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The Framework Knitters’ Museum: See how the Victorian lived and worked

2011 June 7
by lucinda matthews-jones

     

 

 

Image One and Image Two showing the road sign directing visitors to the Framework Knitters’ Museum in Ruddington.

I have recently moved from Manchester to a small Nottinghamshire village called Ruddington. Here is a corner of Englishness that still sees the shops close on Wednesday afternoon and where couples descend to the picturesque Anglican church to get married in summer. The nearby Great Central Heritage Railway provides the occasional ‘choo-chooing’ of visiting steam trains. The opening of the Great Central Railway line between Ruddington and Loughborough in 1899 witnessed the transformation of the village. New housing in the village enabled people to migrate from the urban centre of Nottingham and Loughborough into the rural idyll. Yet this is principally an Edwardian story and one that has the potential to obscure Ruddington’s Victorian past. That is, if it were not for the Framework Knitters’ Museum which, according to their website, allows you to ‘step back into another era’. ‘[V]isit this Victorian time-capsule and see how the knitters lived and worked.’ Who needs Doctor Who’s TARDIS when such delights are offered! 

 

Image Three: Courtyard of the Knitters’ Museum, looking on to the cottages with the two frameshops either side.

The Framework Knitters’ Museum can be found on Chapel Street, just off Church Street, Ruddington’s main thoroughfare, and in April it celebrated its 40 year anniversary. I have walked past the Museum’s brown sign on numerous occasions and have wondered what might await me if I ever visited. On a sunny May afternoon, my husband and I decided to visit the museum as a way of escaping the tedium of book writing and essay marking. I was pleasantly surprised. Tucked behind the White Horse pub was a charming courtyard made up of two knitting frameshops, knitters’ cottages and outbuildings, including a wash house, toilets and a pigsty. Across the road you can also visit a former Primitive Methodist chapel which now also belongs to the museum. After paying our £4 entry fee in the gift shop we were taken to the ground floor of the one of the knitting frameshops and shown a 10 minute DVD on the history of framework knitting and the working conditions of the Ruddington frameworkers. After watching the DVD, we made our way to the top floor of the building, where we were able to try our hands at a nineteenth-century sock-making machine. By turning the handle – fast, slow, fast, slow – a sock magically appears beneath. How wonderful! Turn the handle the wrong way, though, and you create a hole, as the needles undo your last row. Holy socks! I’m sure an experienced knitter would know what to do to correct this mistake, but I just tip toed out of the frameshop, hoping that I hadn’t damaged a product intended for the gift shop!    

 

 

 Image Four: Knitters’ Frameshop, where we watched the DVD and had a go at the C19th sock machine.  Image Five: Nineteenth-Century sock machine.

 

Once back in the courtyard we made our way to the second frameshop. The machines in here are bigger and more industrial-looking. Rather than making woollen socks, these machines make large pieces of fabric from cotton or silk. The ground floor provides an historical overview of the village of Ruddington. I really enjoyed seeing the map of nineteenth-century Ruddington. The top floor was a large open space filled with row after row of framework knitting machines [Image five]. Here we were given a 5 minute demonstration by one of the museum’s volunteers on how the machine worked. I was surprised not only by how loud it was, but also how quickly my ears adapted to the mechanical repetitive noise. Even though the volunteer appeared to being going quite quickly, he informed us that he was slower than frameworkers of the Victorian period. Once he had left, I then sat down on one of the machines, which not only drew attention my rather short stature, but also to the close proximity of the machine behind you. It would not have been your own machine’s noise that caused you trouble, but that of your mate behind you, whose machine was half an inch away from the back of your head. The DVD described this working area as both ‘sanctuary and cell’. By taking a seat you understood why. Knitters would have surrounded themselves with their own objects and tools. They would even make their own seat from leather straps. Yet, at the same time, the closeness of the machine behind you made you feel that you were in a very confined space, especially given that you would have spent up to 10 hours there at a time.  

  

Image Five: Top floor of the second frameshop, showing the row of knitting machines.

Even though I enjoyed the frameshops, it was the cottages that I really appreciated. My verbal gushes over their domestic interiors were perhaps a little too loud! It is here that the museum’s claim to show you ‘how the Victorians lived’ really comes into its own. The museum has renovated two cottages, one in the style of the 1850s and the other in that of the 1900s. This draws attention to just how much interiors changed in that fifty year period. The 1850s cottage is much more basic and rudimentary, whilst the 1900 cottage is crammed with objects and furniture. The 1900 cottage also has an extra bedroom reached by stairs, whilst the attic room of the 1850 cottage would have been reached by climbing a very basic ladder. Since many of the 1900s cottage’s Victorian knick-knacks were donated to the museum in the 1970s, I was immediately reminded of Lyne Walker and Vron Mare’s dismay at discovering that curators had introduced ‘Tomitudes’, ornaments representing Uncle Tom from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, into the preserved interior of Stowe’s house, despite the fact that she really quite disliked such objects during her lifetime.[1] We are informed by the museum that its two cottages were owned from by the Parker family, but once inside we have no real sense as to who they were, what they did in this industry and what had occurred in this fifty year period that enabled them to be able to afford so many more pieces of furniture and objects by 1900, if indeed this was in fact the case. Indeed, the interiors of the museum’s two cottages tell us as much about the 1970s’ reimagining of the Victorians as it does about anything else. This is interesting in its own right, of course. 

 This points to an interesting dynamic of historical memory at work throughout the museum. I’m sure this is partly to do with the fact that I am a Victorian historian, but at times I felt that the museum’s curators were a little confused about how visitors were meant to situate the exhibits historically. For instance, the DVD emphasises that framework knitting grew up as a cottage industry in the seventeenth century as a family-based economy and that nineteenth-century factories put pressure on this mode of production, leading to its eventual extinction by the mid to late nineteenth century. The frame workshops contained in the museum were, nonetheless, built in 1829 and seem to be a halfway-house compromise between domestic and factory production. Does this signify that the Ruddington framework knitters were in fact a relic of a lost age in the nineteenth century? The museum does not make it entirely clear. The fact that framework knitting machines continued to be used in Ruddington throughout the nineteenth century seems to be interesting in its own right, but receives little mention. The Framework Knitters’ Museum, then, is a series of Victorian buildings which housed a small but teeming industry.

This, of course, should not stop you from visiting. After all, £4 is a reasonable entry fee to see the cottages and the frameshops alone and, of course, I mustn’t forget the pair of Queen Victoria’s stockings which are housed in the chapel over the road. This chapel gallery in fact contains a rather large collection of interesting stockings and socks, including modern ones worn by the designer Paul Smith, the actor Michael Winner, the actress Maureen Lipman and the actor Richard Wilson. This really is the place for fans of socks!

Museums are a great way to explore the afterlives of the Victorians, even if our obsession with them sometimes obscures, as in the case of the Framework Knitters’ Museum, the longer chronologies in which the Victorians fit. I loved seeing ‘how the Victorians lived and worked’ and being able to explore the history of the village in which I now live. I’ll definitely be returning, and might even see if they want to archive my best bed socks.

 The Frameworkers Knitting Museum

Address: Ruddington Framework Knitters’ Museum, Chapel Street, Ruddington, Nottingham, NG11 6HE.

Website: http://www.rfkm.org/

Entry Fee: Adults £4.00; Students £3.00; Children £2.00. Family Ticket (two adults and up to three children) £10.00.

Opening Hours: April- November; Wednesday to Saturday and Bank Holiday Mondays

11.00 am – 4.30 pm, last ticket sale 4.00 pm; Sunday, 1.30 pm – 4.30 pm; Last admission 4.00 pm


[1] Lynne Walker and Vron Ware, ‘Political pincushions: decorating the abolitionist interior 1787-1865’ in Janet Floyd and Inga Bryden (eds.), Domestic Space: Reading the Nineteenth-Century Interior (Manchester; Manchester University Press, 1999), pp.58-83.

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