A Short History of Machine Knitting

Hand knitting may have been introduced to the UK around 1500, although there is little evidence to corroborate this. It has been estimated that at the end of the 16th century there was an annual need in England alone of 10 million pairs of stockings. Richard Rutt in a History of Hand Knitting [see Further Reading: Knitting History for bibliographical reference] states that at that time hand knitters could turn out six pairs of stockings a week. England exported hand knit stockings for many years – in particular to France. In 1589 William Lee must have seen hand knitters all around him. All contemporary evidence points to Lee’s motivation in inventing a machine as being profit.

Lee’s invention of the frame depended on the use of a spring, bearded or barbed needle. These are held in a strong iron bed, surrounded by a huge wooden frame not unlike a weaver’s loom. The needle bed was held rigidly horizontal, and parts of the rest of the machine worked around this. The yarn was initially placed across the needles by hand – this did not change for some 200 years.

Lee’s efforts to meet with royal patronage came to naught in both England, where neither Elizabeth I nor James I were particularly interested in investing in this new technology, and France when Henri IV was assassinated in 1610.

The use of frames initially only slowly spread throughout England, Europe and America. Jedediah Strutt, of Belper Mills fame, developed a ribber attachment, known as the Derby Ribber, patented in 1759. Initially formulated to make ribbed stockings, this ribber bed could also produce garter stitch. Frame knitting was conducted in both domestic and grouped (early factory) settings. By the end of the century, the yarn no longer needed to be laid in by hand, but could be fed by operating one of two treadles with the right foot.

As men’s fashions changed and trousers got shorter, there was a call for longer stockings, and stripes were very much in favour. The only way to make these vertical stripes was to knit them sideways on the frames. The frames got wider. Inevitably, fashion changed, and by the end of the eighteenth century more thought had to go into production. Some knitters reverted to making single, shaped stockings on a wide frame, others saw that it would be quicker to make full use of the width to make an unshaped piece and cut and sew afterwards. They could thus undercut the prices of the shaped pieces. This put many traditional knitters out of work. However, cut stockingette and hand-sewn seams come apart very quickly. Rumblings led to riots, and Luddism. Around 1811-1812 groups of traditional workers were smashing the machines of those they perceived to be mass-manufacturing shoddy. Some of the surviving wide machines were eventually adapted to make three or even five shaped stockings at once. The industry was very slow to recover from this in England, although there were signs of growth in Europe, notably Germany, and America.

Improvements using pattern cards, Jacquard cards similar to those used in weaving from 1801, the forerunner of punchcards for computers, led the way to lace and warp knitting, where several threads are in operation at once. Massive industrial machines were constructed, in particular for the world famous Nottingham Lace.

The Circular Knitting Machine

The sticking point of further development on the frames was always the bearded needle. Pierre Jeandeau is said to have invented the first latch needle in France, with dates varying from 1802 to 1803 to 1806. TextInfo has a clear diagram https://textlnfo.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/image27.png

Marc Brunel, a French engineer, inventor and father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, built a machine in the UK in 1816 that arranged the needles in a circular form rather than a flat bed. The machine produced a tube of fabric suitable for cut-ups, but it could not create fully-fashioned work and had many problems.

Matthew Leo Townsend was born in Cropston, Leicester, UK, in 1817, the son of a framework knitter. He patented a latch needle in 1849. The latch needle is much more versatile than the spring needles, and does not need to be placed horizontally, as the latch itself does much of the work. Thus, it can be mounted vertically in a machine. The latch needle was particularly valuable for circular machines, and it was taken up with more enthusiasm in the USA than in Britain, particularly after Townsend migrated to New England.

The circular machine had a great boost during the time of the American Civil War (1861-1865), when the quartermaster general of the Northern army decided the quality of its socks and stockings was far better than the frame knits with necessary seams he had been offered. Adaptations led to the machine being operated back and forth as well as circularly, for shaping of the toes and heels. The machines, being quite compact, and taking up only half the space of the domestic treadle sewing machine, were used at home as well as in factory environments where they could be linked to a band drive, and heavily advertised and promoted.

Henry Josiah Griswold was born in Connecticut, USA on 4 Jul 1837, and was an inventor in many disciplines. The most important improvement is that in 1878 Griswold added a second set of needles set in a disc horizontally to the top of circular knitting machine enabling rib knitting and the cuff or welt for socks. Little further development appears to have been carried out, and indeed there are many of these machines still working over 100 years later.

In America, the circular sock knitting machine gained in popularity during World War I. When America entered the war, Mabel Boardman, the only woman member of the Red Cross Central Commission, realized that hand knitters were facing an enormous task. Novice knitters were encouraged to master the machines, at Red Cross headquarters, and knit a perfect pair of socks in 40 minutes.

In the UK, popularity waned between the wars, and indeed many machines were melted down for the re-cycling metal war effort for WWII, and production of new machines ceased. Since WWII, flatbed and double bed knitting has grown, waned and grown again in popularity with the hobby market. Adaptations have been made to include electronic and computer controlled models, lace, Fair Isle and Jacquard patterning.

Mary Hawkins