By the middle of the nineteenth century knitting frames were being worked in over 220 parishes in the three East Midland counties, one hundred in Leicestershire, and at least sixty in each of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. The majority of the frames stood in the knitters' houses or in shops attached to them, but others were already beginning to be grouped together in separate workshops often called frameshops. The late introduction of power into the hosiery industry resulted in the survival of many hand-powered units until well into the twentieth century. The study of surviving buildings can therefore be used, in con¬junction with documentary evidence, to provide a detailed picture both of the distribution of the industry and of the life of the framework knitters.
The operation of a knitting frame required close co-ordination between the movements of hands, eyes and feet, and so the knitter needed as much light as possible to fall on his frame. Artificial light could be provided by placing, a candle behind a glass globe filled with water, which intensified the light of the single flame. Candles were expensive, and knitters tried to work as much as possible without them, making maximum use of daylight. Large elongated windows and lack of internal walls were the main characteristics of knitters' workshops.
In the earliest days of the industry long windows were inserted into the walls of existing houses where the frame was placed. Such alterations can often be detected in half-timbered buildings where a wooden beam has been cut to allow a window to be inserted or where the house has more windows than would be normal for a house of its period. Careful study of such alterations to buildings is the only way of locating exactly where the stockings were made in the period for which detailed documentary evidence, such as census returns, is not available.
The knitting frame must have been a very cumbersome object to have in a small house and wherever possible knitters preferred to use a separate room for their frames, often building one on to their houses or erecting a separate workshop in the garden or backyard. Workshops were also built by middlemen who could then rent out space for frames as well as the machines themselves. As the industry expanded during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, hosiers and others seized upon an opportunity for further profit by building rows of houses incorporating workshops and letting them to knitters at a rent which was by the mid nineteenth century 1s 6d to 2s per week. This was an additional burden to men whose net earnings, after deduction of expenses connected with their work, was rarely more than lOs a week and often much less. As one knitter said in 1844, `Every man must take his frame where he can.
Extensions to house frames were often added behind houses which fronted village streets.
The best known type of stockinger's house resembles that built for weaving in Lancashire and Yorkshire or silk manufacture in Macclesfield, Coventry or the Spitalfields area of London. This is of three storeys with a workshop on the top floor, easily identified by its elongated windows. The ground floor contained a living room and kitchen and the first floor usually two bedrooms. The topshop was often connected by a door to the one in the next house and may have had attic space above for storage of yarn. Light into the shop was not usually interrupted by other buildings at this level, but the weight of the frame meant that the floor had to be supported by heavy beams and the room was usually floored with a lime mortar mixture. The frames, because of their bulk, were largely erected in situ by a framesmith. Three-storey knitters' houses are most common in west Nottinghamshire, south Derbyshire and the northern part of Leicestershire. East of Nottingham and in parts of Leicestershire rather more examples survive of two storey houses incorporating a workshop on the ground floor with its elongated windows. The shop floor needed less reinforcement and the parts of the frame could be brought into the house more easily, but unless the house was extended at the back the living space for the family was less than in a three-storey house with a top-floor workshop. The light must also have been less good, particularly if other buildings stood close by.
These houses provided reasonable accommodation by the standards of the time, but their existence must not delude us into thinking that the majority of knitters lived in comparative comfort. Families living in such purpose-built houses often took in lodgers, who added their frames to those of the family and contributed to household costs, but whose presence reduced living space. The 1844 report indicates how large many families were, yet in towns and larger industrial villages frames were crammed into basements, cellars or attics, with the family occupying at the most two rooms elsewhere in the house. Most of these cramped dwellings have been demolished, but some still survive in Nottingham, where a look at the backs of houses can often reveal the characteristic elongated windows. The courts and alleys of the town housed as many, if not more, of the framework knitters than did the purpose-built houses and shops with which we tend to associate them.
Single-storey workshops with windows on all four sides or the two longer sides are characteristic of the nineteenth-century hosiery industry. Here, Tom Foster is standing in front of his shop in Caythorpe, Nottinghamshire, about the year 1910. It is possible to count at least six frames inside, while a water-filled glass globe hangs by one of the windows to direct light on to the needles.
In Leicestershire the use of the wide frame spread more quickly than in the other two counties, and this may partially account for the separate frameshop being more common than purpose-built housing. Frameshops were much more frequent in Leicester than in Nottingham, where the late enclosure of the open fields around the city meant that land was not available. A Leicester manufacturer told the 1844 commission that there were many shops housing between fifteen and fifty frames in the town and that knitters working in them earned about 2s 6d a week more than those at home since they did not pay frame rent. This was not always the case, as some hosiers still charged frame rent and standing but preferred to concentrate their frames in shops so that they could supervise the quality of the goods produced and ensure that work was done at regular hours. Smaller frameshops were often of one storey only, with windows on all four sides.
Part of a row of six single-storey workshops in Earl Shilton, Leicestershire, which were probably built for hosiery in the mid nineteenth century and later utilised for the production of boots and shoes. They stand in the backyards of a terrace of six houses with long windows on the ground floor at the rear, similar to Windles Square in Calverton.
Larger ones were of two storeys, with rows of continuous windows on at least the two longer sides of the building. Some had windows only on the top floor, where the frames stood to get most of the light, the bottom floor being used for storage. Inside the frames were placed very close together, as was pointed out by a witness giving evidence to the Factory Commission of 1833: `There were six frames; three on each side. The room measured in height 6 feet 8 inches (2.03 m), in length 13 feet (3.96 m), in breadth 10 feet 6 inches (3.20 m. The frames were wide ones, turning o f three or four stockings each at a time. The measured all alike, viz 5 feet (1.52 m in length placed traversely with relation to the length of the room, height 5 feet (1.52 m), width 3 feet (0.91 m). It will be seen from the above proportions that little more than 6 inches 150 mm) were left for passage between the two rows of frames. I got to the other end of the room with difficulty by stooping and moving sideways, where I found a little boy with a winding machine occupying the only space left by an irregularity in the wall. The men sat at their work back to back; there was just space for the necessary motion, but not without touching each other. The room was so close almost to smother one.'
A frameshop of this kind has been preserved as a museum in Ruddington, Nottinghamshire, where the working conditions of the knitters in such shops can be readily appreciated.
Many detached workshops survive in the East Midlands but not all housed frames. Some were used by hosiers to provide space for winding and seaming and finishing of knitted goods, as stockings cut out of knitted fabric had to be seamed and shaped on a leg board.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century when hosiery production became steam-powered and moved into factories, many workshops were taken over by the boot and shoe industry, particularly in the southern part of the area. Other workshops were used for the manufacture of needles and sinkers for the frames, work which also needed good light and so had large windows. It is only by comparing documentary sources with surviving visual evidence that a true picture of the hosiery industry can be recreated, but it is of particular interest because so much evidence survives of a home-based industry of a kind that was superseded much earlier in other kinds of manufacture.
Ruddington frameshop, now a museum. Notice how the frames are placed very closely together, giving each knitter very little room.