The hosiery industry in Leicestershire
The first knitting machine was invented in 1589. For around the next 300 years workers produced goods in homes and workshops on individual hand frames. The modern knitting industry started in the mid-1800s and by 1891, 95% of knitted goods were produced in factories.
Oral history has captured how the 20th century hosiery industry in Leicester was experienced by those who worked in it. All of the following recordings can be found in our archive. View our catalogue to find out how to access the collections.
A migrant workforce
In 1920 Leicester advertised that its workforce was 'far above average in skill, industry and intelligence' - certainly it was relatively prosperous due the diversity of its industry. Even during the depression of the 1930s, a redundant hosiery worker stood a chance of finding work with another company. Hosiery jobs in the East Midlands increased from around 50,000 in 1911 to 77,000 in 1939. Leicester was seen not just as a boom city, but also as a 'women's city', due to there being many more women than men employed in the hosiery industry. Of course, men's work often paid higher rates, but the system of piecework sometimes enabled a woman to earn more than her husband.
In this clip a woman shares her memories of moving from Wales to Leicester to work in the hosiery industry.
A former hosiery worker remembers the hours that she had to work in the industry.
Many people started work straight from school at the age of 14, often because their family needed the extra money, and factory work was seen to pay well - in the 1930s a new hosiery trainee could expect to earn between 10 and 12 shillings a week (50 to 60 pence). Newcomers were often introduced to the foreman or forewoman by a friend, relative, or family member, and sometimes they started work that day.
Girls and boys would usually start as runabouts and were often the target of practical jokes, such as being sent to fetch buckets of steam! Girls would progress to working on machines and would eventually be on 'piecework', meaning that the more work they produced the more they got paid. Boys might have more training, although arrangements varied from firm to firm. Some could work in the day and attend classes at the Leicester Technical College in the evening. They could also learn from people in the factory.
Working at home has long been a part of the hosiery industry. Homeworking was one way in which employers tried to overcome shortages of female labour after World War Two. Machines could be installed at home and yarn supplied, but working at home while trying to keep the house and family going could be hard work.
A homeworker from the Whitwick area recalls her working life.
Many people remember relations with their employers as being good. Although trade union membership grew during World War One, the inter-war depression saw a fall in membership, and in some small companies there was no union presence at all. The most famous dispute of this period was the Bedaux strike at Wolsey. Workers objected to the implementation of a time and motion study. With union support, 2,000 women and 1,000 men from other factories joined the strike for eight weeks between December 1931 and February 1932.
Memories of the introduction of the Bedaux system.
The effects that the Bedaux system had on the workforce.
Remembering the Bedaux strike.
Image above: victorious Wolsey hosiery workers outside De Monfort Hall in Leicester following the ending of the strike in February 1932 (courtesy of Ned Newitt)
Production of knitwear
There were four stages in the production of knitwear: yarn preparation, industrial knitting, making up and finishing.
Before World War Two, wool, cotton and silk were the basic yarns used in hosiery, with rayon or 'artificial silk' as the only man-made material. The yarn was wound onto cones and sometimes lubricated with oil, soap and water.
Factories were producing 95% of knitted goods by the 1890s. Before the industry moved into factories much of the work would have been done in workshops and homes and these types of working persisted on into the 20th century
Knitting machines were driven by belts and pulleys. They varied in size from large machines, such as the Cotton's Patent that turned out dozens of garments at once, to framework knitting machines, to small circular sock knitting machines like the Griswold. Knitters - mainly men - looked after the machines, keeping the yarn replenished and making repairs to broken or bent needles. In the early 20th century some garments were made using two different machines. One of the first machines to make rib top socks all in one go on one machine was the XL - a well-known name in Leicester.
The knitting frame
The design of the framework knitting machines dates back to 1589. The machine produces a flat piece of material which is then made into socks or stocking. You can still find working framework knitting machines at the Wigston Framework Knitting Museum in Leicestershire and the Ruddington Framework Knitters Museum in Nottinghamshire.
In these sound clips, Peter Clowes, from the museum in Wigston, talks framework knitting, learning how to use a knitting machine and the different processes involved.
The conditions of the 'stockingers' who worked with these machines in homes and workshops, were notoriously bad in mid-19th-century Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, and it wasn't until an upturn in the market for knitted goods in the later 1800s that their lot improved. By the 1900s almost all knitted goods were produced in factories, and although a few framework knitters were employed in factories even into the 1930s, this method of production had all but disappeared in the space of a few decades.
The Griswold is a well-known name in the world of hosiery outworking. The machine is small and portable, and produces a tube of material which is ideal for sock making. The machine is fed by cones, powered by a handle, needles are arranged in a circle, a cam lifts them in a Mexican Wave as the handle is turned, and the result is rather like French Knitting. It was first made popular in World War One's 'socks for soldiers' campaign, and for a time could compete with factory machines if piece-rates were low enough.
Eventually this sort of outwork was stopped by automatic sock machines in factories. In this clip a woman talks about her father's small hosiery business, making socks in the Walnut Street area of Leicester in the late 1920s and 1930s.
Making up tasks included closing the toes of socks, sewing seams and fabrics together and attaching buttons and pockets. The most common stitch for sewing cut edges was overlocking, a double chain stitch which covers the join to prevent fraying, with flatlocking - producing a flatter join - coming in during the 1920s. This work was done by women.
Finishing involved washing oil out of the fabric, dyeing, pressing or 'trimming' in steam heated presses. The garments were taken to the counterman for pairing off, folding and packing. They would be checked for flaws and mending rejects, using invisible mending techniques, could be done by hand.