Framework Knitters of the East Midlands FWK's
FWK – 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.
In the late sixteenth century, when Queen Elizabeth 1 was on the throne – 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.
Rev. William Lee of Calverton, Nottinghamshire (1589) is credited with inventing the first Knitting Frame - knitting produced by mechanical means. Lee having applied for Royal Patent about this date – was denied – so went to France where they gained favour and support of the French king. 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 was granted a Royal Charter.
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. Framework Knitting spread throughout the East Midlands – in a period that 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 knitting, the woman did the sewing up and the children wound the hanks of wool onto cones. 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 minute.
Development of the machine continued through the years, but even a machine built in the early 20th century would still have been familiar to William Lee. 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. However, 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.
Adapted from a much more comprehensive atrical (1995) written by Ian R Varey of the Museum of Framework knitting in Wigston, leicestershire