Jun 20

A Brief History of Textiles and Labor: Do you know what *really* made the Luddites so angry?

(Cross posted on Medium)

I found myself down a fascinating rabbit hole this morning initiated by research into the origin of the word “saboteur.” My partner claimed its etymology was rooted in the history of textiles, from protestors against industrialization who threw their clogs, called “sabot,” into looms to break them. This turns out to be apocryphal, but rooted in truth.

I am writing this in chronological order rather than recreating my scattershot path across the internet, so bear with me. I’ll get back to those shoes and what they meant further down.

The first knitting machine was the stocking frame. It was created by William Lee and presented to Queen Elizabeth in 1589 in the hopes of obtaining a patent for the production of knitted stockings. He was refused with the words:

“My lord I have too much love for my poor people, who obtain their bread by the art of knitting, to give any money to forward an invention that will tend to their ruin, by depriving them of employment and thus making them beggars. Had Mr Lee made a machine that would have made silk stockings I should, I think, have been somewhat justified in granting him a patent for that monopoly, which would have affected only a small number of my subjects; but to enjoy the exclusive privilege of making stockings for the whole of my subjects is too important to be granted to any individual.” [Source]

This was one of the first shots in the ideological war between mechanization and manual labor. Frankly I had no idea the origin of the tension between machines and people went as far back in history as Good Queen Bess.

The stocking frame was, of course, built anyway. Lee simply took his invention to France where, under the patronage of Henry the IVth, he continued to improved the machine until it could knit the silk stockings Queen Elizabeth so desired. She switched to wearing only wool stockings in support of her unfortunate poor hand knitters.

Unfortunately King Henry was assassinated shortly after Lee’s arrival, before he was sufficiently established to be independent. Lee sought other patronage but was unable to find any in France, probably because being a Protestant was out of vogue under the new regime. He died penniless in London.

William Lee’s brother James had traveled with him to France, and remained sympathetic with the Hugeunots after his death. He moved back to England with members of that movement who were going into exile, taking most of his stocking frames. They established a thriving industry using the machines to make silk stockings and other textiles in Spitalfields, which is now part of greater London. The Hugeunots in England became associated with textile production.

Sixty years later the government reversed Elizabeth’s position on the stocking frame. In 1657 the London Company of Framework Knitters received a charter from Oliver Cromwell, and in 1663 was reincorporated by Letters Patent of His Majesty King Charles II under the title: “The Master, Wardens, Assistants and Society of the Art or Mystery of Framework Knitters of the Cities of London and Westminster and the Kingdom of England and the Dominion of Wales.” They still exist today.

Stocking frames continued to be a central point of contention in the dialog around mechanization of production. In 1779 Ned Ludd supposedly broke two stocking frames in a fit of rage over unfair treatment by his supervisor. There is no evidence this incident occurred, but nevertheless “Captain Ludd,” the spiritual originator of the Luddite movement, was idolized into a Robin Hood sort of figure who swooped out of the woods at night to commit violence upon machines.

Contrary to popular belief the Luddites were not at all opposed to technology. In fact the Luddite movement was started by skilled machine operators who were trying to protect their trade from cheap and unskilled labor. It was one of the first somewhat organized movements for better labor practices.

Violent destruction of the machines became such a problem that on June 25th,1788 there was an Act of Parliment to protect the frames from damage. It had the unwieldly title:

An Act for the better and more effectual Protection of Stocking Frames and the Machines or Engines annexed thereto or used therewith and for the Punishment of Persons destroying or injuring of such Stocking Frames Machines or Engines and the Framework knitted Pieces Stockings and other Articles and Goods used and made in the Hosiery or Framework knitted Manufactory or breaking or destroying any Machinery contained in any Mill or Mills used or any way employed in preparing or spinning of Wool or Cotton for the use of the Stocking Frame [Full Text]

On March 11, 1811 the British Army broke up protesting textile workers in Nottingham, who were demonstrating for better working conditions and higher wages. By the next morning several textile mills had been destroyed in retaliation, and over the course of the next few years — in the middle of the Napoleanic wars — thousands of troops were mobilized within England’s borders to manage the civil uprisings associated with the Luddite movement.[citation]

It turns out the Luddites had a sense of humor, and knew how to use the printing press as well as stocking frames. They distributed pamphlets signed, “Ned Lud’s Office, Sherwood Forest.” Much of their writing has been preserved, and there is apparently a well regarded collection of original texts edited by Kevin Binfield. I have requested a copy through my library’s ILL and am looking forward to reading it.

In the wake of the growing unrest and many deaths (mostly among the Luddites) on March 20th, 1812 Parliament enacted the death penalty for any act of machine breaking. [Full Text and wikipedia summary] Lord Byron was apparently one of the few vocal supporters of the Luddites, which is another interesting factoid for future research.

With the subsidence of the Napoleonic wars after the Russian death march in the winter of 1812, Britain’s resources and attention returned to domestic affairs. The civil unrest and unemployment underpinning the Luddite movement subsided. The death penalty for frame breaking was revoked in 1813.

The first reported use of the word “sabotage” was in an article from 1897 urging workers to deliberately work slowly and inefficiently as a quiet form of protest. The image of shuffling clogged feet was used to evoke that reduced working pace. [citation]

Sabotage, at its root, is more covert than colorful. Rather than an explosive origin from the tossing of shoes into the works, sabotage comes from the shuffling gait of poor laborers who couldn’t afford “real” leather shoes and so wore crudely carved clogs. It was first used in English in 1910, in an article about a French railway strike.

The origin story may be apocryphal, but it is connected in spirit to the Luddites’ civil unrest, invented history, and theatrical methods for gaining popular sympathy.

I started researching sabotage this morning over tea with the expectation of writing a lighthearted story poking fun at Luddites, but I’ve done a near complete about face.

Never fear, I don’t believe the destruction of machines will change the world in a positive way. Quite the contrary: in my opinion technology holds our only hope of survival as a species. I am, however, extremely sympathetic with the Luddites now.

As a highly paid “knowledge worker” I benefit from the information age, much as the stocking frame workers who became Luddites benefited from industrialization. Using machines and computers as levers to increase my productivity allows me the leisure to spend time on projects such as the research behind this article. I believe the world is a better place because of technology.

You know there’s a “but” coming, right? Here it is.

Elizabeth’s refusal of Mr. Lee’s patent echoes down through the ages a bit, doesn’t it? The Luddite movement was fueled by unemployment and displacement of workers. I don’t believe the machines are the problem now, or were then. At issue are individuals who seek to control production, thereby limiting the benefit most members of society derive from them. We live in an age of enormous efficiency. Never have the requirements for long life and health been so easy to produce. But, far from having initiated an age in which the common man is freed from drudgery and allowed leisure pursuits, we have another age in which the distribution of wealth is wildly skewed towards a small group.

The Luddites objected to early factory owners insisting on long hours, unsafe conditions, and displacing trained workers in favor of less expensive labor sources to keep costs down. This is very much a modern sentiment. I find myself in the same position.

I’m taking a different approach than the frame breakers. Personally, I’m in love with the Maker movement. Rather than destroy the machines in anger, I want to share my knowledge as widely as possible. I can’t personally redistribute wealth, but I can for damned sure redistribute knowledge.

Among other goals I want to support the Bangladeshi factory workers not by protesting or boycotting, but by teaching people respect for the work required to produce things they take for granted. I think everyone should know how to make a tee-shirt that fits them. Perhaps if you do you will be willing to pay enough to support a skilled worker who makes them, and you will be more thoughtful about buying and disposing of them.

My personal mission is oddly close to where the Luddites started. I know a lot about textile manipulation. If you want a thing made out of fabric I probably know how to make it already. If I don’t, I know who to ask. In America these days I pass as an expert. I understand the tools and theory behind producing clothes, bags, upholstery.

Mind you, this is completely accidental and has nothing whatever to do with my career path to date. I was raised the daughter of a textile engineer and a family of expert seamstresses and knitters. Knowledge work is so intangible I developed a craving for creating with my hands, and I fell back on what I learned as a child. I’ve been a ravenous knitter for decades, and a designer for several years.

I’m taking a big leap of faith into the unknown. I believe there are other people out there who want to learn what I can teach. I am trusting there are enough of you to support me in developing tutorials and patterns and classes so you can learn to make your clothes more personal and more unique. If you’re curious, drop me a line, or stop by www.hackyourclothes.com.

— jennigma at gmail

1 comment

  1. Lavender

    Great post! I find it fascinating how a word can lead you to all sorts if interesting things. Yesterday, I read all about Mr. Lee and his knitting machine trying to find some info on spinning and weaving in China.

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