A fascinating history of Framework Knitting machines, which led to the stocking industry on which Sutton-in-Ashfield and Huthwaite achieved highest renown comes from The Notts. Free Press 28th April 1933. Note however, no mention is given to the 1811 Nottinghamshire Luddite movement effecting any local factories.
Mr. H. Walton, the first president of the Sutton Rotary Circle and a member of the firm of Messrs. Walton and Sons, hosiery Manufacturers, was the speaker at Tuesday's meeting of the Club at the Denman's Head Hotel, and the subject of his address was "Stockingers and Stocking Making." The President (Mr. L. Dodsley) occupied the chair.
Mr. Walton prefaced his remarks by explaining the difference between hosiery manufacturing and stockingers; the former made quite a variety of goods, whilst the stockinger, of whom he was to speak, was engaged solely in the making of stockings. The first hand stocking-frame, said Mr. Walton, was built by William Lee, a parson of Calverton, in the year 1589 - a 24 gauge single needle machine, equivalent in capacity to a present-day 12 gauge machine. A gauge measured three inches, and the different numbers given meant the number of needles brought within the limit of the gauge measure.
Lee's machine was a wonderful invention, and the only reason given why he should have turned his inventive genius in this direction was that he was tired of watching his sweetheart spend all her time knitting. It was a remarkable fact that the same principle Lee invented was still the one used for stocking making, though the course with the passage of time machines had been improved and their output greatly increased. Fearing the effect the introduction of the machine would have on the handknitters, Queen Elizabeth would not grant Lee any patent or reward.
That there was some foundation for the Queen's fear could be gathered from the fact that in Norfolk the knitting of hose brought a return of from 5,000 to 10,000 shillings a week - large sum in those days. William Lee therefore took his patent to France, and it is said that he died there of a broken heart, but by sheer good fortune the seed which he had sown remained embedded in the English soil, and first by slow and then rapid stages, developed into the hosiery industry of today, with its ramifications in every part of the world.
As previously stated, Williams Lee's first machine was a 24 gauge single-needle machine, but he afterwards spent seven years producing another machine to make fine silk hose, and this was a 24 gauge three-needle machine, equal to a 36 gauge, which was a fine gauge up till quite recently. There is no doubt the machine he took over to France, described in a petition to Cromwell in 1655, was an exceedingly delicate piece of mechanism, and the most complicated machine for the manufacture of apparel found in the world at that time. The making of 2,000 separate pieces of steel and lead, each requiring the greatest accuracy of workmanship, was no small task.
A tribute to the worth of English mechanics was to be found in the fact that, no matter where the frame was taken during the 17th century - to Venice, Rouen or Amsterdam - the industry withered on account of the lack of skilful workmen to keep the machines in repair. The first machines built were believed to have been double-handed, requiring two men to work them, but this process was later improved to the hand-frame we all knew, worked by one man. The first 70 years was a period of slow progress. The machine perfected by Lee was able to produce work as fine in quality as that of the most skilful hand-knitter and at ten times the speed.
Still, in 1664 the industry could muster no more than 650 frames, though this may possibly be accounted for by the opposition of the hand-knitters, and it was well known that the first frame-worker to establish himself in Leicester had to work in secrecy and at night. London was the first important centre for the making of stockings on the new machine, and in 1660 they boasted of 400 machines. From this sprang the Framework Knitters' Company, which is still in existence and of which there was a member present that day (Mr. A. Walton), but the industry never left the county of its origin, as there were over 100 machines scattered over Nottinghamshire at that time.
The value of the trade at that period could be seen by the fact that in 1696 William III. imposed the heavy fine of £40, as well as the forfeiture of the machine or part of the machine, upon anyone found exporting machines or parts, and by this time the machines in London had increased to 1,500. The main stimulus to the rapid growth was the vigour of the export trade, and even France, our chief commercial and political rival, imported about 8,000 dozen of hose from the Port of London until the outbreak of war in 1692, and afterwards the loss in France was made up by Portugal, which took 20,000 dozen a year.
Coming to the year 1727, we find that the number of frames in the South was 3,350, and in the Midlands 4,650, and from that time on the trade gradually drifted back to the house of its birth, as the hosiers of London found that stockings could be made much better and cheaper in Nottinghamshire than in the South. From 1732 to 1750, 800 machines were sent from London to this county; and in 1782, out of 20,000 machines, 17,350 were in the Midlands, 700 in Dublin, 300 in Cork, and 650 at Tewkesbuy where the first cotton hose were made.
It must be borne in mind that stockings at this time were mostly wool, and the wool merchants loudly condemned the renewed friendly commercial talks with France at the end of the war in 1713, fearing that the profitable trade with Portugal would be endangered. From 1780 to 1844 the number of machines outside the Midlands remained that same and the figures giver were:- 1844, 48,482; Midlands 44,040.
At this period it was possible to trace the local figures, and we found Sutton with the largest number in the county of Nottingham outside the city. The figures were - Sutton 1,702; Arnold 1,254; Mansfield 776; Nottingham and Sneinton 3,090. Also in every village in the county some machines could be found.
It was interesting to note that at this time (1844) more men must have been employed in the stocking trade than at the present time, as 1,700 machines must have employed that number of men. Not more than 1,000 men were employed in the trade in Sutton to-day, the figures for the whole hosiery trade in Sutton to-day being:- Males, 18-65 years, 930; 16-18, 141; total 1,071. Females, 18-65, 1,674; 16-18, 285; total 1,959.
Referring to the value of the machines over the period under review, Mr. Walton said the cost of a machine in the early stages of the industry was considerable, and there were records of an Italian merchant buying machines for export in 1739 at £80 each, and at this time in Nottingham there were 14 framesmith, five sinker-makers, 12 needlemakers and eight setters - gathered that no doubt there was a good deal of profit in the £80, and at Selston in 1718 a framesmith valued two machines he had, one at £8 and the other at £7 10s. These figures, however, may have been for taxation purposes as they were taken from the Notts. Session Rolls of 1719, so if we fixed the value somewhat between, it would be seen that a large amount of capital was required.
The thanks of the Club were expressed to Mr. Walton by another Past President (Mr. J.D. Needham).
Written 16 May 12 Revised 16 May 12 © by Gary Elliott