[From Samuel Smiles's Self-Help (1859). Text courtesy of Professor Professor Mitsuharu Matsuoka of Nagoya University, Japan. Translation to html and links by GPL.]

Among other distinguished founders of industry, the Rev. William Lee, inventor of the Stocking Frame, and John Heathcoat, inventor of the Bobbin-net Machine, are worthy of notice, as men of great mechanical skill and perseverance, through whose labours a vast amount of remunerative employment has been provided for the labouring population of Nottingham and the adjacent districts. The accounts which have been preserved of the circumstances connected with the invention of the Stocking Frame are very confused, and in many respects contradictory, though there is no doubt as to the name of the inventor. This was William Lee, born at Woodborough, a village some seven miles from Nottingham, about the year 1563.

According to some accounts, he was the heir to a small freehold, while according to others he was a poor scholar, ( ) and had to struggle with poverty from his earliest years. He entered as a sizar at Christ College, Cambridge, in May, 1579, and subsequently removed to St. John's, taking his degree of B.A. in — 1582-3. It is believed that he commenced M.A. in ; but on this point there appears to be some confusion in the records of the University. The statement usually made that he was expelled for marrying contrary to the statutes, is incorrect, as he was never a Fellow of the University, and therefore could not be prejudiced by taking such a step.

At the time when Lee invented the Stocking Frame he was officiating as curate of Calverton, near Nottingham; and it is alleged by some writers that the invention had its origin in disappointed affection. The curate is said to have fallen deeply in love with a young lady of the village, who failed to reciprocate his affections; and when he visited her, she was accustomed to pay much more attention to the process of knitting stockings and instructing her pupils in the art, than to the addresses of her admirer. This slight is said to have created in his mind such an aversion to knitting by hand, that he formed the determination to invent a machine that should supersede it and render it a gainless employment. For three years he devoted himself to the prosecution of the invention, sacrificing everything to his new idea. At the prospect of success opened before him, he abandoned his curacy, and devoted himself to the art of stocking making by machinery. This is the version of the story given by Henson ( ) on the authority of an old stocking-maker, who died in Collins's Hospital, Nottingham, aged ninety-two, and was apprenticed in the town during the reign of Queen Anne. It is also given by Deering and Blackner as the traditional account in the neighbourhood, and it is in some measure borne out by the arms of the London Company of Frame-Work Knitters, which consists of a stocking frame without the wood-work, with a clergyman on one side and a woman on the other as supporters. ( ) Whatever may have been the actual facts as to the origin of the invention of the Stocking Loom, there can be no doubt as to the extraordinary mechanical genius displayed by its inventor. That a clergyman living in a remote village, whose life had for the most part been spent with books, should contrive a machine of such delicate and complicated movements, and at once advance the art of knitting from the tedious process of linking threads in a chain of loops by three skewers in the fingers of a woman, to the beautiful and rapid process of weaving by the stocking frame, was indeed an astonishing achievement, which may be pronounced almost unequalled in the history of mechanical invention. Lee's merit was all the greater, as the handicraft arts were then in their infancy, and little attention had as yet been given to the contrivance of machinery for the purposes of manufacture. He was under the necessity of extemporising the parts of his machine as he best could, and adopting various expedients to overcome difficulties as they arose. His tools were imperfect, and his materials imperfect; and he had no skilled workmen to assist him. According to tradition, the first frame he made was a twelve gauge, without lead sinkers, and it was almost wholly of wood; the needles being also stuck in bits of wood. One of Lee's principal difficulties consisted in the formation of the stitch, for want of needle eyes; but this he eventually overcame by forming eyes to the needles with a three-square file. ( ) At length, one difficulty after another was successfully overcome, and after three years' labour the machine was sufficiently complete to be fit for use. The quondam curate, full of enthusiasm for his art, now began stocking weaving in the village of Calverton, and he continued to work there for several years, instructing his brother James and several of his relations in the practice of the art.

Having brought his frame to a considerable degree of perfection, and being desirous of securing the patronage of Queen Elizabeth, whose partiality for knitted silk stockings was well known, Lee proceeded to London to exhibit the loom before her Majesty. He first showed it to several members of the court, among others to Sir William (afterwards Lord) Hunsdon, whom he taught to work it with success; and Lee was, through their instrumentality, at length admitted to an interview with the Queen, and worked the machine in her presence. Elizabeth, however, did not give him the encouragement that he had expected; and she is said to have opposed the invention on the ground that it was calculated to deprive a large number of poor people of their employment of hand knitting.

Lee was no more successful in finding other patrons, and considering himself and his invention treated with contempt, he embraced the offer made to him by Sully, the sagacious minister of Henry IV., to proceed to Rouen and instruct the operatives of that town — then one of the most important manufacturing centres of France — in the construction and use of the stocking-frame. Lee accordingly transferred himself and his machines to France, in 1605, taking with him his brother and seven workmen. He met with a cordial reception at Rouen, and was proceeding with the manufacture of stockings on a large scale — having nine of his frames in full work, — when unhappily ill fortune again overtook him. Henry IV., his protector, on whom he had relied for the rewards, honours, and promised grant of privileges, which had induced Lee to settle in France, was murdered by the fanatic Ravaillac; and the encouragement and protection which had heretofore been extended to him were at once withdrawn. To press his claims at court, Lee proceeded to Paris; but being a protestant as well as a foreigner, his representations were treated with neglect; and worn out with vexation and grief, this distinguished inventor shortly after died at Paris, in a state of extreme poverty and distress.

Lee's brother, with seven of the workmen, succeeded in escaping from France with their frames, leaving two behind. On James Lee's return to Nottinghamshire, he was joined by one Ashton, a miller of Thoroton, who had been instructed in the art of frame-work knitting by the inventor himself before he left England. These two, with the workmen and their frames, began the stocking manufacture at Thoroton, and carried it on with considerable success. The place was favourably situated for the purpose, as the sheep pastured in the neighbouring district of Sherwood yielded a kind of wool of the longest staple. Ashton is said to have introduced the method of making the frames with lead sinkers, which was a great improvement.

The number of looms employed in different parts of England gradually increased; and the machine manufacture of stockings eventually became an important branch of the national industry.

One of the most important modifications in the Stocking-Frame was that which enabled it to be applied to the manufacture of lace on a large scale. In 1777, two workmen, Frost and Holmes, were both engaged in making point-net by means of the modifications they had introduced in the stocking-frame; and in the course of about thirty years, so rapid was the growth of this branch of production that 1500 point-net frames were at work, giving employment to upwards of 15,000, people. Owing, however, to the war, to change of fashion, and to other circumstances, the Nottingham lace manufacture rapidly fell off; and it continued in a decaying state until the invention of the Bobbin-net Machine by John Heathcoat, late M.P. for Tiverton, which had the effect of at once re-establishing the manufacture on solid foundations.


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Last modified 22 December 2005