Monday, 21 February 2011

Aiken's Famous Family Knitting Machine

I found this article in the Wisconsin Farmer's Journal. I thought it provided such an interesting commentary on the times, as it was published eighteen months after the start of the Civil War, that I have transcribed most of it. (The same edition of the journal contained a poignant lament about the potential losses to agriculture and horticulture as a consequence of the conflict.) The women to whom this machine is recommended are not women seeking to fill idle hours with needlework with which to decorate their homes, but rather women who depended upon the production of their hands.

When Queen Elizabeth came to the throne of England, three hundred years ago, such a thing as a knit stocking had never been heard of in all her realm. Nor, indeed, have we any reliable authority to suppose that anything of the sort had ever been produced anywhere in the world.* But the tense, unyielding hose manufactured upon the loom were an uncomfortable, unsatisfactory thing, and so some ingenious mind -- it is not known whose -- conceived the idea, and executed the plan, of manufacturing them with the use of needes, in such manner that they should be both seamless and very elastic. The first pair knit were presented to Her Majesty, in the third year of her reign, who was so delighted wtih them that she would never again consent to wear the stocking of the old style.

As the result of the royal example and of the remarkable superiority of this wonderful manufacture, knitting became at once immensely popular, so that high-born dames and royal ladies emulated each other in princely halls and gilded palaces.

But the process of knitting with the fingers was slow and tedious; and so the brain of one William Lee ... stimulated, it is said, by a strong desire to supercede the needles of a beautiful young girl, whose passion for knitting appeared more all-absorbing than her coveted love for him, contrived a machine... [The inventor] established a factory at Nottinghamshire, which, to this day, has been and is the great seat of hosiery manufacture in Europe. ...

About a quarter of a century ago circular looms were introduced into this country from Belgium and France; since which time there have been several American improvements, all finding their climax in the wonderfully simple, cheap and capable machine of J.B. Aiken, of Franklin, N.H. As a factory machine this is unquestionably the most popular one now in existence, and every day seems to be adding to the high esteem in which it is held. ...

But all this remarkable success did not satisfy the ambition of Mr. Aiken. ... A machine which should come within the slender means of even a very poor family, and thus diffuse its blessings as the Sewing Machine has done, was needed. The simple and effective 'circular' machine of which the above cut is an illustration, was the result of this worthy and persistent endeavor. So simple and durable in all its parts that there is scarcely a possibility of its getting out of order; so rapid in its working that when operated by the hand of a child it will knit over four thousand stitches in a minute -- if by the foot five thousand -- or if by steam, to which it may be adapted, sixty thousand! -- so small in compass that it may be packed in a box less than a foot cubic; and withal, so cheap that it can easily be made to pay for itself in one winter, it can hardly fail of a very great demand even in war times. Indeed the harder the times the greater the need, on the part of the poorer families at least -- and nearly all are feeling pretty poor about now -- of everything which may come as a help in securing the means of support. ...

The machine is adapted to the manufacture of stockings of every size and texture, undershirts, drawers, neck comforts, table covers, head dresses, cravats, caps, purses, rigolets and shawls, sontags, tidies, ladies' opera caps, undersleeves, nubias, scarfs [sic], suspenders, &c.

The price, owing to taxation, &c., has been increased $5 within the last month or two, and is now fifty dollars, including oil-can, wrench, screw driver, 20 extra needles, skein holders, yarn winder, and a book of instruction. But even this, for a machine adapted to so many uses, and with which so many may be made by even the younger members of the family in a short time, is cheap; and we recommend [it] to all families dependent upon their fingers for support, to all Soldiers' Aid Societies, and to all others, who, in these trying times desire to contribute to the public good by every species of honorable economy....

But even $50, small as the amount is,** will not be found in times like these 'growing on every bush,' and we have accordingly offered the machine to every enterprising friend of the FARMER who will furnish us with a club of 150 subscribers at one dollar each. If there are any young men whose mothers or sisters are dependent upon their hands for support, or any middle-aged men whose wives would cordially welcome so valuable a labor-saver as the Knitting Machine, now is their time to do two things at once -- secure a handsome present for those most dear, and at the same time extend the circulation of a worthy journal devoted to the best material and social interests of the people of the Northwest.

The Wisconsin Farmer and Northwestern Cultivator, December 1, 1862.

* They had, but were unknown in English-speaking countries at the time of this article. "The Oldest Knitted Stockings," an excellent article by Chris Laning in the Winter 2011 edition of Knitting Traditions, dates cotton knitted stockings to the 11th century, in Islamic countries south of the Mediterranean. You can see an example here.

** According to The Inflation Calculator, $50 in 1862 is equivalent to $1061.85 in 2009 (the most recent year available for calculation) -- not a "small amount" for struggling families.


  1. Sock machines are so popular here in WA that they seem like modern equipment! LOL! I, however, am not caving in - way too finicky for me!

  2. The machine I have is from 1925--and the paperwork with it is fascinating. They apparently sold the machine (and yarn) to the enterprising woman, and then purchased the socks which she made. The most interesting part, though, is the rejection letters from the company saying that the socks sent weren't good enough. I'm not sure if it was a scam, and no socks were ever good enough, or if that was just this particular case. --Chris K.