Knitting Machines and Luddites - History of Knitting
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More Knitting History

closeup of old knitted stockings with fancy patterns
Knitted silk stockings
(originally red)
(Eleanora of Toledo, Italy, 1500s AD)

June 2016 - In the 1500s AD, knitters in Spain and France began to produce very fine knitted silk stockings, with little tiny stitches - something like today's knee-hi stockings. Knitted silk stockings were much more comfortable and fitted better than woven stockings, and soon rich people everywhere wanted them.

a complicated machine in a wooden frame
Stocking frame
knitting machine (1750)

Now that everybody wanted knitted stockings, knitters kept trying to make them faster and cheaper. In 1589, William Lee, in England, invented the first knitting machine - almost as much of an advance as the Chinese (or Islamic) invention of the spinning wheel had been 300 years earlier. In the 1700s, knitters were using Lee's knitting machine - called a "stocking frame" - all across Europe. But as knitting frames got more efficient, they also got bigger and more expensive. Soon only rich people could afford them. So the rich people owned the frames, and hired knitters to work for them. They paid knitting workers less and less: to show that somebody was really poor, you said they were "as poor as a stockinger."

long complicated machine with gears
Knitting machine for stockings (Nottingham, 1908)

Just after 1800, as the cotton gin and the spinning jenny made yarn much cheaper than it had been, the circular knitting machine also made knitting more efficient and led to factory production. By this time, knitting factory owners paid their workers so badly that they revolted, smashing up the new machines. But the British Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, like Pitt before him, was mainly concerned with keeping rich people rich. He arrested many of the rioting workers and killed some of them, while sending others to do convict work in Australia. As the machines became steam-powered in the 1800s, they got bigger and bigger and went faster and faster.

complicated machine with a circular framework
Modern knitting machine in China

Today, most of your clothes are knitted: t-shirts, socks, underwear, sweaters, many dresses and skirts, and exercise clothes like sweats. Knitting has really never stood still: from the earliest nalbinding, to the addition of the second needle, and then five needles, then the simple knitting machine, then the circular knitting machine - in two thousand years there has hardly been a century without some improvement in knitting technology. But the people who work the machines are still poor.

Learn by Doing - learn to knit
Early knitting
More about sewing

Bibliography and further reading about knitting:

Spinning
Weaving
More about the history of clothing
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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