Wednesday, October 28, 2009

HOSE ME DOWN - Queens Elizabeth poo-poos the knitting machine (part II)

The first ”stocking machine” was invented around 1589 by a English clergyman, William Lee of Nottinghamshire.

Legend tells us that Lee had fallen in love with a young village lady who sadly didn’t return his affections, SO consumed was she with teaching students the womanly art of knitting worsted stockings. He became determined to invent a machine that could knit, thereby making her obsession passé and her free time only devoted to him. 

(at left, an example from the Uffner hose archives: early cotton hose w. partially-finished hand embroidery on a stamped pattern)

He left his curacy to devote years towards creating this new “stocking frame” machine and promptly sought the patronage of Queen Elizabeth. Alas, she turned down Lee’s  invention, stating that she was not only upset at the rough results (the machine could only knit 8 loops to the inch - too coarse for silk)  but its use would deprive the poor hand-knitters of their occupation and might add to the growing hordes of  unemployed. 

 To the right, a sample from the Uffner hose archives: hand-made cotton stockings with beaded (yes, beaded!) initials! 

Though the Queen still maintained her love of silk stockings, by 1577 she switched to wearing only knit worsted hose to support the local Norwich knitters.The Queen wrote to a lord of the realm:

"Had Mr. Lee made a machine that would have made silk stockings, I should, I think, have been somewhat justified in granting him a patent for that monopoly, which would have effected only a small number of my subjects, but to enjoy the exclusive privilege of making stockings for the whole of my subjects, is too important to be granted to any individual." 

The Reverend Lee continued to tinker with his machine and 9 years later, was AGAIN turned down by the Queen. Five years after the Queen’s death, he presented the new King of England, James VI of Scotland, with his latest samples - this time, silk stockings. Remember: James was from Scotland, which invented knitting! He took no interest - after all, his own mother

( pictured above) Mary Stuart wore hand-knit stockings to her execution:

 “Jersey hose white under socks of worsted watchett (sea blue) clocked with solver, edged at the tops with silver; both knitted."             

In 1605, The Duke of Sully, Henri IV of France’s astute minister, took a look at the invention and suggested Lee take his creation to France, where he was personally welcomed by the King.

He set up shop in Rouen with his brother, 8 workmen and 8 machines but alas, more bad luck ensued. It is said that the day he was to receive his patent, the King was stabbed to death by a fanatic religious Catholic and Lee’s patronage was immediately withdrawn. 

Spain at the time was already providing the second wife of Henri IV, Marie de' Medici, with exquisitely crafted purple, red and orange (her favorite colors) silk stockings decorated with the French lilies or the Medici coat of arms. She withdrew Lee’s protection. (at right, Henry IV)

Lee eventually died in extreme poverty, alone, in Paris. His burial place is unknown.

His brother continued Lee’s quest back in England and eventually the use of looms gradually increased until the manufacturing of stockings became a thriving national industry and England became the hosiery center of the world.

Several decades after Clergyman Lee was turned down by Queen Elizabeth,  the Framework Knitter’s Company succeeded in its petition to Cromwell for charter rights as "the promoter and inventor of the art and mystery or Trade of Frame-work knitting or making of silk stockings or other work in a frame or engine." and in 1663, the Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters was granted a Royal Charter and continues to exist to this day.

Above, it is said that William Lee is remembered, pictured together with the object of his affections ( thought to have become his wife) and a knitting frame on the coat of arms of the Worshipful Company of Frame-Work-Knitters.

The technology was so guarded by England that by 1696, it was actually illegal to export a stocking-making loom and anyone caught was fined 40 pounds (an immense sum at that time!) and had their equipment confiscated.

copyright © 2009 by helen uffner


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