A History of Knitting

In June 2001 Leicester City Museums Service along with various other partners obtained a grant from the New Opportunities Fund “to develop a website celebrating the history of the East Midlands knitting industry.” This “Knitting Together project” was finalized in 2003 and the following blog post is comprised of a selection of quotes taken from this web site that hope to summarize some of the most relevant parts of our regions knitting industry from the point of view of ongoing struggles for meaningful jobs and better working conditions for all.

Riots and Repression

The first two decades of the nineteenth century saw a downturn in the knitting industry as fashion changes reduced demand for hosiery.  Workers felt their standard of living threatened.  Wages were often less than they were a hundred years earlier.  Work also became scarce as the demand for men’s hosiery collapsed during the turbulent Napoleonic War period.  The tensions finally erupted with the outbreak of a series of Luddite riots.

“During 1812, the rebellion against new technology spread to Leicestershire and Derbyshire.  The plight of the workers was made worse by a rapid rise in the price of wheat.  In response to the extension of Luddite actions, attempts were made to deter further disruption, 12,000 troops were ordered to take control of Luddite areas and four Nottingham rioters were sentenced to transportation [to Australia].  An Act was also passed making the destruction of frames punishable by death.

The Stocking Makers’ Association for Mutual Protection, formed in 1776, was the first association in the knitting industry to formally represent the workers.” However, this Association only last a few years, although in later years the Union Society of Framework Knitters was formed which “became one of the most successful societies, with members across Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, London, Godalming, Tewkesbury and Northamptonshire.  From its foundation in 1812, the Union had established a set of minimum rates, which if not met, resulted in strike action being taken against the hosier.  However, such groups were illegal.  The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 banned societies formed with a political purpose or that interfered with trade.  Despite its success, the Union collapsed after three of its committee members were prosecuted under the Acts and sentenced to a month’s hard labour.”

“Informal groups of framework knitters campaigned for a new Bill in 1819.  The Bill proposed to ban production of cut-ups and bring a stop to downward pressures on wages.  After discussion in Parliament, the Bill was thrown out.  Framework knitters reacted by agreeing to a widespread strike across Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire with the aim of increasing wages.  A total of 14,000 workers joined the strike and there was wide support from the general public, who contributed in the region of £800 to finance the striking workers.  The strike in Nottingham forced sixty-seven out of ninety hosiers to sign an agreement that raised stocking rates from eight to twelve shillings a dozen.  The strikers, with their funds spent, were forced to return to work before all the hosiers had signed up to the new rates.  Within a year, gains made by the strike were lost.  Leicester knitters were the only exception to this; they were able to keep the rates for two years.

“A further major strike was called in 1821.  Knitters again campaigned for rates to be increased in the industry.  For over eight weeks the strike was widely supported and virtually nothing was produced across the three counties.  An upturn in demand for knitted goods encouraged the hosiers to raise their rates temporarily and end the strike.  The achievements of the strike were soon lost as knitters undercut each other to gain work.  This cycle was repeated again in 1824 when knitters were on strike for four months.  The lack of money and food forced the strike to end with only a few small temporary gains.  The ending of the 1824 strike finally broke the will of knitters to continue the fight and union activity declined until the transition of the industry to a factory system in the 1850s and 1860s.  The Combination Acts that prevented the formation of unions were repealed in 1824, but in the depressed first half of the nineteenth century unionism was slow to take hold.”

The Rise of the Factory

The development of steam-powered knitting machines encouraged firms to invest in new machinery and buildings to house these large machines.

“Companies that had previously only operated warehouses to collect goods brought in by knitters now had large premises from which workers manufactured their goods.  Pagets of Loughborough established their first steam-powered factory in 1839 followed by Hine & Mundella in Nottingham in 1851. Corah established its St Margaret works, Leicester in 1865 and I. & R. Morley opened its first factory in Nottingham in 1866.”

“In 1865 Edwin Corah laid the foundation stone of Corah’s St Margaret’s Works.  The factory was the largest in Leicester at the time, with around a thousand people employed at the site.  The site’s 50 horsepower steam engine powered 50 rotary machines, 47 circulars, and 77 sewing machines.  The factory also used 28 hand frames for high quality products.

“St Margaret’s works allowed the company to move from domestic to factory-based production.  In 1855 the company had over 2,000 domestic workers and around 20 factory employees.  By 1886 all of the company’s employees were factory based.  Improvements in technology allowed the company to maintain its output levels and cut its workforce.”

Women played an important role from the earliest days of the knitting industry. While men operated the frames, women performed other tasks related to the knitting process.”

“Statistics show the growth of female employment throughout the nineteenth century.  In 1851 30,076 of the 65,499 workers in the industry (45.9%) were women.  By 1911 this figure had increased to 73.5% of the workforce, with 41,431 women employed out of the industry’s 56,360 workers.”

Organising for Better Working Conditions

Fluctuations in the economy in the 1840s and 1850s led to demands from workers for increased wages in the good times and resistance against reductions during recessions.  To aid them in their battle against the employers a number of new unions were formed.  In 1857 the Nottingham Circular Framework Knitters’ Society was formed after circular machine knitters had been out on strike for a numbers of weeks as a protest against falling rates of pay.  This was followed in 1865 by the United Rotary Power Framework Knitters’ Society, representing workers on the newly-mechanised fully-fashioned machines.”

“The growth of union activity in factories encouraged home-based framework knitters to form unions to fight for their interests.  In Leicester in 1858, two new unions were founded, the Hose Shirt and Drawers Union, and the Sock and Top Union.  By 1870 the Hose Shirt and Drawers Union had around 2000 members and the Sock and Top had 800.  With the domestic industry in decline, framework knitters’ unions lost members and they were closed in the 1880s.”

“In 1888 the Leicester Union, the Nottingham Rotary Union, and the Ilkeston Union combined to form the Midlands Counties Hosiery Federation.  The Federation worked to co-ordinate activities across the region and Hinckley was brought into its membership in 1891.”

Market Forces

While the cotton weaving industry of the North West experienced decline between the wars, the knitting industry in the East Midlands continued to expand and flourish.  Cotton weaving had relied upon overseas markets to maintain its level of output, but with increased competition abroad and global economic problems, great hardship was experienced.  In contrast, the knitting industry did not face this problem to the same extent, and it was able to benefit from the growing market for its more fashionable products.  Falling costs made knitted goods increasingly affordable for the country’s population and generated further demand.  Cheaper goods also meant that clothes were more likely to be replaced instead of repaired if they were damaged.  The workforce increased from 70,000 in 1912 to 122,000 in 1937, of which around 80% were women.”

Corah’s (1939)

From the eighteenth century, firms had sent their goods to warehouses based around the Wood Street area of London.  The warehouse acted as a middleman between the manufacturer and the retailer, taking on stock-holding and marketing risks in return for a margin of fifteen percent or so.  Warehouses faced losing their business if the manufacturers and retailers cut them out of the supply chain and traded directly with each other.  Growing connections between manufacturers and retailers, together with a range of other problems, encouraged warehouses to form the Wholesale Textile Association (WTA) in 1912.  The membership of the Association increased over the next two decades from an initial figure of 80 to 500 by 1935.

“The WTA stated in 1913 that warehouses should give preference to manufacturers that did not sell directly to retailers.  The threat of being boycotted by the WTA faced those firms dealing directly.  If they were blackballed, to survive they would have to rely on their own sales team to find buyers.  Corahs was struck off in the 1930s after it had emerged that it had secretly been selling goods directly to Marks & Spencer.  Manufacturers became increasingly angered by the WTA and its powers, forcing them to take action.  In 1926, the Leicester manufacturers made a series of complaints to the WTA about their business practices.  They maintained that buyers from warehouses would often not look at samples of new products or that they would only order small, less cost effective quantities and, therefore, companies were forced to sell directly to retailers.  Retailers also took action against the WTA.  Selfridges banned purchases from 176 WTA member warehouses in 1936.

“Despite the growth of the manufacturer-to-retailer trade, it was estimated that 60 to 70% of the trade was still going through warehouses in 1950.  The rise of chain stores in the following decade had a dramatic impact on this figure and the power of the warehouses collapsed.  What remained of them was bought up by Courtaulds during the period of takeovers in the late 1960s.”

The economic boom in the ’50s and ’60s created labour shortages.  To overcome this, employers looked to Commonwealth countries where unemployment was high and opportunities were limited.  As a result of the campaign to recruit people, residents arrived from India, Pakistan, East Africa, and the Caribbean.  Leicester offered job opportunities in the knitting, shoe and associated industries and became a popular centre for settlers in the East Midlands.  Between 1951 and 1971, Leicester’s population of residents from the Commonwealth increased from 1,500 to 26,419.”

The Destructive Nature of the Free Market

British companies, since the nineteenth century, had faced increasing competition from overseas. Germany, Italy, the USA, and other countries with growing knitting industries, started to impact on the sales made by British manufacturers.

“The development of the Italian machine building industry, the availability of cheap labour and EEC grants, led to the development of a significant knitting industry in Italy.  Cheap Italian goods sold across Europe and the USA.

“The difficult trading environment weakened many companies… Low profitability and depressed share prices left companies open to the threat of takeover.  Between 1957 and 1970, Courtaulds, a yarn manufacturer, took advantage of the state of the industry and began to build a textile super-company through a series of takeovers.  The theory was that once control of a company had been secured, Courtaulds could ensure that it supplied the company’s nylon yarn.  Famous names taken over by Courtaulds included I. & R. Morley, Brettles, Wolsey, Meridian, and Aristoc.  Courtaulds had by 1968 taken control of around 20% of the knitting industry.”

Reliance Upon Marks & Spencer

For some companies, orders from Marks & Spencer soon became a major part of their sales.  Marks & Spencer aimed to take no more than 60% of a company’s output, but when products sold well this figure could reach 80-90%.  The cost that many companies paid for a heavy reliance on Marks & Spencer orders was the loss of their own brands.  Corahs had registered their St Margaret brand in 1875, but this was eventually given up in favour of the Marks & Spencer St Michael brand.  Other major suppliers such as Nottingham Manufacturing Company were never able to develop their own brand.”

“[In the 1980s] Marks & Spencer, aware of falling manufacturing costs, sought to negotiate a better deal with their suppliers and increase their profit margins and secure savings by placing orders with fewer suppliers.  A preference was stated for dealing with a small number of factories dedicated solely to Marks & Spencer production.  In 1987, after initial investigations, Marks & Spencer suggested to suppliers that they should consider opening overseas factories to achieve further cost savings.  Courtaulds, with its previous international experience, was one of the few companies that took up this idea.”

“For over half of the twentieth century a number of knitting manufacturers had enjoyed a secure and profitable relationship with Marks & Spencer.  In the 1980s, competition in the retail world began to threaten this relationship and Marks & Spencer began to look at new ways of working with their existing suppliers as well as finding new suppliers.  The safety of the relationship had, however, created two weaknesses in companies; loss of brands and over-reliance on one customer for orders.  Of the clothing brands sold in the UK in 1996, 85% were owned and developed by the retailers.  Only 15% were brands owned by the manufacturers.  In such circumstances, the loss of a contract with a retailer would leave companies without the strength of a brand behind them.  Some companies tried to reintroduce brands, but it required major financing to pay for advertising and none succeeded.

“Regular orders from retailers like Marks & Spencer discouraged suppliers from looking elsewhere for customers.  In comparison with other European countries, British textile companies were exporting only a small proportion of their output.  Before 1950, wholesalers had played an important role in securing overseas sales, but the rise of major retailers had weakened the wholesale sector to the extent that it was no longer able to undertake this role.  If a contract with a retailer was lost, the company could find that it was left desperately looking for new customers to stay in business.”

By the mid-1990s, Marks & Spencer directors had turned the business around and it reached profits of over one billion pounds a year.  It was estimated that the company still bought 75% of the UK domestic textile production in 1995.  Other fashion chain stores bought as little as 14% of their supplies from British companies.  The success or failure of Marks & Spencer was critical to the prosperity of the British knitting industry.

“A slump in sales hit the fashion retail sector in 1999 and marked the beginning of further problems for Marks & Spencer.  Profits were halved to between £500 and £600 million, market share fell from 15% to 11%, and its shares lost two thirds of their value in three years.  Other companies faced similar problems and did not survive.  C&A closed all its UK stores after losing a million pounds a week for two or three years.

“Marks & Spencer responded to the crisis by undertaking a further review of its strategy.  For the British knitting industry, a devastating blow was struck when Marks & Spencer sought to save £110 million by sourcing supplies from overseas.  Major companies, including Richard Roberts of Leicester, lost their Marks & Spencer contract.”

“Coats Viyella decided that it was time to close its knitwear division, four factories were closed and three sold off.  Courtaulds had diversified and opened up overseas factories to cut costs in the previous two decades, but the Marks & Spencer problems led to a fall in sales and left the company vulnerable.  The Sara Lee Corporation from the US subsequently bought Courtaulds for £150 million.

“In the 1980s, Marks & Spencer still bought 90% of its supplies from British companies.  The policy of sourcing goods from overseas meant that by 2000 this figure had fallen to 40%.  This change had a significant knock on effect on the industry, with over 50,000 jobs in the knitting industry lost in Nottingham, Leicester, and Loughborough between 1992 and 2001.”

“In 2002, Marks & Spencer reported that its business had turned the corner and its clothing business was recovering.  By 2003, company profits had increased by 21% to £761.8 million and it had recovered 0.7% of the British clothing market share to give it a total of 11.3%.  But this was all too late to arrest a further decline in the East Midlands manufacturing base.”

The Race to the Bottom

Western governments became concerned by the level of imports from low cost countries and introduced the Multi Fibre Arrangement (MFA).  The 1974 MFA established an annual negotiation of quotas between nations.  The exporting nation allocated quotas to its manufacturers to ensure that the national quota was not exceeded.  The MFA will be phased out by 2005 and open up the textile market to international competition.

“Production of clothing and textiles has continued to move to Asia.  Industries in Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and China have all grown.  The end of the MFA is expected to lead to growth in the Chinese industry and India and Pakistan are also expected to benefit.  Within Britain and other developed countries employment is expected to fall in the industry as imports increase from low cost countries.

“Since World War II countries have formed trading blocs based upon common interests.  Particularly significant was the ‘COMECON’ trade agreement formed in 1949 between the Warsaw Pact Nations.  Eastern European countries dominated by the USSR were joined by Cuba, Mongolia and Vietnam in the bloc.  When this fell apart in 1991 there was a release of manufacturing capacity particularly in the nations bordering on the European Economic Community.  In 1957 the European Economic Community was founded with six member states (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Luxembourg).  The European Union (the current name for what was the EEC) now contains fifteen member states, including the United Kingdom.  The introduction of the ‘Single Market’ in 1992 removed internal trade barriers across the EU and allowed free trade between member states.”

“The European knitting industry is now dominated by Italy.”

The British knitting industry has been in decline since the mid-1970s. Post-war employment peaked at 159,000 in 1973-4 and then started to fall.

“The figure fell below 100,000 in the early 1980s, 50,000 in the mid-1990s and reached around 30,000 in 2002. Periods of bankruptcies and closures in 1979-82, 1989-91, and 1998 to present (2003) have led to many of the job losses.  An estimated two-thirds of employees still in the industry are women.

“Despite the fall in employment in the knitting industry, the East Midlands remains, in terms of numbers employed, the largest clothing cluster in the UK (23% of UK employment in the industry).  The UK itself is second only to Italy in terms of output in Europe.  The East Midlands industry is concentrated in Leicester, where ethnically owned businesses provide nearly half of the employment in some sectors.  Nottingham has approximately half the number of employees as the Leicester industry, although it has larger firms than Leicester.”

Empty Buildings

The decline of the East Midlands knitting industry and the relocation of companies has left a wealth of empty buildings in town and cities.

“Alternative uses for some of these structures have helped to preserve them and ensure that the industry’s built heritage survives.  Conversion to flats has regenerated city centre sites and provided valuable living accommodation.  Between 1996 and 2002, 49 of the 84 conversion schemes submitted to Leicester City Council involved factories and warehouses.  Student housing accounted for 32 of the 84 schemes and provided accommodation for 5,698 students.”

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