Knitting Machines and Luddites - History of Knitting
Welcome to Study Guides!

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:

More about the history of clothing home

LIMITED TIME OFFER FOR TEACHERS: Using this article with your class? Show us your class page where you're using this article, and we'll send you a free subscription so all your students can use Study Guides with no distractions! (Not a teacher? Paid subscriptions are also available for just $16/year!)
Please help other teachers and students find us: link to this page from your class page.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Cite this page
  • Author: K.E. Carr
  • Title:
  • Site Name: Study Guides
  • Publisher:
  • Date Published:
Did you find what you needed? Ask your teacher to link to this page so other people can use it too! Send it in and win a "Great Page!" award!
Sign up for more free articles and special offers in' weekly newsletter:
We will never share your e-mail address unless you allow us to do so. View our privacy policy. Easy unsubscribe links are provided in every email.
Comment on This Article

Does your class page honor diversity, celebrate feminism, and support people of color, LBGTQ people, and people with disabilities? Let us know, and we'll send you a Diversity Banner you can proudly display!
Looking for more? is loading comments...
(Comments will appear after moderation, if they are kind and helpful. Feel free to ask questions, and we'll try to answer them.)
Cite this page
  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 23 April, 2017