Townsend, Matthew

SUBJECT AREA: Textiles
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b. Leicester (?), England
d. after 1867 USA
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English inventor of the latch needle for making seamless hose, and developer of ribbed knitting on circular machines.
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Townsend, who described himself in his first patent as a framework knitter and afterwards as a hosier of Leicester, took out a patent in 1847 for the application of a "machine like that of a point net frame to an ordinary stocking-frame". He described needles and hooks of a peculiar shape which were able to take the work off the knitting machine, reverse the loops and return them again so that ribbed knitting could be made on circular machines. These became popular for knitting stockings which, although not fully fashioned, had sufficient strength to fit the leg. In 1854 he took out a patent for making round hose with heels and toes fashioned on other machines. In yet another patent, in 1856, he described a method of raising looped pile on knitted fabrics for making "terry" towelling fabrics. He could use different coloured yarns in the fabric that were controlled by a Jacquard mechanism. It was in the same year, 1856, in a further patent that he described his tumbler or latch needles as well as the making of figured patterns in knitting on both sides of the fabric with a Jacquard mechanism. The latch needles were self-acting, being made to move up and down or backwards and forwards by the action of cams set in the cylindrical body of the machine. Normally the needle worked in a vertical or inclined position with the previous loop on the shank below the latch. Weft yarn was placed in the hook of the needle. The needle was drawn down between fixed plates which formed a new loop with the weft. At the same time, the original loop already on the shank of the needle moved along the shank and closed the latch so that it could pass over the newly formed loop in the needle hook and fall over the end of the needle incorporating the new loop on its way to make the next row of stitches. The latch needle obviated the need for loop wheels and pressers and thus simplified the knitting mechanism. Townsend's invention was the forerunner of an entirely new generation of knitting machines, but it was many years before its full potential was realized, the bearded needle of William Lee being preferred because the hinge of the latch could not be made as fine as the bearded needle.
Townsend was in the first rank of skilful manufacturers of fancy Leicester hosiery and had a good practical knowledge of the machinery used in his trade. Having patented his needles, he seems not to have succeeded in getting them into very profitable or extensive use, possibly because he fixed the royalty too high. His invention proved to be most useful and profitable in the hands of others, for it gave great impetus to the trade in seamless hose. For various reasons he discontinued his business in Leicester. He emigrated to the USA, where, after some initial setbacks, he began to reap the rewards of his skill.
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Bibliography
1847, British patent no. 11,899 (knitting machine). 1854, British patent no. 1,523 (seamless hose).
1856, British patent no. 1,157 ("terry" towelling fabrics).
1856, British patent no. 1,858 (latch needles and double-sided patterns on fabrics).
Further Reading
F.A.Wells, 1935, The British Hosiery and Knitwear Industry, London (mentions Townsend briefly).
W.Felkin, 1967, History of the Machine-wrought Hosiery and Lace Manufactures, reprint, Newton Abbot (orig. pub. 1867) (a better account of Townsend).
RLH

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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