To anyone who has delved into their family tree, and whose ancestors come
from the East Midlands, the initials FWK will have appeared on many census
records. The letters stand for Framework Knitter, an occupation almost
unique to the counties of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire.
The legacy of the Framework Knitters, spanning some 250 years, is evident
today in the Hosiery, Knitwear and Cut and Sew Trades of the East Midlands.
To find the origins of Framework Knitting, we have to go back to the late
sixteenth century, when Queen Elizabeth 1 was on the throne.
At that time in wool producing areas, such as the East Midlands, many people
of the poorer classes supplemented their income by hand knitting socks. Men,
women and children in every village and town could be seen knitting.
Individuals were organised by Middlemen who worked for factors and agents.
Wool was supplied, finished goods collected and payment made for the
quantity and quality of goods produced. A not unfamiliar cottage industry
system of production.
Enter onto the scene one Rev. William Lee of Calverton, Nottinghamshire. In
1589 he is credited with inventing the first Knitting Frame - knitting
produced by mechanical means. Lee having applied for Royal Patent about this
date - the 400th anniversary of this important event was marked in some
style by the modern Industry in 1989.
His reasons for developing the Knitting Frame have entered into mythology.
The Rev. Lee's girlfriend, or in some versions his wife, spent all her time
knitting and had no time for him. The more philanthropic suggest that he
wanted to improve the lot of the poor by speeding up the knitting process so
they could earn more money!
Whatever the reasons, it was a remarkable invention for 1589! The new
machine produced flat plain knitting in a continuous piece some twelve
inches wide. There were eight stitches to the inch and the heavy worsted
would probably be between modern four-ply and double knitting wool. It was
certainly as good as the heavy duty long hose that the hand knitters were
However Queen Elizabeth 1 and her advisers were not impressed. The Court was
concerned that hand knitters would be thrown out of work and add to the
growing destitution and vagrancy, which eventually led to the harsh 43rd
Elizabeth, Poor Law Act in 1601. The Royal Patent was not given. Without
Royal favour and approval it looked as though the venture was at an end.
William Lee was made of sterner stuff and, together with his brother, packed
up and went to France where they gained favour and support of the the French
king. In France they continued to develop and improve the Knitting Frame.
Within a decade the machine was able to knit fine garments such as silk long
hose, for the Royal Court.
When William died, circa 1610, his brother returned to England and set up a
workshop in London, producing quality silk hose for the gentry. The industry
spread in the capital and, in 1663, the Worshipful Company of Framework
Knitters were granted a Royal Charter.
You might reasonably ask, and many people have, how did the industry get
back to the East Midlands?
Certain London Knitters were unhappy at the controls imposed on them by the
Guild in London. William Illiffe set up some frames in his native Hinckley
in 1641. Others, taking advantage of the unrest caused by the Civil War,
also moved to the East Midlands, a major wool producing centre and hand
knitting area. By the time of the Restoration in 1660 knitting frames were
in Leicester and many other villages, for example, Wigston in 1680. In the
next 100 years, using the existing cottage industry set-up, Framework
Knitting spread throughout the East Midlands - Kibworth being on the
southern edge of the area. This period coincided with the Enclosure of much
of the farmland and many people left agriculture to take up framework
knitting. By the early 1800's, of the 45,000 Knitting Frames in the country,
90% were in the East Midlands.
The making of long hose suited a family unit, the man did the the knitting,
the woman did the sewing up and the children wound the hanks of wool onto
The Knitting Frame is somewhat taller than an upright piano, but not as
wide. The solid wooden frame, incorporating a seat and foot pedals, supports
the metal knitting machine. A row of fixed hooked needles hold the knitting,
whilst the operator works on the new row. On 19th century machines, five or
six rows of knitting with 288 stitches to the row could be achieved in one
Development of the the machine continued through the years, but even a
machine built in the early 20th century would still have been familiar to
By the 19th century, Derbyshire was concentrating on the production of silk
garments, Nottinghamshire on cotton, such as Nottingham Lace, and
Leicestershire on worsted, woollen garments.
As the 19th century progressed trade slumped as fashions changed, long hose
was no longer needed and gentlemen went into trousers, The factory system
began to replace the cottage industry and machines were developed to use
first steam, then electric power. The Royal Commission in 1845 found that
three quarters of all Framework Knitters were either unemployed or seriously
under employed and dependent on Parish relief.
By the First World war the handframe industry was virtually dead in
Leicestershire. The last small Framework Knitting Factory, of eight machines
producing gloves and mittens at Bushloe End in Wigston, closed in 1928.
Thankfully, this has now been preserved as a Museum. In the rest of the
region, handframe knitting survived until the Second World War and Hurts in
Nottinghamshire kept a few frames working until the 1980's.
We are left with little physical evidence of this once important industry.
One of the best clues to the existence of FWK is the long uninterrupted
window in some garden workshop or attic roof, an over large window in a
house or a window that has clearly been increased in size. All these clues
point to the FWK's need for good light on the knitting area. Kibworth did
have a sizable Framework Knitting industry. As late as 1891, the census for
Beauchamp lists 46 FWKs and for Harcourt 4 FWKs. Here is scope for someone
to undertake further study!
If you would like to know more about Framework Knitting, I can recommend the
Shire Book No. 119 or better still visit the Museum in Wigston which is open
every Sunday afternoon 2pm-5pm throughout the year and, additionally, every
Saturday afternoon during April to September at the same time. Here you can
see the frames, soak up the atmosphere of an unaltered workshop and really
understand what that FWK ancestor did for a living.
©Ian R Varey 1995