In the mid-18th Century a group of Ipswich women started making and selling lace with distinctive patterns. Small round lap pillows were used to pace the bobbins and needles as the lace grew around it. Ipswich lace quickly became very popular and played an important roll during the American Revolution. At the height of its popularity the women and girls of Ipswich were producing more than 40,000 yards of lace annually.
The Pillow Lace industry is commemorated by a sign on High Street near the former factory. The building no longer stands.
Ipswich lace became extremely popular and during the American Revolution it was a way for women to support their families while the husbands were away. Wearing Ipswich lace became a status symbol, and on George Washington’s 1789 visit to Ipswich he obtained some black silk lace for his wife Martha.
In the 1820’s Ipswich industrialists imported machines from England to mechanize and speed up the operation, and opened a factory on High Street. Lace was now mass-produced and lost its status as a symbol of wealth. Their efforts destroyed the hand-made lace industry.
Stocking-making developed as a home industry in Ipswich after the first stocking machine was smuggled from England to Ipswich in 1822. Tanning, shoemaking and machine knitting industries also started up, and immigrants from England, Ireland, Canada, Poland and Greece arrived in Ipswich to work in the mills. Many of their descendants still live in Ipswich, contributing to its diverse cultural heritage.
In 1868 Amos A. Lawrence established the original Ipswich Hosiery Mills in the old stone mill that stood near the dam, and by the turn of the 20th century Ipswich Mills had become the largest stocking mill in the country. In 1913 a strike by non English-speaking workers demanding a 20 percent wage increase at the Ipswich Hosiery Mills plant was organized by members of the local Industrial Workers of the World.
The Ipswich Mills Historic District includes the community in Ipswich MA west of EBSCO Publishing bordered by Union St., the MBTA commuter rail tracks and the Ipswich River. The former woolen and stocking mill buildings more recently housed Sylvania’s fluorescent lighting plant, and are where in 1942 Sylvania designed and assembled the proximity fuse for WWII bombs. The buildings now are the home of EBSCO Publishing.
The Ipswich Hosiery Industry
(The following chapters were published by the Ipswich Mills as a hard cover booklet in 1922. Thanks to Bruce Lord for his work in converting it to web format.)
he average housewife of 1922, even though she does a large part of her own housework, takes so much of the benefits of modern civilization and the products of so much modern machinery for granted that she and her family fail to realize they live on a scale of luxury known a century ago only to the very rich who could employ a vast amount of labor. Behind every invention which has lightened or eliminated some part of her work is a long history, the history of men of vision and imagination struggling against the common prejudice of doing things the way they have always been done. Even in the production of so obvious and unromantic a necessity as stockings there is, between the hand-made product and the machine knitted article a tale of romance, civil war, heart-break and success which results in a minimum of effort and a maximum of satisfaction to those of us today who wear machine-made stockings.
Three hundred and twenty-seven years ago, in 1595, William Lee, student of Cambridge University in England, took unto himself a wife, a proceeding against the rules of that institution. He was expelled and lost thereby whatever income he may have possessed. To tide them over until Lee could earn a living, his bride took up the work of knitting stockings for sale, and watching her at work, Lee invented a machine which imitated the action of the knitting needles and eventually succeeded in producing a crude stocking by machinery. Although his invention was to revolutionize a great industry, Lee, himself, died in poverty striving to obtain a patent which was later granted to his brother.
History does not tell us what became of his faithful wife. His machine, now called the “hand frame” was put to work in England where it not only knit stockings, but also made an imitation of hand-made lace. Its value in the saving of time was at once recognized and it became generally used in homes and among groups of workers.
The transition period between cottage industries and wholesale manufacture is a story of bitter struggle between labor and capital which frequently verged on civil war. The British workman was easily convinced that machinery was destined to supplant his labor instead of increasing his power of production and the feeling against machinery ran so high in England that by 1752 there developed the Luddite, riots, which were little less than an organized mob, bent on the destruction of machinery. The “Luddites” were named after a boy named Ludlam, whose father was the owner of a shop where fishing stocking machines were used. The boy had been told to do certain things, but instead of obeying he took a hammer and wrecked the machine he was running. The “Luddites” assembled at night and proceeded to different shops, with hammers and axes, destroying machinery and taking all law and order into their own hands.