BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK, Derbyshire

This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 17th July 1995 (p.5), and reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

The series is now available as a fully-illustrated paperback, published in 2006 by Wildtrack Publishing of Sheffield (ISBN 1-904098-01-0)

BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK: THE FRAMEWORK KNITTERS

The history of hand-knitted clothing in England goes back at least five centuries; knitted woollen caps were such an important commodity in the reign of Henry VII that prices were regulated by an Act of Parliament. Knitted hose, however, was as yet unknown, stockings being made from cloth cut to shape and seamed at the back.

Silk stockings began to reach England in Tudor times. Henry VIII and later his son, Edward VI, were each given a pair of long Spanish silk stockings which drew much admiration at Court. Their successor, Elizabeth I, was presented with a pair of black silk stockings in the third year of her reign, from which time she refused to wear cloth hose ever again. It was one of her subjects, a Nottinghamshire curate named William Lee, who around 1590 invented a hand loom known as the stocking frame. Within less than a century, knitting in silk was a well established cottage industry located principally in Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire.

The skill could be mastered within six months and the vast majority of framework knitters, or stockingers, were women. They commanded good pay, producing garments for the hosier who supplied the raw material. Some workers saved to buy their own frames but many rented from capitalist hosiers who owned as many as 100 frames.

By the 18th century, framework knitting kept whole families in employment in their own homes. Even young children could help, winding hanks of yarn onto bobbins ready for use and seaming the finished goods. Workshops were established on the upper floors of some workers’ cottages, with long windows running the length of the wall.

The range of silk goods extended beyond stockings to scarves, neck-ties, shirts, vests and underwear. Changing fashions called for mittens, ‘ladies dresses’ (a style of underwear later known as combinations) and tasselled smoking caps for gentlemen. Silk framework knitters continued to command the best pay when fine cotton yarn came into use, boosted by the invention of Jedediah Strutt’s ‘Derby Rib’ - a machine for making ribbed stockings - in the late 1750s.

Rapid manufacturing growth followed the introduction of ‘wide’ frames. Whereas the old narrow frames produced fully-fashioned, i.e. shaped, stockings, wide frames turned out ‘cut ups’. For these the cloth was cut, soaked and stretched to shape on a leg-board. Cut ups were not particularly hard-wearing and lost their shape after being washed, but they were cheaper to buy. Ready-made stockings were now affordable to the working classes, previously familiar with only hand-made woollen hose. And on the wider scene, a change in fashion from knee-breeches to full-length trousers meant that shape was less important than price.

STINTING AND TRUCKING

As usual, industrial progress brought grievances. Alongside competition from cut ups, the introduction of machinery and a move towards factory production made great numbers of home knitters redundant. This was a primary cause of the Luddite riots of 1811/12, directed specifically at wrecking stocking frames. To make matters worse, stockingers were in the hands of hosiers who rented out far more frames than could be kept fully employed. This resulted in ‘stinting’, whereby available work was shared out without any compensatory reduction in frame rents. To boost their falling income, knitters put in longer hours and often at least doubled their output. The result was a vicious circle of over-production and shortage of work.

Yet another cause for complaint was the system of ‘trucking’, under which a hosier’s middle-man, invariably a shopkeeper local to the workers, paid them not in cash but in goods - frequently overvalued or of poor quality - or further supplies of raw yarn. Framework knitters’ petitions to Parliament merely drew advice. The following suggestion arose from a Commission of 1840: ‘... enlighten the handloom weavers as to their real situation, warn them to flee from the trade and to beware of leading their children into it’. A Royal Commission of 1845 concluded that the industry could survive only through reductions in labour and productivity.

The problem of over-manning began to ease as workers found new jobs in the expanding factory system. The remaining, streamlined workforce of stockingers gradually became financially viable and in the 1860s formed their first trade union. Large numbers of married women became outworkers, using single frames in their own homes.

Outwork thrived at Bonsall over many generations. A well-lit workshop with a datestone of 1737 survives in Bonsall Dale, once the home of William Oliver who worked there as a silk knitter all his life, operating up to 24 frames. For a time he worked for Brettles of Belper, who at the end of the 18th century maintained 5,000 hand frames in outworkers’ cottages, and later for the famous John Smedley Mills at Lea. William Oliver died in 1872 in his 80th year. His workshop was later re-opened by his daughter, Mrs Sheldon, who with at least three other Bonsall stockingers worked for I. & R. Morley of Nottingham.

A larger, 19th-century workshop stands just above Bonsall Cross. It formerly housed six knitting frames and was one of the last to remain in use into the past century. A stockingers’ shop also survives on Royal Oak Terrace in Crich, complete with its expanse of windows. Crich and Fritchley together had 245 frames at work in 1844, involving more than 100 families producing cotton hose.

The typical long windows seen at Bonsall and Crich were essential for the intricate work carried out within. Additional lighting often took the form of oil or tallow lamps, frequently placed to shine through glass globes filled with water to concentrate the light. In some places the water was coloured blue to gain a closer imitation of daylight.

Such are the memories which died with the last generation of stockingers.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 17th July 1995;
Updated 18th January 2005.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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