Framework Knitting

History of Framework Knitting

On many census returns, my ancestors occupation was the three-letter acronym, FWK. This was not some expletive by the census collector, but the occupation framework knitter. Many of my Shacklock and Dove ancestors were framework knitters.

The history of framework knitting goes back to 1589. At that time, many people supplemented their income by hand knitting socks. The story is that the Rev. William Lee from Calverton had a girlfriend, or in some versions his wife, who spent all her time knitting and had no time for him. Because he felt neglected, he invented a knitting machine for her in the hope she would then have some spare time to spend with him. Unfortunately, he could not get a patent on the grounds that it would put hand knitters out of business. So, William took his invention to France where it was a success.

After his death, his brother took over and managed to set up a workshop in London. The industry spread in the capital and in 1663, the Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters were granted a Royal Charter. Many of the knitters were unhappy with the controls of the Guild and they moved to the Midlands. By the early 1800s, of the 45,000 knitting frames in the country, 90% were in the East Midlands. There are records of framework knitters working in Sutton-in-Ashfield as early as the end of the seventeenth century.

What is Framework Knitting

The knitting frame is similar in size to an upright piano. The solid wooden frame, incorporating a seat and foot pedals, supported the metal knitting machine. The machine was operated by a combination of complicated hand and foot movements. It took a sequence of eleven movements to complete a single row. Then this had to be repeated again and again for each row.

The job would be very tiring as the machine needed considerable physical effort to move the carriage and work the treadles. Being bent over a heavy machine would mean many would finish up with back problems. They would also suffer from eyestrain from checking and fixing dropped stiches.

A knitting frame
A knitting frame
framework knitting workshop
A framework knitting workshop in Sutton

Framework knitters would not be able to afford their own frames. Many worked for employers who housed a team of framework knitters in cramped and noisy workshops. Other knitters worked at home, but they did not have the capital to buy their frames, they had to rent frames from a hosier.

The deal would usually include the hosier providing their materials and selling their products. This meant their income was at the mercy of the hosier who could choose how much he paid for the work done. In some cases, the hosier would not pay in cash but in goods, forcing the stockinger to obtain food from the hosier’s shop.

This is a photograph of a Framework Knitter’s workshop in Sutton. The row of windows on the top floor was to let in as much light as possible.

In the cases where they worked at home, it was very much a family business with the children of the household winding yarn from hanks onto bobbins while the women seamed and embroidered the finished stocking. This was quite widespread as many of my female ancestors gave their occupation as seamer.

The Decline

In the 19th century, trade started to slump and poverty increased for framework knitters. The introduction of wide frames which could produce goods cheaper than knitters using the tradition frame, made things worse. In 1811, poverty gave rise to the Luddites, these were framework knitters who broke into workshops to break up the new wide frames.

There is a record of a major Luddite attack in Sutton-in-Ashfield in November 1811. The following report in the Nottingham Journal describes the attack.
‘On Wednesday, several hundreds collected in the neighbourhood of Arnold, from whence they proceeded to Sutton-in-Ashfield, where the work of destruction again commenced, and no less than 37 frames, including the whole in the possession of Francis Betts, were completely demolished. However, a stop was put to their career, by the arrival of a party of military, upon whose appearance, the mob instantly dispersed in all directions.’

Some of the rioters were captured and put on trial. At the trial, Sarah Betts described what happened when their property was attacked. She said she saw one thousand men, fourteen abreast, some armed with guns assembled in Sutton. She bolted the door, but they broke down the door, broke the frames and threw them out of the windows. The judge said, ‘Frame-breaking is not a breach of the ten commandments, though it breaks down the barriers of peace and felicity and as such must be punished with the utmost rigour of the law’. All those put on trial for the Sutton riot were found guilty. Some were sentenced to transportation for seven years, the others for fourteen years.

The figures for the number of rioters and the number of broken frames vary. W. Clay-Dove in his book, ‘Sutton-in-Ashfield in Times Past’ says there were three hundred rioters who broke seventy frames. Whatever the numbers, it was serious enough to make an appearance in several newspapers around the country.

Later, the government made it a capital offence to break stocking frames and some Luddites were hung. The last major rising in Derbyshire was the Pentrich Rising in 1817 which I have also included on this web site..

There was an inquiry into the conditions of Framework Knitters in 1844. It reported that ‘The conditions of the framework knitters are very deplorable. They work generally from daylight until ten o’clock at night. The average is about fourteen hours a day.’ It also commented that the majority of men over twenty looked ‘sickly and emaciated’. When reviewing wages, the report recorded that between 1814 and 1844 wages fell by up to 40%, while frame rents continued to rise. The 1840s became known as the ‘Hungry Forties’.

One of my ancestors, Daniel Dove, was a framework knitter and was described in one newspaper report as ‘a poorman of Sutton-in-Ashfield’

Poverty among the framework knitters continued and in order to alleviate this, there is a record in the 1860s of the Duke of Portland employing up to two hundred poor Sutton Stockingers on his estate where he was doing extensive alterations.

Framework knitting continued in Sutton using the wide frames, but started to decline towards the end of the century as factories with steam powered machines took over. At one point there were nine hosiery factories in Sutton employing around 1,500 workers. My great, great grandfather James Shacklock was my last ancestor to show his occupation as a framework knitter in the 1901 census.

There is a framework knitter’s workshop in Ruddington, Nottinghamshire, which has been converted into a very interesting framework knitting museum.

More In formation

Ruddington Framework Knitters’ Museum
An excellent small museum in Nottinghamshire where you can see a knitting machine being demonstrated.
Ruddington Museum

Wigston Framework Knitters
Another framework knitting museum, this time in Leicestershire.
Wigston museum

Knitting Together
Tells the story of the East Midlands knitting industry over the past four hundred years.
See their Themes/Places page for information about specific towns.

Stocking Making Talk
This is a report of a talk given in Sutton in 1933 about stocking making on the Huthwaite web site.
Talk report