The Development of Hosiery Knitting

Historic Highlights in Development of Hosiery-Knitting
By Mildred Barnwell Andrews (1)


“One article of apparel which every person wears regardless of age, sex or station of life, is hosiery. Women wear full­fashioned or circular knit hosiery; Men wear half­hose; children of today wear ankle sox, bobby sox, or knee length, depending upon the seasonal fashion; even the new born infant wears a bootee. Each of these styles is a product of the knitting machine, the basic machine which has made possible the vast hosiery industry of the United States, and one of the greatest industrial developments of North Carolina.”

Compared to weaving, any historical reference to the art of knitting is relatively recent. Knitting is supposed to have originated in Scotland, but by the fifteenth century the art had spread to England and the Continent.” Elastic characteristics of knitted garments, which could be fashioned to fit, challenged knitter’s designing talent. Underwear, shirts, warm jackets, as well as hosiery, were a natural development in knitted apparel. Every female was taught to knit as soon as she was able to control the needles, and cottage knitting became a trade. In 1488, during the reign of Henry VII, and as one of the sovereign’s attempts to encourage commerce and industry, England fixed the price of knitted headgear or caps.”

Knitted stockings had rapidly supplanted the ungainly and uncomfortable cloth stockings which wound around the leg like spiral puttees. For courtiers and noblemen, silk hose then replaced the ordinary woolen, and there is record of a fine pair of knitted silk stockings sent from Spain to Henry VIII (circa 1509­47). Knitting, like weaving, became a craft, and in 1527 a Hosiery Knitter’s Guild was formed in France.”

In 1589, William Lee, of Nottingham, England, invented the first knitting machine. Lee, a young curate of St. John’s College, had broken a rule of the college against curates marrying and consequently had lost his position. His wife, a skilled and speedy knitter, went to work with her knitting to help support the family while Lee unsuccessfully trying to get another job. During this period, watching his Cecily’s busy needles, Lee began experimenting with a machine for knitting stockings. Upon its completion, he applied for a patent, but Queen Elizabeth refused the grant on the basis that the machine would throw hand knitters out of employment. Lee took his machine to France. Although later Queen Elizabeth marveled at the fine silk hose of France’s Henry II, and although the export of French knitted stockings grew amazingly, it was not during Lee’s lifetime that the great importance of his invention was recognized.”

In France, however, the great Richelieu (about 1640) encouraged the knitters, and, at Chartres, men, women, and children spent every moment when they were not at work on their farms knitting woolen stockings. A good knitter could knit three stockings a day. Knitting of stockings became such a consumer industry in the little town of Tricot (near Beauvais, in France) that tricoter became the verb for knitting, and from it today the tricot machine is identified.”

In the young American colonies interest in knitting was spurred along when the Governor of the Colony of Virginia offered, in 1662, a premium of ten pounds of tobacco (commonly accepted as legal tender) for every dozen pairs of woolen or worsted stockings; and in Pennsylvania knitters of coarse yarn stockings are said to have received one half crown a pair in 1698.”

The principle of hand knitting is that a required number of loops of yarn are cast onto a straight long needle. With another similar needle, the knitter wraps a loop of yarn around the needle and pulls the fresh loop of yarn through the nearest loop on the first needle, transferring the loop from the first to the second needle in the process. Each complete transfer of all the loops from one needle to another in this method makes a row, and adds to the length of the finished material by the width of the loop. Continuous repetition of this process back and forth eventually results in a knitted fabric. In his machine the Reverend Lee kept this principle of forming fabric through continuous looping of yarn, but instead of the straight needle which is employed in hand knitting, he developed a small needle with a hook on the end which pulled the loops through one another. Lee’s machine, a stocking frame of a flat bed type, with his spring­beard needles, was a crude thing. Bobbins of yarn were placed on the floor and yarn was laid across the needles by hand. Jacks, acting in conjunction with sinkers, allocated the yarn for each loop. The little machine knitted eight loops to the inch. Today’s machines are capable of knitting 48 loops to the inch.

Stockings were first knitted by machinery in America at Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1723. The frames were brought over by German settlers as the English government had placed strict regulations against the exportation of stocking frames to the colonies.”

England maintained a strong position in machine developments and closely guarded each newly invented process. In 1758 Jedidiah Strutt, who later was in partnership with Richard Arkwright, invented a machine for ‘making turned ribbed stockings and other goods.’ And in 1775 a Mr. Crane of Edmonton, England, succeeded in applying warp to the stocking frame, received the first patent for a ‘warp knit machine.’” Restrictions on imports of machinery and the increasing need for a stocking industry led to various types of incentive offers for inventions of machines and establishment of factories in America. In 1766 The Society of Arts of New York offered a prize of pounds for the first three stocking looms of iron. There is no record that the prize was ever awarded. Ten years later, when the Declaration of Independence was newly signed (1776); one of the first appropriations made by the Committee of Safety of Maryland was 300 pounds to Mr. Coxendefer, of Frederick County, for the purpose of establishing stocking factory.”

The next development of importance in knitting machines was the tricoteur, a circular knitting machine, which was invented in 1816 by M. I. Brunel, but not until 1847, when the latch needle was invented was there any change in the springbeard type needle developed by William Lee nearly 300 years before. Several claims exist as to the inventor of the latch needle: Some say that Matthew Townsend of England invented it; France claims that the machine was invented there, and in America, it is said that the machine invented was developed by a Mr. Aiken of New Hampshire.”

The latch needle is generally used today and is instrumental in speeding up machine operation. It is a small steel needle with a latch, like a door latch on it, permitting the eye which holds the yarn to close as it pulls the yarn through the loop, and to open and release the yarn as the new loop is made. The simple principle of creating the fabric through the method of pulling yarn through a series of loops holds true on the highly complicated and brilliantly performing knitting machines of today, which, through their mass production, have made the knit goods industry such an important one.”

Despite continued drastic English restrictions against export of machinery, knitting machines for American use were smuggled into the country from England during our Industrial Revolution. Townsend left England and settled in America and doubtless contributed something to the growth of the knitting industry in this country. At any rate, the American industry had quickly expanded. In 1831 Timothy Baily of Albany, New York, succeeded in applying water power to the old stocking frame of the Reverend Lee; and a year later Baily & Co. began operation of their factory, employing water power or steam for the first time in the manufacture of knitwear, in Cohoes, New York.”

U. S. patents on circular knitting machines were granted in 1840, and in 1858 a spring needle machine for making finer ribbed underwear was patented by Cooper & Tiffany.”

In 1863, when the United States was racked by a civil war, an American clergyman, Q. U. Lamb, invented the first flat bed knitting machine for manufacturing wide, flat fabrics. Having two horizontal, flat beds, it was capable of producing flat fabric with selvage edge or tubular fabric.”

With the impetus of machine development in the knit goods field it was inevitable that a factory for manufacture of knitting machines would spring up. In 1865, Joseph Heginbothom, an Englishman who had emigrated to the United States in 1863, started a small machine shop in Philadelphia. He named the little shop The Fidelity Machine Works, and by 1870 was turning out circular knitting machines at a rate of approximately six circular machines per month. By 1882 The Fidelity Machine Works employed a force of 150 men, and was manufacturing thirty to forty rib underwear machines a month. The shop was sold in 1888 to Robert W. Scott and Louis N. D. Williams. That company is still in operation today (1953), and is recognized as the oldest manufacturing company in the United States producing knit goods machinery.” In England, in 1863, William Cotton had patented a hosiery knitting machine which could shape garments as they were being knitted. This machine and Henry J. Griswold’s invention in America in 1870 of the automatic, circular knitting revolutionized the knitting industry.”

American genius has in the last half century improved all the basic machines and component parts; and the development of special types for knitting hosiery, garments, and various designs and types of fabric has placed the knitting industry as one of the most progressive groups in the manufacturing industry.”



  1. Andrews, Mildred Barnwell, “Historic Highlights in Development of Hosiery Knitting,” The E. S. C. Quarterly, Winter­Spring, 1953, Employment Security Commission of North Carolina, Raleigh, N. C.(1953)