William Lee and the Stocking Knitting Frame: Micro- and Macroinventions

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William Lee and the Stocking Knitting Frame: Micro- and Macroinventions


Some technological inventions can be explained by the societal conditions in which they emerge, since they clearly meet an existing societal need. Historians call these gradual changes in techniques microinventions, trial and error tinkering that usually resulted from an intentional search for improvements and can be explained by economic theories—as ways to improve production, lower costs, or use less labor. However, macroinventions are more difficult to explain, because they seem to be the result of individual genius and luck more than economic forces. They seem to come out of nowhere, because they bring to bear seemingly unrelated ideas that just happen to produce a totally new solution. The invention of the stocking knitting frame by William Lee is one such invention.


Stockings, or hose, were universally worn in Tudor England instead of trousers or pants, being tied to the bottom of the pantaloons (hence the word pants), as we can see from any picture of Tudor men's clothing. Tudor women wore stockings under their long skirts. The vast majority wore woolen stockings, either cut from cloth and seamed up the back of the leg, or knitted by hand as with modern hand-knitted sweaters. The rich wore silk stockings knitted this way. Despite the huge demand for stockings, no one knows why William Lee (c. 1550-1610) decided to design a machine or frame to knit them. He was the son of prosperous farmers in Calverton, Nottinghamshire, England. His education at Cambridge University, where he entered Christ's College in May 1579, and later moved to St. John's College to take his B.A. in 1583, was in traditional scholastic subjects such as Latin grammar and rhetoric. There is evidence that he graduated with an M.A. in 1586, but again this degree provided no training in practical skills. Lee invented the stocking-frame in his spare time as a church minister back in Calverton in 1589, and legend claims that he did so because a young woman whom he wished to marry would always pay more attention to her hand-knitting than to him when he came courting.

Like many macroinventions, Lee's frame-knitting machine combined two previously unrelated ideas into a dramatic new development. Knitting had been done on circular or rectangular frames for many centuries. Wooden or bone pegs were fitted at regular intervals all round the top of the frame. Thinner pegs placed closer together made finer knitting. Yarn was tied to the first peg and then wound counter-clockwise around each peg until every peg had a crossed loop of yarn lying at its base. More yarn was then wound around the pegs in the same way to make a second set of loops above the first. The first set was then drawn over the second set of loops. By Lee's time a hooked implement rather like a crochet needle was used to raise one loop at a time over the other by hand. Continually repeating this process created a tube or hose of knitted fabric in crossed stocking-stitch, hanging down from the frame. Lee's very ingenious machine had a series of rigid hooks on the frame, and a second series of moving hooks at right angles to them. The first stitches were wound on to the series of rigid hooks in the traditional way, but then the knitter used a simple mechanism to move all the moveable hooks into the stitches looped around the rigid hooks. The yarn was then laid horizontally under the rigid hooks, and the stitches were drawn over it by the moveable hooks. Repeating the process created stockings much faster than before.


The long-term impact of Lee's development has been enormous. This simple action for knitting has never been bettered, and is basic to all the machines used in the machine-knitting industry throughout the modern world.

However, its immediate impact was limited by sixteenth-century social and political beliefs. Although individuals in Tudor England could rise or fall in social status through their abilities, most people believed that God had ordained the social hierarchy and everyone's place within it, and that there should be no social change. This meant that each person knew their responsibilities to others in the hierarchy, for example to obey superiors and protect inferiors, but also that they strongly believed in their just rights, for example to be employed when they offered their labor to support themselves, and not to have their accustomed work taken away. Politicians from local magistrates to Queen Elizabeth shared these beliefs, not just because the emphasis on obedience kept the political system stable, but because they accepted their God-given obligation to protect the rights of those lower in the social hierarchy to work and feed themselves and their families. Lee's invention threatened this social order, as it offered the promise of producing the same amount of stockings with fewer workers. Therefore, when Lee first began to use his frame to make stockings in a small workshop at Calverton, employing his brother and others, he met widespread opposition from the local hand-knitters, who recognized the threat that his fast, cheap production of stockings represented to their livelihood.

Perhaps because of this resistance, in 1591 he moved his machine and workers to Bunhill Fields outside the walls of London, and sought the patronage of Lord Hunsdon, the Queen's cousin and a leading courtier. Lee's aim was to obtain from Elizabeth a royal patent of monopoly for the machine, forbidding anyone to copy it and perhaps demanding that all hose should be knitted on similar machines—for a fee payable to Lee. At that time Elizabeth was raising money for her wars against Spain by selling such monopoly control over many everyday commodities. However, when Elizabeth saw Lee's machine in action she was disappointed by the coarseness of the ordinary stockings it produced—she had been hoping that he would make the fine silk stockings she preferred. Even though Lee began to improve the machine with microinventions, so that by 1598 he could make the frame smaller to produce silk stockings, and presented a pair to her, she still refused his monopoly. Members of the House of Commons had begun to complain about the hardship monopolies caused by driving up prices, and a series of bad harvests had created economic unrest, unemployment, and political instability in the countryside, which was already feeling the burden of continuing war. As well as the social and political assumptions outlined above, conditions were too dangerous for Elizabeth to risk making hand-knitters unemployed by encouraging Lee to bring the frame into general use. Unemployed workers created problems of law and order in a country without a police force, and weakened the state in its struggles with Spain, as well as destabilizing the social hierarchy that everyone assumed should be preserved. For similar reasons, when James I succeeded Elizabeth in 1603 he also refused to support Lee.

What happened next shows how Europe's political system gave it an advantage over other parts of the world in developing and applying new technology. In a highly centralized empire such as Ming China, for example, one person's political decision could prevent any technological changes from being introduced, or even cease the application of established technology, in order to maintain a stable and controllable social and political environment. However, Europe was politically decentralized, containing many states who competed along technological and economic as well as political lines. When technological change was discouraged in one state, it often found encouragement from another ruler who saw its economic and political advantages. Historians call this technology transfer. Thus Henry IV of France invited Lee to settle in France, promising him great rewards, and Lee established a workshop at Rouen, where he manufactured stockings under the king's protection. During the political unrest that followed the assassination of Henry IV in 1610, Lee died in Paris. His son and seven of his workmen returned to England, and together with one Aston of Calverton, one of Lee's former apprentices, they laid the foundation of an important new household industry in the East Midlands of England around Nottingham. People began to make stockings in large numbers, working on the frame at home, and its use spread throughout Europe in the first half of the seventeenth century.

Lee's knitting frame remained at the heart of stocking-frame technology until late into the nineteenth century, with only one major change in 1758, when Jedediah Strutt (1726-1797) created an attachment for knitting ribbed fabrics. The main problem in applying mechanical power to the knitting industry was that it was difficult to adapt the fine mechanism that varied the frame width, on which the quality of the stocking depended, to machinery more powerful than human muscle power. Thus for centuries one of Europe's basic and most important industries depended on an invention of genius by an obscure Nottinghamshire clergyman.


Further Reading

Derry, T.K., and Trevor I. Williams. A Short History of Technology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Kranzberg, M., and C. W. Pursell, Jr., eds. Technology in Western Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Mokyr, Joel. The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Singer, C., E.J. Holmyard, A.R. Hall, and Trevor I. Williams. A History of Technology. 8 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954-84, vol. 3 (1957).

"William Lee." In The Dictionary of National Biography. 22 vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1921-22.

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