A potted history of how Leicester once clothed the world

That's right, from the early 19th century to the end of the 20th century, Leicester was responsible for supplying clothes to millions of people around the world. 

Today, only a small handful of the original garment-making factories remain in business and we're one of them. 

A brief history

Leicester is a city rooted in the textile industry. It dates back to the Tudor times when hosiery manufacturing started as a cottage industry, with workers hand knitting at home. 

A fundamental piece of kit to the development of the textile industry was the knitting frame which was invented in Nottinghamshire in 1589 by William Lee. This device hugely improved the process and the quality of garments but the frames were expensive to and slow to catch on. Alongside these technical developments, hand knitters continued to produce garments like caps and stockings. 

In Leicester, people got on board with knitting frames in the 1680s. “Workers could rent a knitting frame from their employer and work at home”, and the whole family would get involved: the men would usually work the frame, women would seam stockings and the children would wind the yarn. 

The yarn itself was from sheep. Areas in the East Midlands, like East Anglia, had traditionally reared sheep that produced fleeces with long fibres and Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, and Lincolnshire sheep were known to have some of the best quality fleeces in the country. 

From fleece to knitting fibres, first the fleeces were combed to remove any dirt and to place the fibres in line with each other. After combing, the fibres were spun to create the worsted yarn, which has a medium weight while being finer and stronger than other woollen yarns. 

As technology improved over time, knitting frames were built bigger and the ‘wide frame’ was introduced in the early 19th century. Knitting frames were used more widely in workshops – basically the early version of factories we’re more familiar with today – where you’d have several machines under one roof. 

During the 100 years between 1710-1810, the knitting industry started to come into its own. New inventions such as the steam-powered cotton mill in 1712, helped to bring the price of garments down so clothes were affordable. 

But the framework knitters were resistant to moving from working at home to working in factories which could house the new steam-powered technology. At home, the knitter could determine their hours of work and share their workload with other members of the family, whereas the factory environment was associated with fixed hours and being watched over by supervisors.

From the middle of the 19th century, Leicester’s hosiery industry started using large steam-powered machinery to produce garments, with the opening of Leicester’s first steam-powered hosiery factory in 1851 by Richard Mitchell. Companies began to invest in new machinery and build larger buildings to accommodate them. Many of these 19th century former factory buildings are still standing in Leicester. 

The Heydays 

Around this time, Britain experienced something of an economic boom. The rail network in Britain expanded to around 10,000 miles of track meaning goods could easily be transported across the country, and opportunities for business opened up. 

The outbreak of war in 1914 brought with it challenges and opportunities for the knitting industry. Economic growth was brought to a halt as uncertainty spread across the world. Government contracts kept manufacturers busy – for example, Corahs supplied over seven million garments to the Government between 1914 and 1918. 

Corah's factory was part of the vast St Margaret's works buildings north Leicester

Post War

It took some time for the rationing and controls of the Second World War to ease up. The fragile economy needed careful management to give the country more time to fully recover from the effects of the war.

Globalisation and today
Fast forward to today and the industry isn’t as thriving as it once was but it’s not all bleak as we want to show all the craftsmanship, skill and knowledge that goes into making garments so that people will understand their value and feel good choosing them. 

Shop our organic cotton hoodies, available in seven colours

Posted on March 22, 2023