"The Keyworth Framework Knitting Industry" (The role of I.R. Morley"                            

June 2004 Meeting Report

Guest Speaker - Proffessor Stanley Chapman


It can’t be very often that the Keyworth & District Local History Society is fortunate enough to have the foremost expert in the country on a particular subject as their guest speaker but such was the case when the June meeting of the Society was held in the Centenary Lounge on 5th June, 2004. The guest speaker for the evening was Professor Stanley Chapman, and his specialist subject is Framework Knitting. Once again the Centenary Lounge was packed to capacity with Society members and they were not to be disappointed with Professor Chapman’s presentation.
Framework knitting has played an important part in the history and development of Keyworth. At the only Census of the industry, which occurred in 1845, there were 76 stocking frames in Keyworth in 18 different workshops. Indeed, during the 1845 Government Commission into the industry Keyworth was actually visited by the Commissioners. Keyworth was so little known at the time however that it was initially referred to as Keythorpe.
Knitting found it’s way into this country from the Middle East via Europe and reached our shores during the 12th & 13th centuries. Stained glass windows in Italian and German churches from that period mark its arrival into mainland Europe. The reason that historians believe that the origins of knitting were in the Middle East is that the Bible quotes Jesus as wearing a ”seamless garment”. The only method then known of obtaining a seamless garment is through knitting.

By late Tudor times silk stockings were being knitted in this country to a quality of a very high standard. By the 16th century knitting in wool had become a commonplace occupation. Indeed, such was the popularity of the practice that knitting even occurred during church services. It was not unknown for the vicar to announce “Needles Down” before the sermon was presented, presumably the clatter of the needles being something of a distraction. Neither was the practice of knitting confined to the female of the species, men were also expected to do their stint with the pins.
However, by its very nature knitting is a very slow, laborious and time-consuming exercise and methods of mechanising the production of knitwear were constantly being sought. Instead of one stitch at a time being produced inventors were looking to produce a whole row of stitches. The first man to produce a commercially viable knitting machine was William Lee of Calverton in Nottinghamshire. In 1589 Lee presented a patent to Queen Elizabeth I for his framework-knitting machine. The petition was turned down; Queen Elizabeth was of the opinion that the machine would have an adverse effect upon the prospects of the poor with regard to work. Nevertheless the machine was made and gradually began to make its presence felt.
Initially the ownership of such machines proved to be very lucrative for their owners but as their numbers increased so an element of over capacity found its way into the economy. This had the predictable effect of lowering the prices for the finished article. It is strange to think that the production of knitted stockings, in silk, wool and cotton was to satisfy a predominantly male market. It was to adorn the shapely form of the male calf that the stockings were mostly manufactured.

By the 1680’s and 1690’s Parish Records begin to show framework knitting as an occupation. Locally framework-knitting workshops began to appear at around the same time. Probably the earliest local example of a framework knitting building can be found at Sutton Bonnington, which has been dated to 1661. The actual type of building used in the industry was many and very varied and can be seen throughout the villages of the county in many of their forms.  In Keyworth at least two such buildings still exist.
Professor Chapman then went on to explain how the framework industry was organized on a commercial basis. A Merchant Hosier owned the knitting-frames and these were rented out to Framework knitters. Framework knitters obtained their raw materials from a variety of sources depending on the type of manufacture being undertaken. Thus they might use wool, (frequently), cotton, (often), of silk (rarely). A great deal of the finished articles were sent to London where the centre of the trade was established. There the business was conducted from warehouses or in shops. Other retail outlets used were as diverse as fairs and markets, to hawkers and peddlers.
The industry was very buoyant until the Napoleonic Wars. Something of a watershed occurred in the fashions of the age and post 1815 the advent of trousers for men rather than breeches heralded a serious decline in the fortunes of the framework knitting industry. The industry began to polarize into a smaller number of owners with a larger share of the framework knitting machines. Locally the industry leaders were the Morley brothers, John & Richard establishing the name. Here in Keyworth they were the principal employers. Samuel Morley headed the next generation of the family and he became one of Nottingham’s most wealthy industrialists. He owned warehouses and factories in Nottingham, the principal one being located at Fletcher & Goose Gate. Even as late as 1900 Samuel Morley was still employing around 5,000 people in Nottingham’s knitwear industry. Samuel Morley had the reputation of being an enlightened employer and the framework knitters of Keyworth were fortunate in this respect.
All in all Professor Chapman gave a very interesting and informative talk. The large number of questions directed to him after the talk being indicative of the interest that had been aroused in the audience. Well-done Professor Chapman for a very entertaining evening!!