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Last updated:05 May 2015

Footwear, hosiery and knitwear trades

Shoemakers are also known as cordwainers and are distinct from cobblers who mend, rather than manufacture, footwear.  In the 19th century the trade of shoemaker was a profitable one, provided that the shoemaker was skilled in the art of cutting leather to yield the greatest number of shoes.  Although most shoemakers were men, women were employed in the shoemaking trade to bind and sew women's shoes as their uppers were made of materials such as silk and satin, rather than leather and needed more delicate handling.

Engraving of a Stocking Weaver from the Book of Trades

Stocking weaver

Until around 1850 hosiery work was a domestic industry, with only a small fraction of the output coming from factories.  The industry was mainly based around Nottingham, Leicester and Derby.

Machine knitting was invented in the late sixteenth century. The knitting frame made it possible for workers to produce knitted goods approximately 100 times faster than by hand.  Hosiery was manufactured on these knitting frames and hosiery workers were formerly known as framework knitters.

From then until the introduction of steam power in the 1850s, which enabled factories to be built, the frames changed little in design, and stood in the worker’s own home or in a small workshop. There is more information about framework knitting at the Framework Knitters Museum website.

Click here to download description of a 19th century Stocking Weaver's trade

Click here to find out more about footwear, hosiery and knitwear trade unions


Resources about the footwear, hosiery and knitwear trades in the library collection


Board of Trade, Boots and shoes (1946) - Shelfmark: A30

Alan Fox, A history of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives, 1874-1957 (1958) - Shelfmark: B47

Crispin anecdotes: comprising interesting notices of shoemakers, who have been distinguished for genius, enterprise, or eccentricity - also curious particulars relative to the origin, importance, and manufacture of shoes - with other matters illustrative of the history of the gentle craft (1827) - Shelfmark: D28

Hosiery and knitwear

Ralph Gurnham, A history of the trade union movement in the hosiery and knitwear industry 1776-1976 (1976) - Shelfmark: B47

William Felkin, A history of the machine-wrought hosiery and lace manufactures (1867) - Shelfmark: D27

FA Wells, The British hosiery trade - its history and organization (1935) - Shelfmark: C12