstrcilova, Sylvie (2018) Early modern stockings in museums in the Czech Republic. Archaeological Textiles Review, no.60, 51-63

[xi] Felkin, Ibid