The hosiery industry was concentrated in the counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire (90 % of Great Britain). It was the major occupation in these three counties (in some parts, there were 30 frames per 100 persons), although in the middle third of the nineteenth century a large part migrated to lace making. The families working the frames did so in their cottages in the villages, and sent the finished articles to the large towns for commercialization.
The contribution of this industry to the employment situation in Great Britain in 1833 was about 73,000 persons:
(Smith, 1963, Table I, p. 127)
The stocking frame was a complicated piece of machinery for knitting yarnfrom cotton (45 %), worsted (45 %), or silk (10 %), originally for making stockings. It was invented in 1569 by a Rev. William Lee of Nottingham. The number of machines in Great Britain increased from 14,000 in 1753, to 20,000 in 1782, 30,000 in 1812, 33,000 in 1833, and 48,000 in 1844
(House of Lords, Frame-Work Knitters, 1845, pp. 15-19)
There were a great number of inventions patented (121) to improve the efficiency of the stocking frame, to make possible the fabrication of ever more complicated designs, and to allow the use of bobbins for manufacturing lace (House of Lords, Frame-Work Knitters, 1845, pp. 21-25)
According to Eden, in Leicester in 1797, the stocking weavers were paid 7s. to 21s., the wool-combers 9s. to 12s., the worsted spinners 2s. to 4s.
From 1780 until about 1810 the earnings of the men knitters were from 13 to 15 shillings a week. From 1810 the wages were of 6 to 7 shillings net for 15 hours work per day (including mealtimes). At the time of the Select Committee in 1819, three thousand were unemployed out of fourteen thousand, and many of the rest on short time. The men in general did not have enough to give sufficient food to their families.
“Cut-up” work was introduced in 1800 to 1810, and was an inferior sort of worsted hose, very similar to the genuine article, such that consumers could not distinguish it, but with a lesser price. These were pieces of hose cut out with scissors from a plane piece of knitting, and then joined by sewing, instead of the stocking being knitted in one piece in the shape of the leg.
The knitters were paid less for the “cut-up” work than for the normal articles, as the work was easier. The wages for the normal articles went down, because the price of the articles was limited by the price of the cut-up’s (the individual purchasers in general bought the cheaper article), and the cost of the wool as raw material had more than doubled in the previous 16 years. Before, when the cost of the wool increased, the manufacturers had been able to pass the amount on to the customer, and leave the wages untouched. But, with the upper limit imposed by the price of the cut-up’s, this was not possible, and the wages had to absorb the difference.
(House of Lords, The Sessional Papers, 1801-1833, Vol. 101 (1819), Select Committee on Framework Knitters’ Petition, Report, 1819; all the document)
The knitters continued in this state of considerable poverty during all the period from 1820 to 1850. The principal reason why they could not improve their earnings was the excess of workers against the quantity needed for the production. A second reason was the decrease of the prices; the price in Leicester for a dozen of 24-gauge hose went down continuously from 7s. 6d. in 1815 to 4s. 6d. in 1841, and the maids’ 25 by 9 ½ 30-guage from 16s. 0d. in 1811 to 9s. 6d. in 1844 (House of Lords, Frame-Work Knitters, 1845, p. 38).
But they also had other disadvantages in the commercial characteristics of their business. The first was the payments of rents for the stocking frames. These were in general the property of investors, who had nothing to do with the hosiery industry. The rents were high, from 6d. to 1s. 6d. a week, which were continued for years (one worker calculated that he had paid 170 pounds in 22 years, for the same frame), and were charged weekly to the knitter in the full amount, even if he had work for only one or two days (House of Lords, Frame-Work Knitters, 1845, pp. 45-53). Then there were the middlemen, who had not existed in the eighteenth century, but now took a certain amount of commission. Further, there was no continuity of work; very often, they had to work 16 hours a day during 6 months a year, for the 7 shillings, and then they had very little work for the other 6 months. As a fourth factor, there was the “truck system”, by which they were obliged to buy the weekly food at designated stores, and obviously at excessive prices (pp. 72-79).
In 1850, certain manufacturers started factories with hosiery knitting machines, with which the production and the wages increased considerably. However we do not have detailed information about this process. We have a complete statistic made out for the years 1864/5 by Mr. Felkin:
“English hosiery is chiefly made in the counties of Nottingham, Derby, and Leicester, of which the delegates represent all except the woollen hosiery manufactures of Leicester.
The materials used are cotton, silk, spun silk, and a mixture of cotton and wool called merino. There are four classes of machinery, hand, rotary, circular and warp frame.
There are about 5000 kinds of articles made upon them; stockings, shirts, pantaloons, caps, gloves, and mitts, in all sizes, and also piece goods for gloves, &c.
The oldest branch is work made by hand; it is a domestic manufacture chiefly, and consists of two branches narrow and wide; the greater part are narrow frames, numbering 40,000 to 50,000. These are from 12 to 16 inches wide, and in the lower guages require less skill and strength, therefore are worked chiefly by old men, women, and young persons of both sexes. The finer guages require a good sight and more skill. The average earnings are lower than in the other branches, and run from 6s. to £ 1. 4s. a week.
The wide frames are from 25 to 30 inches in width, and the earnings are from 16s. to L 1. 10s. weekly.
The rotaries average 40 inches wide, though some are of much greater width. These are worked in factories by steam power, regulated by the Act of Parliament, and worked 56 hours a week. The earnings are from £1. to £1. 10s. weekly. There are about 1,200 of these machines, and all are worked by men.
“The circulars are similarly placed in factories and employed like hours, but are attended by both men and women. The men earn £ 1 to £1. 15s., and the women 12s. to £1 weekly. There are estimated to be 1,500 sets of heads, employing at the frames from 2,000 to 2,500 hands.
The warp machinery at work upon hosiery is not extensive; there are about 300 frames, averaging 90 inches wide, worked in factories by men and youths, earning from 16s. to £ 1. 15s. weekly.”
(Felkin, 1867, pp. 513-514)
Stocking Frame, Ruddington Framework Knitters’ Museum, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stocking_frame