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Woodborough, an ancient Sherwood Forest Village recorded in Domesday

William Lee’s Knitting Invention - By Negley Harte

The stocking knitting frame was invented in 1589 by the Reverend William Lee, Vicar of Calverton in Nottinghamshire. This apparently straightforward statement of fact can be found in many historical works. Some such statement, or words to the same effect, is repeated in the text book of economic history and in all the literature of the history of the textile industries. It states a belief that is widely accepted, not just in Midlands lore, but as part of the British textile tradition. Yet to the historian, with his professional concern with evidence, it presents a problem. Four hundred years after the event, the question has to be posed: what is the evidence that so undeniably significant a technological development as the invention of the knitting frame, of major importance for the whole hosiery industry, was initiated by so improbable a figure as a provincial clergyman at so early a date as 1589?

The Legend of William Lee

In fact, there is no evidence that William Lee was Vicar of Calverton, nor indeed that William Lee was in Holy Orders at all. There is, moreover, no contemporary evidence that it was in the year 1589 that he invented the stocking-frame. And there is no evidence at all for the existence of the woman, whether girl-friend, fiancée, or wife, who is said to have inspired the invention in the more romantic versions of the well-known account. Nor is there for the involvement of the other woman, Queen Elizabeth [1st] herself, who plays a role in the oft-rehearsed legend of William Lee.

The legend developed early. It was established within the following century. By 1677, when Robert Thoroton published his history of Nottinghamshire, many of the component elements were clearly already present, if in somewhat garbled form. Thoroton’s account reads: At Calverton was born William Lee, Master of Arts in Cambridge, and heir to a pretty freehold here; who seeing a woman knit, invented a loom to knit, in which he or his brother James performed and exercised before Queen Elizabeth, and leaving it to one Aston his apprentice, went beyond the seas, and was thereby esteemed the author of that ingenious machine, wherewith they now weave silk and other stockings &c.

A copy of Thoroton’s book, examined by William Felkin nearly 200 years later contains a manuscript note that this evidence, with its plausible circumstantial details, had been provided by an account given by one ‘Johannis Story, Gent’. How this gentleman was able to provide information about events ninety or so years previously, however, is not indicated.

Before 1677, though not published at the time, a rather different account of Lee and his invention had been provided by John Aubrey, the famous collector of seventeenth-century gossip. Sometime after 1656 he noted the following about Mr Lee: Mr William Lee, M.A., was of Oxford (I think Magdalene Hall). He was the first inventor of the weaving of stockings by an engine of his contrivance. He was a Sussex man born, or else lived there. He was a poor curate, and, observing how much pains his wife took in knitting a pair of stockings, he bought a stocking and a half, and observed the contrivance of the stitch, which he designed in his loom, which (though some of the appendant instruments of the engine be altered) keeps the same to this day. He went to France, and died there before his loom was made there. So the art was, not long since, in no part of the world but England. Oliver Protector made an Act that it should be felony to transport this engine.

Aubrey cited his source for this story as information he took from ‘a weaver (by this engine) in Pear-poole Lane’ in 1656, when ‘Sir John Hoskyns, Mr Stafford Tyndale, and I, went purposely to see it’. A few years later, John Evelyn, the famous diarist, also provided an eye-witness account. On the 3rd May 1661 he recorded that he ‘went to see the wonderful engine for weaving silk stockings said to have been the invention of an Oxford scholar forty years since’. The hearsay elements of this evidence are expanded elsewhere in Evelyn’s writings, where he mentions ‘Mr Lee or Leigh, a curate in some obscure part of Sussex’ as the inventor.

These seventeenth-century accounts, evidently, are confusing. Thoroton in the 1670’s firmly placed William Lee in Calverton in Nottinghamshire as a Cambridge graduate; Aubrey in the 1650’s and Evelyn in the 1660’s have him in Sussex as an Oxford man. Aubrey and Evelyn – perhaps not independent sources – have him as a curate, while Thoroton only has him as a Master of Arts. Both Aubrey and Thoroton set a woman central, in one case a wife, while only Thoroton has the other woman, Queen Elizabeth, figuring in the story. They were all writing a generation or more after the events they purport to record. They had to rely upon the sort of hearsay evidence that Gravenor Henson was to struggle over a century and a half later. In Henson’s Civil, Political and Mechanical History of the Framework-Knitters, published in Nottingham in 1831, he says that his account of Lee and his invention was derived from old people that he had talked to. There was doubtless some embroidery of his own. The invention of the knitting machine (since better known by the name of the stocking-frame, and the workmen as framework-knitters) owed its origin as is universally agree, to a single circumstance, the disappointed love of the inventor, the Reverend William Lee, Curate of Calverton, in the County of Nottingham. This gentleman, it is said, paid his addresses to a young woman in his neighbourhood, to whom, from some cause, his attentions were not agreeable; or, as with more probability it has been conjectured, she affected to treat him with negligence, to ascertain her power over his affections. Whenever he paid his visits, she always took care to be busily employed in knitting, and would pay no attention to his addresses: this conduct she pursued to such a harsh extent, and he vowed to devote his future leisure, instead of dancing attendance on a capricious woman, who treated his attention with cold neglect, in devising an invention that should effectually supersede her favourite employment of knitting.

And so on. Henson noted his sources for this romantic account. The greater part of his information was obtained from Mr Hardy, Twister’s Alley, Bunhill Row, London, who was apprenticed in London in 1711, and died, aged 90, in 1790 – from Mr Woods, Godalming – and from an ancient stocking maker who died in Collin’s Hospital, Nottingham, aged 92 and who was apprenticed in Nottingham in the reign of Queen Anne, and all of whom gave a similar account. This is in some measure confirmed by the arms of the London Company of Framework Knitters, which consist of a stocking frame without the wood-work, with a clergymen on the one hand and a woman on the other as supporters.

The historian cannot but note that Henson was himself only five years old when Mr Hardy died, aged 90, in 1790 and not much older when his 92-year-old informant died in Nottingham. By the early nineteenth century, what Henson gave as the oral tradition was well established, and generations of repetition had made their own additions to the memories of Lee that had developed soon after his own lifetime. Such traditions cannot be dismissed out of hand. We are dealing with legend rather than myth. But the historian has to attempt to seek out first-hand contemporary evidence specifically dated to 1589 and the years immediately following. Much effort has been made to establish the facts of Lee’s life and his invention, and – so far as has yet come to light – there are only six contemporary references to William Lee himself. These pieces of evidence, each with a clear provenance, need to be carefully examined.

The Evidence Concerning William Lee and His Invention

The first known reference to Lee is a very important one. It shows clearly that it was indeed William Lee who invented the knitting-frame. Dated 6 June 1600 was a partnership agreement between William Lee and George Brooke in which it was recounted that …William Lee hath by his long study and practice devised and invented a certain invention or artificiality being a very speedy manner of working and making in a loom or frame all manner of works usually wrought by knitting needles as stockings, waistcoats and such-like…

The agreement stated that William Lee and George Brooke were to be ‘co-partners’ in the ‘forming and making of the said new artificiality or invention of knitting works’ for a period of twenty-two years, sharing the resulting profits between them, beyond the first £200 which would be due to Lee himself. Brooke was to invest some £500 in the ‘secret of the said invention’ in order to develop the resulting ‘knit works’. George Brooke was a well-connected potential patron for Lee, but there was little time for him to act as a sponsor or financier since in 1603 he was arrested on a charge of treason and was subsequently executed.

That Lee nevertheless continued to attempt to develop his invention is evident from the second contemporary reference. On 1 October 1605 he petitioned the Court of Aldermen of the City of London, describing himself as a ‘Master of Arts’ and as ‘first inventor of an engine to make silk stockings’. He sought the freedom of the City of London by‘redemption’ and also ‘certain rooms to be granted unto him in Bridewell to work in’. (‘Redemption’ was the avenue to the freedom of the City by purchase open to those not entitled to the freedom – the right to pursue a trade – either by ‘patrimony’, i.e. inheritance, or by ‘servitude’, i.e. apprenticeship to a foreman). Lee’s petition was referred to a committee, but there is no further reference to the matter in the minutes of the Court of Aldermen. If there was any result, therefore, it is not known. It seems likely that Lee did not press his request.

The third contemporary reference is to be found a few years later and indicates that Lee was still trying to develop his frame in London. In March 1609, the records of the Weavers Company of the City of London record William Lee, ‘weaver of silk stockings by engine’, as being admitted as a ‘foreign brother’ of the Company. He apparently paid £2 ‘in hand’ for this privilege, and undertook to pay a further £1 ‘when soever he shall set up any loom or sapyn (sic) to use the art of weaving’. The Weavers Company records do not record that the further sum of £1 was ever paid. It seems plausible to infer that Lee was having difficulty in establishing his invention.

The next two contemporary records of William Lee’s activities both come not from London, but from Rouen in France. On 16 February 1612 a contract was signed between William Lee, ‘an English gentleman, at present a resident in this city of Rouen’, and Pierre de Caux, citizen of Rouen, indicating that they had together ‘organized a company for manufacturing stockings of silk and wool, upon a loom to be presently introduced into this country…’. The contract states that Lee was to ‘supply four machines, in good condition, and ready for operation, besides the other four already delivered…’, and Lee agreed to teach the use of the machines to French apprentices as well as supplying six English workmen, ‘skilled in the working and operation of these machines’. He also contracted to ‘instruct and to teach on of the more iron workers the secret of manufacturing these looms and engines, without concealing anything whatsoever’. Money was to be advanced by de Caux to fund the establishment of Lee’s knitting frame in Rouen. A further legal document, dated 1 March 1615, is less informative, but it confirms that ‘Master William Lee, English gentleman’ and two other Englishmen were still engaged in the ‘occupation of knitting stockings’ at that date.

The five pieces of evidence about William Lee, from London sources in 1600, 1605 and 1609, and from Rouen sources in 1612 and 1615, constitute the total known corpus of contemporary references generated by the life and work of Lee himself. There is one other known contemporary reference to him, itself an important piece of confirmatory evidence, but unfortunately it occurs in two difference forms. In 1607 Edmund Howes, one of the few contemporary writers to refer to technological change, noted in his edition of The Abridgement of Summary of the English Chronicle: This year 1589 was invented and perfected the art of knitting or weaving of silk stockings, waistcoats, coverlets and diverse other things by engines or steel loom by William Lee, sometime master of St John’s College of Cambridge.

This reference appears to be the earliest indication that Lee’s invention was made in 1589. A few years later, however, in 1615, Edmund Howes in a different work, his edition of The Annuls of England, gives a different date and adds other information: In the year 1599 was devised and perfected the art of knitting or weaving silk stockings, waistcoats, and diverse other things by engines or steel looms by William Lee, Master of Arts of St John’s College in Cambridge, and after that he went into France, where he obtained a patent of the King, and there taught them that mystery, his servants were entertained in foreign nations as in Spain, Venice and Ireland and other places where they taught the secret of their art, and so it went through the world.

Three years later, in the 1618 edition of The Abridgement or Summary of the English Chronicle, Howes however returned to citing 1589 as the year of the invention, correcting his reference to Lee as ‘sometime master of St John’s College of Cambridge’ to ‘sometime Master of Art of St John’s College, Cambridge’, and adding: …and fifteen years after this he went into France and taught it to the French because he was not regarded in England.

Edmund Howes was evidently a well-informed writer. His second reference to Lee in 1615 giving the date 1599, could be read as a correction of his earlier account in 1607, especially since he adds information about Lee going to France and the early diffusion of the frame abroad, events that were very recent when he wrote. But then in 1618 he does correct a minor mistake and again re-asserts the 1589 date, though it cannot have been fifteen years later, i.e. in 1604, that Lee went to France, since the sources quoted earlier demonstrate that this must have been 1609 and 1612. Perhaps the date 1599 in the 1615 account was simply a misprint, but it does add to the mystery of Lee.

The rest of Lee’s life is very much a mystery. Milton and Anna Grass engaged in such amateur historical research for their book on Lee, and leapt to several conclusions, but they were able to throw little reliable light into the darkness. The parish registers of Calverton commence only in 1578, and so no record of Lee’s possible birth there is confirmable. Many people by the name of Lee are to be found in Calverton in the late sixteenth century, including indeed several individuals called William Lee. One William Lee, yeoman, who died in 1607, had several sons, including a James and a William, and to William, the eldest, he left ‘one ring of gold, in value worth 20 shillings’. The Grasses assumed this William Lee to be the William Lee resting heavily (though illogically on Thoroton’s remark that he was ‘heir to a pretty freehold’ at Calverton, combined with an imaginative leap of their own. A ‘W. Leigh’ matriculated at Cambridge as a member of Christ’s College in 1579, but a further imaginative leap is needed to conclude that this was our man. The admissions registers at Christ’s College, Cambridge – where the Lee legend reaches its apotheosis in a commemorative stained-glass window – commences only in 1621, and that at St John’s College, Cambridge, only in 1630, and so it is impossible to check on his possible membership of either of those colleges. ‘W. Leighe’ may have graduated BA in 1582 or 1583, but there is no record of his becoming an MA. At Oxford the trail is even weaker; the only William Lee there in the 1570’s and 1580’s has a well-documented career quite at odds with the known facts concerning our William Lee. Efforts to trace him in Sussex have not led anywhere. There has been much speculation, especially on the basis of the Calverton and Cambridge bearings, but there are no more facts.

What is the historian to make of this evidence, such that it is? That William Lee was the inventor of a knitting frame in the late sixteenth century is clear. He described himself as a Master of Arts (though there is little to support this claim) and as a Gentleman (as a university graduate – and others – could), but it is improbable that he was ever a clergyman. He may well have come from Nottinghamshire, but it was London that was the scene of his first known operations. The London sources in 1600-09 show that he was struggling to develop his invention there, and the reference in the 1600 partnership agreement with Brooke to ‘his long study and practice’ could support the suggestion that Lee began work on the invention in 1589. But it seems clear that the invention cannot have been ‘perfected’ as early as that. The evidence from the City of London and the Weavers Company in 1605-09 strongly suggest that Lee was having difficulty in bringing his invention into production – interning, that is to say, his claimed invention into a practicable innovation. For reasons that can only be speculated about – the disapproval of the Queen, the lack of enthusiasm among the London vested interests, proto-Luddite prejudice, Lee’s own lack of business experience – he left London between 1609 and 1612 and endeavoured to make a new start in Rouen. It seems likely that he did not benefit commercially from his invention in his own lifetime. Only in the following generation did his fame – or a development of it – come to be adopted as an actual innovation, with the resulting accretions of posthumous credit to William Lee.

The Historical Context of William Lee’s Invention

Quite apart from the problems of disentangling fact from fiction in William Lee’s own life, it has often seemed a puzzle to economic historians that so complex a piece of machinery was invented for knitting so far ahead of the mechanisation of spinning and weaving, the key changes in which did not take place until the industrial revolution period in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In order to attempt to set the knitting frame in its proper context, it is necessary to understand the importance of hosiery in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in terms both of fashion and of production. The social and the economic context need to be appreciated.

From the late middle ages, men’s legs were in fashion. The long flowing gowns common to both sexes and inherited from classical times gave way, for men (not women) to a new-term fashion for shorter garments down to the waist and tighter coverings for the legs. In the sixteenth century the various forms of men’s leg coverings were the subject of condemnation by moralists and attempted control by sumptuary proclamations. But the fashion gave rise to a new industry. Knitting, previously a household activity on a non-commercial scale, came to be undertaken for more than a purely local market. Originally producing knitted caps in the fifteenth century, the sixteenth century saw the fashioning potential of knitting being applied to leg garments, giving the term ‘hose’ in a new meaning. By the last quarter of the century, great varieties of wool and worsted stockings were being knitted by hand in various parts of the country on a commercial scale, and indeed were finding export markets. Imported silk stockings were very fashionable and very expensive. They were beginning to be produced in England, and it was London which was the fashion centre.

Such was the buoyant market situated at the end of the sixteenth century which faced William Lee, demand for all sorts of knitted goods was expanding, and the potential supply of hand-knitters was fully used up in many places, perhaps especially in London. If he began his inventive activity in Nottinghamshire, it would have been with the short fine wool produced by the sheep of Sherwood Forest. But the earliest recorded evidence places him in London, developing the frame for use with silk for stockings of the most fashionable sort. This is not altogether surprising, for, whatever his own experience of women was, their labour as a by-employment in the Midlands came cheap. It was a different matter in London with its rising wage rates.

It was a complex matter to produce a machine to knit, but knitting was essentially easier to reproduce by machinery than was either spinning or weaving. Nevertheless, how was it possible to create such a machine springing apparently precursorless out of sixteenth-century technology? This was a question which fascinated the late Eric Pasold, himself one of the leading hosiery manufacturers of the mid-twentieth century. It was his fascination with William Lee which stimulated much research on the subject and which led to his founding the Pasold Research Fund to stimulate further research into various aspects of textile history. In the 1950’s he set himself the task to attempting to understand in a practical way how Lee had achieved his invention. It is worth quoting his own account: As a completed whole, Lee’s stocking frame was an incredibly complex piece of machinery, but most great inventions rest on simple principles and only become complicated through application and improvements. Perhaps the machine of 1589 was simpler than the one we know. The earliest drawings we have of it are those made by Hindret in 1656. How much had it changed in the intervening sixty-seven years? I tried to find out by working backwards from Hindret’s drawings, taking away every refinement, everything that was not essential to the basic operation of knitting, and in this way reconstructing a stocking frame resembling the one originally built by Lee. Using only the simple tools readily available to Lee, namely knife, hammer, saw, file, drill, chisel and scissors, and a frame for hardening the needles after they were filed and bent to the right shape, I built a simple model which functioned perfectly.

Eric Pasold thus proved that a mechanically inventive mind could create the knitting frame using the limited technology of the late sixteenth century. So complex a technological advance would not usually be expected to be made without preceding partial achievements, but Pasold showed that it was actually possible.

That the new machine was not an immediate success is readily comprehensible in technological terms, and that the tinkerings of an outsider were unacceptable by vested interests is also easily understandable in economic and social terms. Yet by the end of the seventeenth century what has been described as the most complicated piece of machinery employed in the pre-industrial world was in increasingly extensive use in England and also in various European countries. Lee’s achievement was marked by the rise of an industry on a new basis, as well as by the unfolding of a legend, and it is right that it should be the subject of anniversary celebration in 1989. The scope for further celebration at various possible dates over the next few decades should also be noted.


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