In the 19th century, a secret organization called the Luddites broke into factories and destroyed textile machinery. They believed that automation would forever eliminate jobs, or that machines would make products so cheap that most workshops would have to close.
It’s a fear that, quite reasonably, has never gone away. When we create efficiencies in our world today, we also worry about what we’ll lose. Automated factories. Artificial intelligence. Self-driving cars. Will the machines ultimately take all of our jobs?
Recently, as I researched my new podcast episodeon the scandalous history of knitting, I came across an interesting case study that long pre-dates the Luddites or any of our modern concerns.
As it turns out, waaaaaay back in the 1500s, knitting became an early test case of whether automation would eliminate jobs. The answer is that yes, for a time, it did.
Then it drove innovation that defined the craft as we know it today.
Here’s the story.
On the pod, I spoke with knitting historian Liz Kristan, who explained that knitting was once a major trade. In the 16th and 17the centuries in Europe, guilds fiercely protected who could knit and who couldn’t.
Then in 1589, as the story goes, a British reverend named William Lee invented something called the stocking frame, which was the first machine to automate part of the knitting process. (Legend has it that he invented the machine out of love… or lust… or maybe spite? As the story goes, a woman he had a crush on kept using knitting as an excuse not to see him — so he wanted to automate the task and free up her time. Take a hint, buddy).
Whether or not the “romance” story is true, Lee’s invention ultimately did make knitting more efficient, which did not exactly go over well with the knitting industry of the time. When he applied for a patent for his machine, Queen Elizabeth is believed to have said no. She wanted to protect the country’s knitters.
In fact, England at that time was already jumping through hoops to prop up its domestic knitting industry: The Cappers Act of 1488, for example, outlawed wearing knit caps from anywhere outside England and Wales, and the Wool Cap Act of 1571 dictated that lower-class men must wear a silly, floppy hat that had to have been knit and finished in England. (This act was later repealed as “unworkable.”)
Anyway, William Lee’s stocking frame did eventually make its way out into the world, and it did make knitting more efficient, which — as feared — put people out of work. Understandably, those people were mad. In a preview of the Luddites, knitters began to break into factories and destroy the frames that were taking away their jobs.
In all debates about automation, we’re really debating a central question: What is the balance between gain and loss? When we create progress and efficiencies, do we lose too much in the process — or create opportunity for even more gain?
When I talked to Liz, the knitting historian, I asked her how these questions played out in knitting. What was the ultimate result of bringing automation to this once exclusively hand-done craft?
Here’s what she told me. William Lee’s invention was only the first of many knitting machines, and when the Industrial Revolution arrived in the late 1700s, knitting was fully disrupted. That’s when the really interesting stuff happened.
“Think of the Irish sweaters with the cables and those twisty stitches all over them,” she said. “And Fair Isle sweaters (see below), which are the ones with all the colors on them. Those really only came about around the time of the Industrial Revolution, in competition with the machines, because they couldn't make those kinds of details.”
The machines, she said, pushed humans to innovate. They developed new knitting techniques and developed regional knitting styles. They leaned on the thing no machine back then could reproduce — human ingenuity.
Liz again: “If your job is no longer just to churn out hundreds of socks that are going to be worn out in a matter of months by a farmer who's trotting around in them, then you have the opportunity then to start exploring.”
This is what truly transformed the knitting industry — leading to the robust design world (and its millions of related jobs) that we know today.
Does this discount the personal losses people felt when their jobs individual disappeared? No, of course not. Nor am I suggesting that today, we should cavalierly replace humans with robots and not worry about the consequences. But there is an important lesson here all the same: Gain comes in unexpected ways. Loss is not absolute. And when you replace one thing, you gain another… because our human capacity is boundless.
We can and should always do a better job of managing the transition, and of being alert to who loses individually during massive change. But should we resist it? Try to stop it? Absurd.
Consider that the next time you wear something with a beautiful, intricate patterns. Kind of makes you wonder what else we’ll gain from self-driving cars, doesn’t it?
For more about the surprising history of knitting — including a parallel to the vaccine conspiracy theories of today! — listen here.