This section is from the "A Complete Dictionary of Dry Goods" book, by George S. Cole. Also available from Amazon: A complete dictionary of dry goods and history of silk, cotton, linen, wool and other fibrous substances,: Including a full explanation of the modern processes ... together with various useful tables.
Hosiery And Knit Goods. Under this head is embraced a wide range of manufactured textiles, which are classed together more on account of their manner of fabrication than from simularity of use. The term "hosiery," as is quite obvious, has its origin in hose or stockings; but although stockings continue to be one of the staples of hosiery, that department is only one of a great number constituting the entire industry, there being not fewer than 5,000 distinct articles made in the trade. All kinds of hosiery proper are made by the process of knitting, the peculiarity of which consists in the use of a single thread for the entire texture, and in the formation therewith of a singularly elastic, yet strong and firm looped web. It is not known precisely when or where the art of knitting stockings originated; much, however, has been learned concerning ancient arts and industries from the study of Egyptian excavations, which have also established the antiquity of many industries, of the early history of which very little has hitherto been known. Among the most interesting relics of early Egyptian life are the well preserved mummies of the dead. It is, perhaps, not generally known that in addition to that of embalming, weaving, etc., these mummies established the antiquity of knitting. In these graves have been found several pairs of knitted stockings, resembling socks, worn by the ancient Egyptians. These curious stockings are knitted in a very clever manner and the material, fine wool of sheep that might once of been white, is now brown with age. The needles with which the work was done must have been a little thicker than would be chosen nowadays for the same purpose, and the knitting is loose and elastic. Knit worsted stockings are also said to have been made in the Pyrenees for centuries, and stocking-frames were not allowed to be erected there, lest they should interfere with the ancient industry. Prior to the introduction of hand knitting in Europe, men as well as women wore stockings made of cloth. In 1560, a pair of black silk stockings knit in England was presented to Queen Elizabeth by her silk woman, Mrs. Montague, from which time the queen refused to wear cloth hose. Hand-knitting became a fashionable employment with ladies of rank, as well as a common occupation of the rural and humbler classes. The Shetland Isles, which were famous for their fine wool, became celebrated for the beauty and excellence of their knit fabrics, and it is said that a lady of these islands, at a later period, knit a pair of stockings of such fineness that they could be drawn through her finger ring.
The present extended manufacture and use throughout the world of knit fabrics illustrate forcibly the far-reaching influences of a single useful invention. The common broad stocking frame, or loom, for knitting plain hosiery, that is, a straight knitted strip of any desired length, which throughout Europe soon superseded knitting by hand, was invented by the Rev. William Lee, of Woodborough, England, about the year 1589. This remarkably ingenious, but complex and cumbersome machine, was the result of several years' intense toil and study. It was first set up at Nottingham, where the inventor, in 1597, had nine machines in successful operation. It was afterward carried upon the backs of eight men to London and operated before the court, but failed to secure encouragement or patronage from the aged queen, or of her narrow-minded successor, James I, who either did not preceive its future usefulness and importance to his subjects, or feared the innovation would be dangerous to the poor hand-knitters. Henry IV, of France, or his enlightened prime minister, Sully, was more sagacious, and by his invitation Lee transferred his machines to that country and established his manufactory at Rouen, with success. After the assassination of his royal patron in 1610, Lee was forced by religious persecution prompted by jealousy, to abandon his new field and go in concealment to Paris, where he afterwards died of disappointment. Thus ended the vicissitudinous career of the man of whom much romance has been woven - or more appropriately - knitted. Lee, who was a man of remarkable culture as well as talent, was a fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge, Eng. Tradition attributes the origin of his invention to a pique he had taken against a townswoman with whom he was in love and who neglected or spurned his passion. The statement is that she got her livelihood by knitting stockings, and that to destroy her employment he constructed this frame and instructed her brother and other relatives how to work it. Another and more probable account is, however, quit different but the element of romance is retained. The best authorities on the subject represent that Lee was expelled from college for marrying the woman of his choice, in violation of some absured law of that institution, and that the pair being reduced to abject poverty through the harsh decree, the faithful wife contributed to the support of the little family by knitting stockings for the market, then a very general employment with the lower and middle classes. It was while sitting beside this gentle knitter, engaged in watching the movement of her needles, as they passed in and out, that the bright intelligence of the learned outcast conceived the idea of the principle of the knitting-frame.
Soon after Lee's death in Paris, one of his apprentices, named Ashton, escaping to England, remounted the stocking frame and once more established the hosiery manufacture at Nottingham and Derby, where it has ever sinceflourished. Theknitting machine at this time produced simplya straight knitted strip, which was cut in proper lengths and sewed together to form the stocking or other articles made of it. Many improvements have since been made, an important one being the circular loom, by which a continuous circular web may be knit of any length. This is cut off at proper distances and " formed " or " pressed " into the shape of a stocking. The shaping of the web to fit the foot is a matter of no little ingenuity. The flat web is knit in long strips of sufficient width to make several stockings, which are cut out over patterns on stretching-boards, and neatly united at the heel and around the edges by hand-knitting or machine sewing. In the case of "full regular" goods the edges of the web are connected by hand, the loops on either side being so neatly taken up and joined as to leave no welt whatever and but slight evidence of a seam. In forming the foot to the circular or seamless web, a slit is made just above where the heel is to be, half-way across the web, which allows the part designed for the foot being curved up at the instep and to assume the natural shape. The loops along the edges are then taken up on hand-needles and the space for the heel is filled out by hand-knitting. In the same manner the toe is completed, and thus is finished a seamless stocking. On other circular machines the entire stocking is knitted and then dampened and pressed in proper form. Those, however, that have been pressed into shape lose their contour after the first washing. Hence it has been a problem for inventors for many years to invent an appliance to the knitting-frame that would produce a full-fashioned stocking; that is, a stocking swelling at the calf, narrowing at the ankle and a perfect foot. An automatic machine for this purpose has been patented in the last few years, and performs the work perfectly. When the stocking is completed, the machine stops automatically, breaks the thread and is again ready for the next. One boy can attend half a dozen of these. It produces several different styles of heel and toe, and overcomes the difficulty of narrowing the ankle and instep and widening the leg. These recent improvements in the mechanism have given a vast impulse to the stocking manufacture by greatly reducing the cost and proportionately extending the demand, introducing the articles where they were before unknown, or hand-knit by members of the household.
Twenty-five years ago a workman with one of the old hand-power frames could make in a week only about one dozen cotton hose, weighing two pounds. The same labor now applied to a set of the best knitting frames easily produces in the same time, from three hundred pounds of cotton, 200 dozen hose. A clever hand knitter if assidious, will knit 100 loops a minute, while the machine knitter will knit of the finest textures in various colors 250,000 loops a minute - an advance of 25,000 fold upon the hand knitter. Chemnitz, Germany, is the center of the largest hosiery and knit goods industry in the world, and is intimately associated with the hosiery trade of the United States. Eighty per cent of all the knit goods manufactured at Chemnitz is bought by the United States. Chemnitz sends more cotton hosiery to this country than England sends to the four quarters of the globe. The business is done in a peculiar way. The goods, before reaching the buyer, pass through many hands. Throughout a large district, many square miles in extent, are scattered the dwellings of the singel weavers, the "household industry" people. These receive the yarn from a factor, knit the stockings or gloves, jackets or underwear and return them to the factor, who sells them to the manufacturer. The manufacturer "fashions" them and then turns them over to the dyer. After dyeing they are glaced, stamped, and packed in boxes and turned over to the agent, who in his turn sends them to a commission house in the United States, or, else sells them direct to the American jobbers visiting the German market. For seven miles along the roads leading from Chemnitz one house joins another; and in every house there is from one to four knitting machines. These people make the bulk of the knit goods worn in this "land of the free and home of the brave."
The principal seats of the hosiery industry in the United States are Waterbury, Conn., Cohoes, N. Y., Brooklyn and Seneca Falls, N. Y., Newark, N. J., and Philadelphia, Pa. [See Hose]