Knitting is back in vogue, with celebrities, soccer moms and business women picking up their needles to relax and express their creativity. With hand knitting's popularity, it follows that loom knitting has returned. The history of knitting and the knitting loom is quite a story. It could easily be called the history of stockings and the stocking industry.
Women first began using knitting needles to craft stockings for their families in the 1550s. The affluent took great pride in their knitting skills, while the improvised used their knitting skills to build cottage industries to supplement the family's income. It could be argued that one knitter, the wife of English Rev. William Lee, changed the course of history. Rev. Lee could not abide the clanking of knitting needles and set out to make an invention that would do an entire row of loops at a time.
In the late 1580s to early 1590s, Rev. William Lee not only managed to create a machine that wood do an entire row of loops at once, he devised a line of hooks that would release the knitted loops making room for the next row. The end result was fitting for industry, rather than a quiet living room corner. It was a flat loom that knitted socks that were then seamed together. Operating the loom took a lot of physical strength to crank it manually by hand. Recognising the potential of his invention, the Rev. Lee resigned his position with the church.
Seeking funding, Lee travelled with his brother to the court of Queen Elizabeth and presented his invention. While intrigued, Queen Elizabeth refused to give him a royal grant and felt to do so would adversely affect the women who were knitting to support their families. Lee found the assistance he was seeking at the court of King Henry IV of France. Unfortunately, before funding was made available, the King was assassinated. Lee died in 1610 without fulfilling his dream of building an industry based upon his invention.
Lee's dream was carried forward by his brother who found financing; establishing a knitting factory in Culverton, England, which operated with nine frames. The business grew and expanded, with cost of manufactured stockings becoming affordable rather than a luxury item. It was not until the mid 1750s that the knitting industry underwent its next substantial change: Jerediah Strutt of Derby, England, invented a machine capable of producing ribbed knits. The next big event: the circular loom was invented by Frenchman Decroix in 1798.
Water powered looms created by Timothy Bailey were constructed in 1832 in Albany, New York. Patented in 1856 by the Matthew Townsend, the latch needle made the entire knitting process faster. In 1861, J.B. Aiken redesigned the factory knitting machine for home use. Aiken's table knitting machine was marketed for £26, while his foot pedal model sold for £39.