William Lee’s Knitting Machine



            The story goes that William Lee, an English minister, grew tired of hearing the incessant clicking of his wife’s knitting needles.  Alternate versions of the story say that Lee was trying to win the affections of a lady who was more interested in her knitting than she was in him.  In 1589, he modified the looms that were used to create rugs with hooks that would form loops that would be released during each pass of the thread, thereby knitting a whole row at once.  Lee left his church work and went to secure the blessing of the queen (Elizabeth I) to ensure that no one else could create such a device and allowing him to make a healthy profit.  Elizabeth denied his request and Lee went to France to try the same thing.  Henri IV granted Lee the rights that he asked for, but was soon assassinated leaving Lee to die poor in 1610.  Lee’s brother, James, took the idea back to England and was assisted by a man named Ashton in Nottingham in creating the first knitting factory.  It wasn’t long before it was so cheap to create machine knitted clothing that many local hand-knitters were petitioning the government for limits of the business.  Lee’s design remained virtually unchanged until the 1700s when it was modified to include the kitting frame and later to accept other materials like lace and silk or create ribbed materials that could stretch.


William Lee’s early knitting machine (above) used what is known as a stocking stitch and has developed into many different machine used to mass-produce clothing.