"The first thing a man needs after food is clothing"

Natural fibres, wool and cotton, were spun into a continuous thread (at first by distaff and spindle) to weave into cloth on a loom, this is traceable back to the time of Noah and the Ark; but woven cloth lacks the elasticity and extensibility of the knitted-loop structure that was first produced by hand on needles of wood or bone.

The earliest reference to hand knitting in England is from the year 1452, where church accounts from Ripon in Yorkshire have a reference in a will to "one knyt garment", but this would not have been a stocking. Once the skill was known, the craft of knitting spread rapidly, so great was the need for all kinds of clothing.

Hand knitting was taught to paupers and to poor children under the Poor Laws to give them a livelihood, as in Leicester in 1591 the City contributed money..."to a certain Cheeseman who undertook to teach a number of women and men how to knit, and to hide nothing from them that belonged to the said science".

Hand knitted worsted stockings were worn by men, women and children. It started here in England in the year 1564 and grew so rapidly that by the year 1600 it was reckoned that there were 200,000 pairs of hands knitting in the British Isles.

The basic material had to be wool, as cotton cannot be grown here and Britain had an abundance of wool. In the 12th Century, Cistercian Monks had come here from France, set up large sheep farms and organised wool growing into big business. Two hundred monasteries were so engaged by the year 1300.

When Henry VIII broke away from Rome in 1538 he confiscated all Church property and the wool trade of the monks passed into private ownership. Half the nation was occupied in wool. Apart from spinners, weavers and dyers there were thousands of hand knitters in the West of England, in East Anglia, Lincolnshire and the Yorkshire Dales, using the rivers to transport knitted caps and other articles to the market towns, and to the ports for shipment abroad. There was such a demand for wool that the Nobility, the Gentry and some Churchmen, not content with yearly rents and profit from the land they owned, left nothing to plough, but laid it all down to pasture, demolished homes, destroyed whole villages, in order to graze sheep. It was for this reason that the hamlet of Stretton Baskerville, two miles from Hinckley - lying between the Three Pots Inn on the A5 and Burton Hastings, became de-populated and disappeared. The same thing happened to other land near Hinckley - for example at Elmesthorpe.

Hinckley town itself survived these drastic changes but in the year 1600 it was not an attractive place. Some 800 people lived in 150 dwellings, half timbered with brick, wattle or mud in- filling, and it was described as.. ."a poor market town with many poor people who needed charity to survive".

We must therefore pay tribute to the memory of the Hinckley man named William Iliffe for bringing the stocking-frame to his home town in 1640. Hinckley already had a wool growing, wool yarn preparation/spinning capacity and therefore, by means of frame- knitting able to produce stockings at least ten times faster and be in production for much longer periods "than the most skilled hand-knitter.

It was in the year 1589 that the Rev. William Lee invented the frame that could knit a row (a course) of knitted loops simultaneously, instead of in the way a hand knitter produced one stitch followed by another stitch. In imitation of the hand knitter, Lee set out to produce by machine, a selvedged (and where necessary) shaped fabric, that when sewn up, was similar to the stocking knitted by a hand knitter. The only tools available to William Lee were those of a carpenter; a knife, hammer, saw, file, drill, chisel and scissors, plus the services of a blacksmith for iron-work, and a flame for hardening needles after these had been filed and bent to the correct shape. It is unlikely, that due to the imperfections in its early construction, the William lee stocking frame of 1589 was actually capable of knitting any fabric or article that could not already be supplied in plenty by the high skilled hand-knitter.

When William Lee built his first frame he cut a series of small wooden blocks each 1.5" x 1.5" x 1.5" and hammered 12 needles into each block. All the blocks of wood were then screwed next to each other, so that the needles were in a horizontal plane. Using wool or worsted yarn and with only 8 needles per inch, a course fabric was produced and seamed into the stockings that Lee presented to Queen Elizabeth 1st, with a request for the patent or the monopoly to produce stockings on a frame.

With her skilled hand-knitters perfectly capable of producing much finer fabric, even using pure silk thread, it is understandable that Elizabeth refused the petition for the grant of a monopoly. It is in these words that the Queen announced her refusal;

"I have too much love for my poor people who obtain their bread by the employment of knitting to give my money to forward an invention that will tend to their ruin by depriving them of employment and thus making them beggars. Had Mr. Lee made a machine that would make silk stockings I should, I think, have been somewhat justified in granting him a patent for that monopoly which would have affected only a small number of my subjects; but to enjoy the exclusive privilege of making stocking for the whole of my subjects, is too important to be granted to any individual."

Before 1603, when Elizabeth died, Lee had given her a pair of stockings knitted in pure silk. These silk stockings were knitted on a frame that was as crude as the original, but with finer knitting elements painstakingly fashioned with 20 needles per inch.

But still no patent or monopoly was granted to him, and approaches to the new king James I were also turned down.

Reluctantly, William Lee went to France to try his luck under the patronage of the King of France. He took all the frames that had been made at that time...(nine in number), with trained knitters, and his brother Frank, who was a soldier, as an intermediary. One man who did not go to France was named John Aston who had been chiefly responsible for building the original frame after it had been conceived by Lee.

Lee's protector in France, King Henry IV, was murdered. The local population in Rouen turned on the English Knitters in their midst. Lee died seeking a new patron and eight of the nine frames, with the knitters, returned to England in 1611.

John Aston had, by 1620, so improved the frame by adding a set of dividers in addition to the sinkers, that the frame was now commercially viable.

Only twenty years later, in 1640, did William Iliffe bring a frame to Hinckley, (the Writer, after much research, believes that only about 50 frames had been built by this time). A very bold move, at a cost of equivalent to four years gross earnings of a successful tradesman, and the start of stocking knitting in Hinckley. No trace remains of William Iliffe, ( except for Parish records of his family) or where he worked his frame.

This gives greater importance to the Frame that is the subject of this article.

The production of stockings on a frame here in Hinckley made men realise the opportunity it gave to those who were prepared to learn the skilled craft, and with money to invest. There was a great demand for the finished article.

One such man was Robert Atkins, born in 1702, the son of a yeoman farmer of Newbold-on-Avon. Apprenticed for seven years, at the age of 13, to learn framework knitting, and on completion of his apprenticeship to be made a Freeman of the Company of Framework Knitters of London. So Robert Atkins was the first of that name to manufacture knitted goods in Hinckley and began the business that became the Atkins Group P.L.C., traceable directly and without interruption from the year 1722.

Hinckley in 1722 had 2,100 inhabitants; about 350 families nearly all dependent on knitting. It was very much a cottage industry, for not until about 1800 were the first "frame shops" erected, usually at the back of the hosier's houses where several frames were crammed closely together. Even this change from the cottage industry was slow. The Royal Commission of 1844 was told that all the 650 frames being worked at that time in Earl Shilton were worked in the homes of the knitters.

Now the Writer must relate his personal experience with the Frame. I started as what would now be termed a management trainee, at the age of 16, straight from Nuneaton Grammar School. Bicycle was the method of transport to and from work, six days a week, with sandwiches and a cup of tea at 12.30. Most of the workers at Atkins went home at "dinner-time". It was a long break of an hour and a quarter; but for me this long break was the start of my love affair with the Frame.

With lots of time on my hands after eating my sandwiches I was able to enjoy the companionship of several men, over the time of normal retirement, the sons and grandsons of framework knitters.

Stored in a cellar were frames and machines that had once been the production units for Atkins, but now superseded by more improved machines. I remember a Niantic footer there.

These fine old gentlemen responded to the keenness of a youngster and offered to teach me the craft of knitting on a hand frame. The most suitable for this purpose was the oldest and simplest to work, yes, the Frame. I was required to attend (on four nights a week) evening classes at the Technical College on London Road. Lt. Colonel Clive Atkins was a great supporter of this vital training establishment, serving the needs of the Hosiery, Boot and Shoe and the Gas Fitting Industries.

Through the grapevine the Colonel heard that the old frame was back in good order, and he decided to present it to the College. From then until the outbreak of war in 1939, it was an invaluable tool for teaching the basics of straight-bar knitting.

When I returned from the Middle East in August 1946 I visited the College and was shocked to find the Frame had been almost wrecked; the College had been used as a training centre by the Army and the "swaddies' had used it as a play-thing. Back at Atkins the Frame was repaired and re-assembled, using only tools available to a carpenter and a blacksmith. (I did not realise in 1946 how important this restriction was in preserving the authenticity of the frame).

During my working life at Atkins I was responsible for knitting many items of fully fashioned goods...mens half-hose (Col. Clive would never wear circular knit half hose), stockings in worsted, cotton, artificial and pure silk, ladies briefs and outerwear. From the early 1960's I started researching the history of knitting, simply because the subject fascinated me, and it helped me to be a better technologist. Through my work I met men who were learned in the craft of knitting from all parts of the British Isles. I also started a collection of stockings of all ages and types. I realised how fashion moved in cycles! What is new today is often a different version of yesteryear. I shall always be grateful to the many kind individuals who have given me so many beautiful examples of the skill of hosiery men and women. One day it may be possible to display the collection, as William Felkin wrote in 1867 "not just to gratify an idle curiosity, but for useful examination and reference".

When I retired from work in 1984 I had more time to devote to my research. Detailed study of the Frame, and reference to every book I could trace. For example, The Technology of Framework Knitting (translated and adapted from the German of Professor Gustav Willkomn, by William T. Rowlett), Felkin and Henson, plus visits to museums, left me convinced that the Frame I had learnt to work at the start of my career in 1935 at Atkins, dated back as far as the year 1740. This narrow frame is of 13 needles per inch, across a bed that measures 13.5 inches when filled with 2-needle leads. With no thread carrier (this was invented in 1789) yarn must be laid across the needles before each course is knitted; there is no lock on the slur-cock.

Miss Peta Lewis is a Master of Philosophy, a Bachelor of Science, the Technical Director of the Ruddington Framework Knitters' Museum. She has been responsible for restoring frames of all ages, in many places. Peta is the author of a definite work entitled "William Lee's Stocking Frame. Technical Evolution and Economic Viability 1589-1750" published in Textile History 1986. Mr. Bill Dawson, when he was Chairman of Atkins Group P.L.C. commissioned Peta Lewis to examine the Frame and report on my claim. This was done on August 3rd 1988 and I quote what Peta said.. ."It is the oldest frame I have ever seen. It is almost certainly from around 1750. I do not know of an earlier example of a stocking frame".

Many working in the industry today will not have known the limits to which the principle of straight-bar knitting was taken. 60 gauge (40 needles per inch) even 75 gauge (50 needles per inch) must be hard to visualise particularly with stitch patterning and thread decoration. Boehringer were about to offer, in 1960, a 40-section frame, knitting at 117 courses per minute, so producing 20 pairs of fully-fashioned stockings every 28 minutes.

Conveyors removed the finished blanks, and the frame was so automated that one knitter would be capable of working four frames.

This picture shows the Elizabethan Cottage, Lower Bond Street, Hinckley - opposite to the Atkins factory. Note the very run- down condition at that time, around 1900. This part of the town as shown on the Ordnance Survey done in 1886 was at the heart of the knitting industry in Hinckley.

From the Population Census of 1881 are the facts that Bond Street, Hinckley had:

  • 57 Dwellings
  • 70 Men
  • 83 Women
  • 23 Children

The total in employment numbered 127, of whom 88 were' in the hosiery' = 7 out of 10. The others were in jobs necessary to support a balanced community:

5 dressmakers, 1 milliner, 6 servants, 4 charwomen, 1 farmer, 5 farm labourers, 1 carpenter, 5 boot and shoe makers, 1 shopkeeper, 2 innkeepers, and 1 schoolmistress.

Occupants of the Elizabethan Cottage were a framework knitter, his wife who was a seamer, one son was a hosiery warehouseman, another son was a stocking-top hand.

Many people pass by the Elizabethan Cottage, as it is known locally, now home to the Hinckley & District Museum. Details are available, not just oral remembrances, but with the benefit from a survey made by Mr. J. I. Jeffrey and published in the Leicestershire Industrial History Society Bulletin No.8, 1985.

The exact location is shown on the 1:500 Ordnance Survey Map 1887 sheet XLll.8.1, Grid reference SP425941. The cottages are believed to date from 1720 or earlier; their ground plan resembles closely that shown on the Ordnance Survey. This map and the photograph taken at the turn of the century show three cottages, the cottage nearest to the town centre being larger than the other two. The photograph shows the cottages in a semi-derelict condition. The cottages were bought by Lt.- Colonel Clive Atkins in 1927 for demolition. However, in view of the fact that the hosiery firm of Atkins was founded in 1722 by Robert Atkins, a decision was made to restore these cottages, and to maintain them as part of the heritage of Hinckley - a decision for which all should be grateful. Restoration took place in 1927/8 with the aim to maintain their original external appearance, although some outbuildings were demolished. The interior was changed, the two smaller cottages were converted into living accommodation on two stories, the larger cottage being converted into a single storey hall for use by the Company. The cottages possess the long windows characteristic of domestic framework knitters' cottages in other parts of the County.

The description by Mr. Jeffreys is as follows:

‘The building is a boxed timber framed structure with intermediate frames, the timber being exposed; the exterior wall infill is of red brick in stretcher bond. There were probably three stories throughout when first built with the frame on the middle floor.’