The Fruits of Civilization (23-4-1) Knitting Trouble

 Knitting Trouble

English parson William Lee invented the stocking frame knitting machine in 1589. He did so because the woman whom he was courting was more interested in knitting than him.

Lee’s machine was the only such one in use for centuries, and its principle of operation remains to this day. Whereas a skilled knitter could make 100 stitches per minute by hand, the stocking frame averaged 1,000.

That sort of thing was dangerous. Lee was refused a patent by Queen Elizabeth I. When he attempted to introduce frames in Nottinghamshire, they were destroyed by mobs of hand knitters.

Lee took refuge in France, where he established a factory under the patronage of Henry IV. When Good King Henry died the factory failed, but the technology continued to spread.


England was especially active in banning machines that took jobs, beginning in 1551, when Parliament passed a law prohibiting gig-mills, a device used for cloth finishing. Despite the law, new gig-mills continued to be built.

Market opportunities repeatedly overcame legislation. The swivel-loom, a Dutch invention, could weave a dozen or more ribbons simultaneously. It was banned in England in 1638 but spread anyway, especially in the Manchester area.


The textiles trade, followed closely by the building industry, offered the most employment in the early modern period.

The typical textile product during the Middle Ages was a coarse heavy wool fabric. In the late 15th century, Flemish cloth makers introduced a lighter, cheaper cloth, termed new draperies, which gained popularity throughout Europe by the end of the 16th century.

Mexicans had cotton fabric by 5000 BCE. Cotton clothing was widespread in India by 1000 BCE.

Europe got a late start. In late medieval times, cotton fiber was imported into northern Europe without knowing anything more about it than that it came from a plant.

Cotton was produced in Italy in the Middle Ages, with raw material from the eastern Mediterranean. The fabric gradually spread northward during the 16th century, reaching Lancashire, England around 1620.

The organization of the textile industry in Europe remained largely unchanged from the later Middle Ages. Clothing manufacture was widely dispersed.

Most production for households and the local market was locally made. But some regions specialized in export production.

The prominence of the once-great Italians declined from competition, losing market share to Dutch, French, and English producers. Spain expanded briskly during the 1st half of the 16th century, until its clothing industry was waylaid by high taxes and government interference.

For the first 70 years of the 17th century, the locus of the export cloth industry, in both woolens and linens, was the Low Countries: Flanders and Brabant in particular; but the Dutch revolt against Spain severely damaged clothing commerce until decades after the war.

During the Middle Ages, raw wool was England’s principal export. In 1660, woolen and worsted cloth accounted for 2/3rds of English exports by value. These were undyed and undressed. Then the English textile industry went upscale. By the end of the 17th century, virtually all cloth exported from England was in finished condition. Well before the rise of modern industry, England became the largest exporter of clothing, which was Europe’s largest industry.

Clothing continued as the principal English export into the industrial age. From the late 18th century, the city of Manchester was known as Cottonopolis.