Knitting machines and Luddites – History of clothing

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a square wooden machine

Stocking frame knitting machine (1750)

In the 1500s AD, knitters in Spain and France started 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. Big workshops with hundreds of employees made and sold knitted stockings.

Now that everybody wanted knitted stockings, manufacturers 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.”

A knitting machine - long machine made of steel

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. The invention of modern steel in the 1850s made it possible to make knitting machines of steel and rubber, so they were stronger and faster. Manufacturers started to power the knitting machines with electricity.

modern knitting machine made of steel

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

By | 2017-06-08T10:12:21+00:00 June 8th, 2017|Clothing, Modern Europe|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Knitting machines and Luddites – History of clothing. Study Guides, June 8, 2017. Web. December 13, 2017.

About the Author:

Karen Carr

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, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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