Lee, Revd William

SUBJECT AREA: Textiles
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d. c. 1615
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English inventor of the first knitting machine, called the stocking frame.
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It would seem that most of the stories about Lee's invention of the stocking frame cannot be verified by any contemporary evidence, and the first written accounts do not appear until the second half of the seventeenth century. The claim that he was Master of Arts from St John's College, Cambridge, was first made in 1607 but cannot be checked because the records have not survived. The date for the invention of the knitting machine as being 1589 was made at the same time, but again there is no supporting evidence. There is no evidence that Lee was Vicar of Calverton, nor that he was in Holy Orders at all. Likewise there is no evidence for the existence of the woman, whether she was girlfriend, fiancée or wife, who is said to have inspired the invention, and claims regarding the involvement of Queen Elizabeth I and her refusal to grant a patent because the stockings were wool and not silk are also without contemporary foundation. Yet the first known reference shows that Lee was the inventor of the knitting machine, for the partnership agreement between him and George Brooke dated 6 June 1600 states that "William Lee hath invented a very speedy manner of making works usually wrought by knitting needles as stockings, waistcoats and such like". This agreement was to last for twenty-two years, but terminated prematurely when Brooke was executed for high treason in 1603. Lee continued to try and exploit his invention, for in 1605 he described himself as "Master of Arts" when he petitioned the Court of Aldermen of the City of London as the first inventor of an engine to make silk stockings. In 1609 the Weavers' Company of London recorded Lee as "a weaver of silk stockings by engine". These petitions suggest that he was having difficulty in establishing his invention, which may be why in 1612 there is a record of him in Rouen, France, where he hoped to have better fortune. If he had been invited there by Henry IV, his hopes were dashed by the assassination of the king soon afterwards. He was to supply four knitting machines, and there is further evidence that he was in France in 1615, but it is thought that he died in that country soon afterwards.
The machine Lee invented was probably the most complex of its day, partly because the need to use silk meant that the needles were very fine. Henson (1970) in 1831 took five pages in his book to describe knitting on a stocking frame which had over 2,066 pieces. To knit a row of stitches took eleven separate stages, and great care and watchfulness were required to ensure that all the loops were equal and regular. This shows how complex the machines were and points to Lee's great achievement in actually making one. The basic principles of its operation remained unaltered throughout its extraordinarily long life, and a few still remained in use commercially in the early 1990s.
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Further Reading
J.T.Millington and S.D.Chapman (eds), 1989, Four Centuries of Machine Knitting, Commemorating William Lee's Invention of the Stocking Frame in 1589, Leicester (N.Harte examines the surviving evidence for the life of William Lee and this must be considered as the most up-to-date biographical information).
Dictionary of National Biography (this contains only the old stories).
Earlier important books covering Lee's life and invention are G.Henson, 1970, History of the Framework Knitters, reprint, Newton Abbot (orig. pub. 1831); and W.Felkin, 1967, History of the Machine-wrought Hosiery and Lace Manufactures, reprint, Newton Abbot (orig. pub. 1867).
M.Palmer, 1984, Framework Knitting, Aylesbury (a simple account of the mechanism of the stocking frame).
R.L.Hills, "William Lee and his knitting machine", Journal of the Textile Institute 80(2) (a more detailed account).
M.Grass and A.Grass, 1967, Stockings for a Queen. The Life of William Lee, the Elizabethan Inventor, London.
RLH

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

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