For the past few months I’ve been doing some serious research into my family tree. I’ve managed to get quite far back already – late 17th century for some branches – and am now busy filling in gaps and making it into a more coherent document, with the aim of eventually putting it into a book form for any of my family who are interested. One of the areas I particularly like exploring is the occupations of my ancestors. They pretty much all worked in manufacturing of one kind or another – hosiery menders, labourers, lace machine workers, or were domestic servants. One occupation in particular that comes up a lot on my mother’s side of the family is Framework knitter. Having only a vague idea of what that meant I did the usual Google search and discovered not only a definition, but also that there was an actual Framework Knitters’ Museum right here in Nottingham, the website of which you can find here. Naturally I decided a visit was in order.
We were immediately greeted by a very friendly volunteer and paid our admission fee – £4 for adults – and were given a leaflet and map, a brief run down of what to expect and what was where and then told to explore. The first thing we did was watch a brief video on framework knitter’s and their machines. William Lee invented the machines in 1589, immediately making the production of knitted goods faster than those knitted by hand. Primarily for making stockings and socks they could also be used to make shirts, vests and caps.
The buildings that the museum is housed in are the only surviving example of a knitter’s yard from the 19th century and was built in 1829. As well as the frame workshop it also houses the Griswold Workshop and the cottages where some Framework Knitter’s lived. In the Griswold Workshop, above the room where we saw the video, are Griswold Machines, domestic circular knitting machines for making socks, named after its inventor Henry Josiah Griswold from Connecticut, USA.
Spindle shaped bobbins rotate around the cylinder whilst in operation, powered by turning a handle on the side. It’s similar to the way French knitting works only on a larger, mechanical scale.
A few of the stitches above I did myself, simply by turning the crank on the side – it was easy to do and quite therapeutic! The machines aren’t just used for making socks though, and the room had a display of lots of cuddly animals that had been manufactured such as this excellent bee…
…and my favourite, this rather fabulous dragon.
We next moved on to the Frame Workshop, where one of the volunteers provided us with a demonstration of how the machines actually worked. The picture you see below gives a good indication of how tightly packed in the machines were. Whereas before, when framework knitting was done in the home as opposed to a factory, there was a little more space, here each man (and it was mainly men involved in the use of the actual machines) would be very close to his neighbour, the noise (of which we were played an example) would be deafening and indeed did cause a lot of hearing problems. The workers would also need excellent eye sight to be able to spot any minor mistakes that needed correcting in the pattern they were working on, with the only available light coming from candles or the window.
Knitters would have worked at their machines for up to 14 hours, 6 days a week, for hardly any money. They’d have to pay out for materials and items such as candles themselves, meaning half their income was gone before they’d even started. Repairs to their machines could be costly, so they tried as often as possible to make the repairs themselves.
We next moved over to the cottages which is split into the manger’s cottage – more richly decorated and ornate,
with a higher standard of possessions,
and that of an actual framework knitter, more poorly furnished and with an actual machine present, as close to the window as possible so that they could work until the very last light of day was visible.
We also went into the former Methodist Chapel across the road, now owned by the museum, which has an exhibition on framework knitting which includes lots of examples of the finished products and had an important role in the life of the local knitters, being the site of a Sunday School for the children of the knitters among other things.
It took us about an hour and half to go around, longer than I’d actually been expecting. It was great to be able to have a hands on look at how my ancestor’s would have worked and lived, and being able to watch an actual demonstration of the machine – which involved both hands and legs and looked very complicated – was a definite bonus. A really interesting place, run by very friendly people, and worthy of a look for anyone not only interested specifically in Framework Knitters but local history as well.