Hosiery and Knitwear Industry

Weaving converts yarn into fabric by the interlacing of two yarns – the warp and the weft – at right angles to one another. Knitting converts yarn into fabric by the interlocking of loops of yarn. The loops (stitches) are interlocked using a needle to hold the existing loop while a new loop is formed in front of the old loop. The old loop is then brought over the new loop to form the fabric.

Various types of yarn  – worsted, linen, silk, cotton, and eventually artificial fibres – could be utilised in the knitting process, and many different types of end-product resulted. One such product-group is ‘Hosiery and Knitwear’, embracing all sorts of items that can clothe the human frame from head to toe.

The mechanised hosiery and knitwear industry was much influenced by the development of two pieces of technology – the ‘barbed’ needle (c. 1589) and the (more complex) ‘latch’ needle (c.1849). These developments radically changed the possibilities offered by the mechanical knitting frame. The advent of steam power from the mid-nineteenth century further encouraged the shift to factory production for an industry that had long been a domestically organised activity, with the plight of the framework knitters in conditions of rapid industrial change being a well-known story.

Given the nearby East Midlands hosiery industry, with Hinckley – ‘the Home of Hosiery – just across the border, it is no surprise that the industry spread to Warwickshire, particularly to the northern part of the county, and to parts of Coventry. There were a number of hosiery firms established in Nuneaton, and the town was also the home of Tansey’s Needle Works, set up in 1886 to manufacture ‘latch’ needles for the hosiery industry. The Hillfields and Foleshill areas of Coventry also attracted several hosiery firms, such as Pool, Lorrimer and Tabberner, Lockhurst Lane, Foleshill, (a Leicester-based firm who also set-up a factory in Nuneaton).

The firm of Hart & Levy was a specialist clothing manufacturer in Leicester. Their first factory had opened in that city in 1859, followed by another in Burton Latimer, and one in Abbey Green, Nuneaton in 1890. One of the Hart & Levy adverts even claimed that “Everywhere in Britain someone is wearing clothes made in Nuneaton”. Remnants of the Hart & Levy factory in Nuneaton still survive (see WIAS database).

The creation of satellite factories was also a feature of the Leicestershire corset industry. The Market Harborough based firm of R. & W.H.Symington, corset manufacturers, set up a number of ‘stitching station’ factories in nearby towns. One of these was in Rugby, set up in 1881, and it became an important employer in the town. Symingtons was eventually taken over by Courtaulds, and the Rugby factory – then making women’s swimsuits – was closed in 1955.

Elastic webbing

Elastic webbing is used widely in clothing, upholstery and other products. It is a woven rubber thread sometimes interwoven with cotton, wool or other fibres to provide elasticity. It was invented in Leicester in 1839, and that city became a real centre for the industry. Once again, the close proximity of Warwickshire meant that the industry would spill over into Leicestershire’s southern neighbour, and once again it was the northern parts of the county where the industry developed.

One such example was Rufus Jones Elastic Web Works (1870s), in Attleborough, Nuneaton which manufactured elastic webbing for shoe gussets, corsets, undergarments, braces, straps for race horse chandlery etc. utilising the redundant skills from the former silk ribbon industry. In 1938 it became part of Lester & Harris (silk manufacturers), a company based in Park Street, Great Heath, Coventry. There are references to Coventry elastic web manufacturers in contemporary newspapers, which, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, frequently reported on the problems that the elastic web industry faced in an uncertain market.

Courtaulds and hosiery and knitwear

The hosiery and knitwear industry had long been characterised by small or medium-sized firms, and the decision by Courtaulds to move into this traditional industry brought fundamental change. The Courtaulds empire was expanded via acquisition of a long list of companies, some large and well known; others small and obscure. It certainly contributed to a vertically integrated organisation, with Courtaulds controlling output from raw material through to final customer. In a disturbingly familiar pattern, changing circumstances in the modern era brought the inevitable rationalisation and closures.

Many of these texts provide background information on the hosiery and knitwear trades, without providing much material on the sites in Warwickshire.

Hosiery and Knitwear Industry: further information

AuthorSubjectPublisher/More
Wells, E AThe British Hosiery and Knitwear IndustryDavid & Charles

Rudd, Bramwell GCourtaulds and the Hosiery and Knitwear IndustryCrucible Books
Chapman S DHosiery and Knitwear: Four Centuries of Small-Scale Industry in Britain, c. 1589-2000Maney Publishing
Grace’s GuideA valuable internet source of information on individual companiesAvailable at this link
Lee, P and the Nuneaton local and family history groupA fine collection of information and photographs of Nuneaton’s industriesAvailable at this link
SitesThe surviving hosiery and knitwear locations are recorded on the WIAS database under TextilesAvailable at this link