Knitwear maker

Some makers need no introduction. Some do. And some do, but shouldn’t. Such is the case with the hand-framed knitwear maker in the south-west of the country: a household name within a mile of its premises, and in certain discerning far-off lands — but, in most of the country, if not unknown, definitely unsung.

Not that they seem to mind. The firm has gone about its business for four generations — making some of the best knitwear in the world, let alone the British Isles, in the least grandstanding manner imaginable. Indeed, if ever there was a world-beating fashion force with its feet on the ground, they’d be feet wearing a pair of hand-framed cable-knit socks.

The firm was founded in the early 1900s, as many other knitwear makers, to kit out the workers of grubby-collared local industry, and over the years the means by it makes have wavered little. Every piece of knitwear made here is hand-framed — the only large-scale maker in the Isles still able to make the claim — and many of its patterns and contraptions have been in place since its doors first opened. The only things that have changed, indeed, are the workers — though the tenure of many of them is over half of the factory’s lifespan.

Master shirtmaker, Kent Made in EnglandMaster shirtmaker, Kent Made in England
Master shirtmaker, Kent Made in England
For non-sock knitwear — i.e. everything not a sock — there are three types of machine at the factory. First are the workhorses: the double-bed machines. As the name suggests, these have two flat-beds facing each other, and they are capable of assembling knitwear of remarkable density (or ply) — be it plain-stitch, rib-stitch, stop-stitch or tuck.

Then there are the domestic machines. These are neither the most high-tech nor in appearance the most olde-worlde-charming. Once mastered, however, with the domestics it is Liberty Hall; in terms of designs, the sky is the limit. The versatility of the domestics is down to the use of punchcards: the dot-matrix programme cards that instruct the machine what to stitch when, with the pattern repeated to the width on the card.

And then there are the single-bed machines. The single-beds make intarsia: the most diabolically painstaking technique in all of knitting. Intarsia is how complex multi-coloured patterns are made; a solitary job and the most labour-intensive. Making an intarsia jumper can take days, and requires the fault-free reading of a mathematical, pixellated, code-chart. The knitter follows this chart, line by line, for each strand of yarn. Each strand is looped on by hand, for every row of the image, and once every one is aligned, the single-bed carriage is passed back and forth. This is repeated for the entire pattern, which may comprise hundreds of rows. Intarsia is, as you might expect, a one-person job, and for consistency commonly entails the same knitter doing the entire order. One intarsia specialist at the factory is said to be “sick of owls” following a spate of requests for strigiform-adorned cardigans.

These three types of machine take up most of the factory, but a narrow door to the back of the floor leads to the most hallowed room here: the sock hall. Here are found a whirring, whizzing arsenal of circular sock-knitting machines. These are incredibly clever contraptions — they speedily re-enact, robot-like, the physical action of knitting a sock. But, even then, there are some things they cannot do. They cannot make cable-knit socks, press socks, nor hand-link socks. Because of this, these sock-making activities are left to a chosen few back in the other room.

Cable-knit socks are made on the somehow-appropriately named and museum-grade Griswold machine, present and regularly oiled at the factory since day one. The Griswold is among the oldest sock-making machines in the world — invented by Henry Josiah Griswold in Leicester in the late 1800s. Using it, cable-knit socks — diagonal, vertical, thick and thin — can be made, by levering the spindle-shaped bobbin around the Griswold’s central cylinder. The job is another of the factory’s one-person wonders. It is a slow and noisy practice. One knitter, headphones in, working at her Griswold, cackles alone but aloud to an audio tape; the laugh carrying across the factory floor but falling unnoticed.

Sock-pressing is done with another age-old contraption, which sees freshly knitted socks pulled onto flat wooden shapers the size of giant feet. A variously worn collection of these shapers — made of willow, which retains heat better than any other type of wood — are warmed inside a custom-built heating machine.

The third handmade-sock practice — the hand-linking — is one fabled in sock lore; a method of attaching the toe onto the tube-like ankle. As opposed to stitching, hand-linking gives a completely flat seam between the two sections, and thus maximum comfort. It is seldom practiced; the reason clear when you see how it is done. Hand-linking is meticulous and eye-aching work: a single worker lining up every stitch by hand, one by one, on the front and back of the toe, before pulling a carriage very carefully around.

What you get with the miscellany of machinery here are methods so skilled and time-consuming so as to be unthinkable were there any other way to get the same results. There are fewer and fewer crafts that expensive technology today cannot simulate, but here can be found several of them. That fact, coupled with the maker’s insistence on using only the softest and most carefully blended micro-fine yarns on the market, means the result is knitwear with qualities unparalleled anywhere else in the world. The best of the new, in other words, married to the best of the really very old.