High level conspiracies, religious trials, assassination of kings, and unyielding determination. Relax, this is not a review of a Dan Brown book. We are going to revisit the amazing,yet not so famous story of one William Lee and his creation – the stocking knitting frame.Parts true, parts legend, if his story featured a bit more glamorous invention, I am certain, we could very well be enjoying it on the big screen today.
Setting the stage
Take aside the complexity of his invention, which was way before its time and would baffle economic historians for the years to come. Also ignore the fact that the next key changes to mechanization of weaving will take place in almost three centuries. And still you will not have the full picture of the impact this invention and its birth had.
Back in the XVI century, a new fashion trend was raising in England and with it, a whole industry. The long gowns, common to both sexes were becoming less and less popular for men, giving way to shorter garments with long tight leg coverings. Besides the fast spreading fashion trend, there was also an edict, issued by Queen Elizabeth I that “her people should always wear a knitted cap”. The problem was that almost all clothing articles had to be hand knitted. And thus with the demand for knitted goods increasing rapidly, the supply was there to follow. Many parts of the country saw entrepreneurial formations of people focused on knitting for commerce and even exports. Still the hand knitting was a painstakingly slow process and the supply was quickly exhausted. This, in an outline was the economic context surrounding William Lee in 1582, when he returned from St. Johns College, Cambridge to his hometown Calverton.
From a back yard project to serial manufacturing
Some say that William took inspiration for his invention by watching his mother and sister knitting endlessly in their house – much like many of the women in those days. Others tell the story of his love driving him to act – his love for a young lady who would not return his affections being too devoted to her knitting. Still others believe it was a very well calculated business venture between him and a George Brook with whom we know William signed a co-partners contract. According to sources their agreement was about 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. Whichever the reason, William was set on his path to bring to life his vision of a wooden machine with lines of needles knitting in unison. It took him 3 years to finish his work. And to make the transition from a back yard project to serial manufacturing a final detail was left. The invention had to receive a formal recognition – a patent from the ruling monarch. A demonstration was arranged before Queen Elizabeth I, who was even known to be a “fan” of silk stockings. What the Queen saw in Lee’s invention though was far from what he was hoping for. It was perceived as a threat to the nation. A nation in which large portion of the common folk was involved in hand knitting. And if Lee’s invention would see the light of day it would force all those people in to poverty. On this grounds William was refused his patent and forced into poverty himself.
The determination of an entrepreneur
A meeting which followed, by chance or by destiny, would secure the life of Lee’s invention as well as his death. Seeing no further opportunity in England, William turned his gaze towards France. It was his encounter with the French brothers De Cauxthat convinced him to try his luck there. Their connections to the French royals and the rumors that France, in the face of King Henry IV, was actively looking to introduce new industries, were enough of a reason to William to leave England. Thus he and his brother, James loaded the nine left knitting frames on a ship and headed to the French city of Rouen. Shortly after, the De Caux brothers ‘connection lead him to the royal court, where his work was finally recognized. William Leeeven became a protege of the prime minister. Who in turn offered Lee funding to build more of his machines and successfully petitioned the King for a monopoly on the invention. Nevertheless, staying true to itself, William’s luck took a turn and his success was short lived.
Much larger agendas were at play in France in 1610. King Henry IV was assassinated and the ascencion of Louis XIII saw the rise of spreading religious intolerance. Being a protestant, William lost all his privileges within weeks. He took his case to the court in Paris but due to his religion and nationality there was no chance he would win. Disheartened William took one last effort to secure the legacy of his invention. He sent his brother and the remaining machines back to England. He met his end in Paris in 1614, penniless and infamous.
The rise of an industry
Needless to say the importance of William Lee’s work was vastly underappreciated by his contemporaries. Yet by the end of the XVII century his machine has become the backbone of an entire industry, not only in England but in other countries as well. Even in its earlier versions Lee’s knitting frame could produce a pair of quality socks 6 times faster than by hand. And what was described as the most complicated machine of the pre-industrial world was rightfully celebrated on its quarter century anniversary in 1989.