In 1583 William Lee returned from his studies at the University of Cambridge to become the local priest in Calverton, England. Elizabeth I (1558-1603) had recently issued a ruling that her people should always wear a knitted cap. Lee recorded that "knitters were the only means of producing such garments but it took so long to finish the article. I began to think. I watched my mother and my sisters sitting in the evening twilight plying their needles. If garments were made by two needles and one line of thread, why not several needles to take up the thread."
This momentous thought was the beginning of the mechanization of textile production. Lee became obsessed with making a machine that would free people from endless hand-knitting. He recalled, "My duties to Church and family I began to neglect. The idea of my machine and the creating of it ate into my heart and brain."
Finally, in 1589, his "stocking frame" knitting machine was ready. He traveled to London with excitement to seek an interview with Elizabeth I to show her how useful the machine would be and to ask her for a patent that would stop other people from copying the design. He rented a building to set the machine up and, with the help of his local member of Parliament Richard Parkyns, met Henry Carey, Lord Hundson, a member of the Queen's Privy Council. Carey arranged for Elizabeth to come see the machine, but her reaction was devastating.
She refused to grant Lee a patent, instead observing, "Thou aimest high, Master Lee. Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars." Crushed, Lee moved to France to try his luck there; when he failed there, too, he returned to England, where he asked James I (1603-1625), Elizabeth's successor, for a patent. James I also refused, on the same grounds as Elizabeth.
Both feared that the mechanization of stocking production would be politically destabilizing. It would throw people out of work, create unemployment and political instability, and threaten royal power. The stocking frame was an innovation that promised huge productivity increases, but it also promised creative destruction.