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British Industrial History

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William Lee (1563-1614)

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Reverend William Lee (1563-1614) invented the Stocking Frame in 1589 when demand for stockings was high from both sexes. It was the only one in use for centuries, and its principle of operation remains in use today.

Lee was born in the village of Calverton, Nottinghamshire.

His first machine produced a coarse wool, for stockings. Refused a patent by Queen Elizabeth I, he built an improved machine that increased the number of needles per inch from 8 to 20 and produced a silk of finer texture, but the queen again denied him a patent because of her concern for the security of the kingdom's many hand knitters.

He entered into a partnership agreement with one George Brooks on 6 June 1600, but the unfortunate Brooks was arrested on a charge of treason and executed. Eventually, he moved to France with his brother James, taking 9 workmen and 9 frames. He found better support from the Hugenot Henry IV of France, who granted him a patent. Lee began stocking manufacture in Rouen, France, and prospered until, shortly before Henry's assassination in 1610, he signed a contract with Pierre de Caux to provide knitting machines for the manufacture of silk and wool stockings. But the climate changed abruptly on the king's death and despite moving to Paris, his claims were ignored and he died in distress in 1614.

After Lee's death, his brother James returned to England and disposed of most of the frames in London before moving to Thoroton, near Nottingham where Lee's apprentice Aston (or Ashton), a miller, had continued to work on the frame and produced a number of improvements. This led to the establishment of two knitting centres, one in London and one in Nottingham.

Although the industry took nearly a century to develop in wool, silk and lace, the machinery that he developed remained the backbone for far longer and this is reflected in his appearance in the coat of arms of The Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters.

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