Nottingham’s history is entwined with yarn and knitting. In the C16th, a Nottingham-born resident, Reverend William Lee, invented the knitting machine. Now, almost 430 years later, Footfalls & Heartbeats (UK) Limited, based in the Ingenuity Centre at the University of Nottingham, is pioneering a truly innovative process for the manufacturing of smart knitted fabric.
1580 – when knitting began in Nottingham
In the1580s, agricultural land around Nottingham was of a poor quality and many inhabitants made a living by farming sheep on surrounding heathland. Sheep from the area had long fibred fleeces that produced a valuable yarn, suitable for hand knitting. Hand knitting was therefore popular in the area with the abundant supply of local yarn.
In 1589, William Lee invented the frame-knitting machine for the production of stockings. The story goes that the lady Lee was courting at the time spent many hours hand knitting, and Lee didn’t feel she had enough time for him. To overcome the problem Lee invented a quicker way of knitting – the knitting machine. His invention of framework knitting was the first major stage in the mechanisation of the textile industry.
His original frame had eight needles to the inch, which produced only coarse fabric. Lee later improved the mechanism with 20 needles to the inch. However, despite his ingenuity, Queen Elizabeth I refused to grant Lee a patent for this invention because she feared this would destroy the hand-knitting industry.
Failing to gain a patent in England, William Lee moved to France, where ill fortune pursued the inventor, who died in Paris in a state of extreme poverty and distress. Lee's brother, James Lee, returned from France to Nottinghamshire, and was joined by Ashton, a miller of Thoroton, who had been instructed in the art of frame-work knitting by the inventor himself before he left England. These two men began stocking manufacture at Thoroton, and carried it on with considerable success.
Footfalls & Heartbeats bring knitting back to Nottingham
Footfalls & Heartbeats has had no such difficulty in gaining patents for their innovative process for the manufacture of smart knitted fabric. Their process of creating nano-scale interactions within the textile structure, currently has 12 patent applications pending all over the world.
Footfalls’ current IP portfolio has led to commercial collaborations with several international organisations, where the integration of this technology is being tested in both consumer and healthcare applications.
Uses for the smart textiles include advanced wound care, compression garment systems, infant monitoring, athlete monitoring and remote monitoring of health and physiological symptoms for those in high risk environments, such as first responders and defence personnel.
These nano-scale interactions within the textile make the fabric itself the sensor, avoiding the need for wires or miniature electronics. The sensor technology can be knitted using the full range of traditional flatbed and circular machines through to the seamless technologies of Shima Seiki and Stoll, leading flat knitting machinery manufacturers.
Footfalls & Heartbeats are putting Nottingham back on the map as a leading centre for smart textiles having partnered with the Optics and Photonics Group at The University of Nottingham, lead by Professor Steve Morgan. They intend to grow the company from their new office location at the Ingenuity Centre in the near future, and develop pioneering new processes and solutions with the University.
The future for knitting looks bright
A recent report from Cientifica Research, “Nanotechnology, Smart Textiles & Wearables” (Feb 2017), analysed the markets and technologies that are driving the shift to smart textiles. It reports that opportunities in smart textiles will overtake those in apparel within six years and the value of nano materials used by the global textile industry will rise sharply, driven by the additional functionality demanded by smart textiles and wearables.
So after 430 years since the invention of the frame-knitting machine, Nottingham once again can boast its location as the home of game-changing innovators in the textile and knitting industry.