A framework knitter's workshop, from Diderot's ‘Encyclopedic' of 1763. Silk knitting developed in France after William Lee's death there in 1614. The knitter has placed his frame close to the window to obtain as much light as possible, while his wife transfers silk from hanks on to bobbins using six-sided winding reels.
The traditional picture of a stocking maker working his frame in his own cottage gives a misleading impression of his independence. It is true that the family worked as a unit, with the man operating the frame, his wife seaming the stockings and, together with the children, winding the yarn on to bobbins for use on the frame. The yarn, however, was not n at home but obtained in hanks from warehouse of a merchant, or master hosier, who employed spinners to pro¬duce the yarn and who marketed the knitted goods. The knitter was therefore a piece worker, being paid so much a dozen for the hose he produced, and entirely dependent for his wages on the master hosier.
The knitters mostly lived in villages around the towns where the warehouses were situated and so they wasted a great deal of time going into town weekly, usually on Saturday, to take the hose they had made and collect their wages and their new supply of yarn.
A knitter from Bulwell, 8 miles (13 km) from Nottingham, told a government commission, appointed in 1844 to enquire into the hosiery industry, that `I have gone on a Saturday morning, and have got to Nottingham at 9 o'clock exactly, and stopped there till 9 o'clock on a Saturday night, just for the work of those three or four frames.'
Many knitters were compelled to use the services of middlemen such as a putter out, who acted as an intermediary between a knitter and the hosier, paying the knitter the prices given by the hosier with some deduction for his own services. Another type of middleman was the undertaker, who contracted with a hosier to make a certain quantity of yarn for a given price. Naturally the undertaker would pay lower rates to the knitter than he received from the hosier in order to make a profit for himself. The third class of middleman was the bag hosier or bagman, who had no agreement with a master hosier but obtained yarn from a number of warehouses and marketed the goods himself. Knitters who worked for bagmen rarely knew the prices being offered by a master hosier and when times were hard they had to put up with the very low rates paid them by the bagman and accept whatever quantity of yarn he allowed them. The middlemen clearly exploited the knitter and not the hosier.
Middlemen soon became employers as well as intermediaries, having knitters working for them rather than directly for a warehouse. Even in the earliest days of the industry, it is doubtful whether many knitters owned their own frames since they represented a considerable capital outlay which many who wanted to enter the industry could not afford. Master hosiers therefore purchased frames and rented them out to knitters, naturally preferring to give work to those dependent on them in this way rather than to those working independent frames. Many knitters who did own their frames were forced to sell them and rent a hosier's frame, and some in desperation paid the rent while continuing to work their own frames. Other people came to realise that purchasing any renting out a frame was a way of securing a good return on their capital outlay. Shopkeepers and other artisans bought frames and often sublet them to middlemen who in turn rented them out to the knitters. As a Nottinghamshire knitter told the 1844 commission, `there are plenty of bagmen in this town who rent their frames by the year of people we consider do not belong to the trade, such as bakers, brewers and so on; they are rented at 10d a week and charged to us at 1s 6d.'
Frame rent was excessive in relation to the actual cost of a frame. In 1844 narrow frames could be purchased second-hand at from £4 to £8 but were rented out at 1s a week, while wide frames worth £10 to £12 could be rented out at up to 3s a week. Frames had therefore to be rented out for only two or three years to repay the cost and most frames lasted at least twenty years. Maintenance of the frames was supposed to be carried out by the owner, but framesmiths complained that the owners did not overhaul their frames very often and the knitters themselves often paid for small repairs to avoid delay. Frame rent also usually had to be paid when the frame was idle either because the knitter was ill or no yarn was available. A Leicester knitter was asked: `You state that you pay 2s a week frame rent; have you always paid that?' He answered: `Yes, and always have paid it whether I have been on full work, or half work, or quarter work, whether sick or well, whether one day little work or no work, or whether there are any circumstances, as there are sometimes, that you cannot do any; the charges have to be paid all the same.'
The hosiers claimed that frame rent was necessary to ensure that only their work was done on their frames, but since a large proportion of the frames were owned by middlemen during the nineteenth century it is more likely that frame rent continued because it was a reliable source of income for the owner. The result was a gross over-production of frames, and therefore the market for knitted goods became glutted in the first half of the nineteenth century and so prices, and therefore wages, declined.
As there were more frames than there was available work, employers often stinted the knitters, sharing the work around, yet continuing to deduct full frame rent. Knitters also had to pay for needles and oil for the frames. If their wives were unable to undertake seaming the stockings or their children the winding of bobbins, it was their responsibility to get these tasks done by someone else and to pay for them. Between a third and a half of their income was absorbed in charges connected with their work, particularly during the winter, when candles and coal also had to be paid for. Finally, when frames began to be grouped together in shops rather than worked at home, employers often charged standing rent for the frames on their premises, and some even went so far as to charge standing for a rented frame in a knitter's own house. As one Nottinghamshire knitter said, `the master I work for holds seventy-three frames and has no more standing than he can set three frames in, yet he takes, in the shape of standing, 3d for each of those seventy-three frames.'
The many grievances of the framework knitters concerning the organisation of their industry were aired at great length during the 1844 investigation. The
Leicester section of the commissioners' report sums up the whole problem: `While wages remain, as they have done for years past, almost at the minimum of existence to the workman; while custom sanctions, and his defenceless poverty forces him to submit to pay an exorbitant and disproportionate weekly rent for the machine in which he works; while the mode of conducting the business remains in force, which actually prescribes the very limits of labour he shall perform, as subsequently shown in the practice of stinting; and while at any time the employer can, at little sacrifice to himself, lay down his one, or his ten, or his hundred frames – even the rental of the places in which they stand, when at work, being paid by the workmen – there must be great advantages clearly manifested as derivable from any new system of production which shall preponderate over those yielded by the present one.'
The report was right as far as the knitter was concerned. But it was not to the advantage of the hosier or middleman to change a system of production so clearly favourable to him, and it was to be another thirty years before any significant changes were made in the organisation of the hosiery industry.