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The Stockings of the Common Man, His Wife and Children

First things first: knitting needles, although not as standardized as modern needles, were widely available to professional and amateur knitters in our period. Drawplates for making wire were used in the Germanies since the eleventh century and since 1430 at least in England. Mechanization of wireworks by waterpower was begun in 1566 near Tintern Abbey, and by 1600 the one mill supplied over 5000 workers in England who made wool cards, bird cages and knitting needles from the drawn wire. A second wire mill was set up in 1607 supplying the same number of workers, and several other rival mills were suppressed when the first two were granted a monopoly on the domestic market.

Needles were mentioned as ‘pricks,’ ‘wires,’ and ‘pins,’ much more often than as needles, which is why they are so seldom found in contemporary wills and other documents. They were also a very utilitarian and were used until they could be used no more, leaving little trace in the archeological record. Knitting is also one of the few textile crafts to never really have been taken up by ladies of fashion, and our knowledge of the working poor who did the bulk of the knitting in our period is very sparse.

Most of the knitted articles that survive from our period are from the upper levels of society. So are most of the undershirts, and yet we all wear some version of a shirt, chemise, smock or sark at events. The fact is, most things that poorer people used and wore were used and worn until there wasn’t anything left to use or wear. The Gunnister Man find, the description of which is in the Clann library from the proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, had several knitted articles found with the body, including two well made but poorly mended thigh length stockings. A knitting pattern based off Gunnister Man’s stockings can be found at Gunnister Man’s stockings show knowledge of structured decreases, which gives knitted stockings a much closer fit than cut hose are capable of.

This is not to say that cut hose were not widely worn in our period. They were, in fact, more popular for the majority of low and lower middle class people because they were cheaper to make than silk stockings and better quality than home-spun wool stockings, which were mostly worn by children, the elderly and artisans and their wives. However, everyone who could afford silk stockings did. The Pepys bought several pairs of stockings, both worsted (fine-spun wool) and silk. In 1583 in a puritanical rant, Phillip Stubbes described the popularity of knit stockings over the “base cut hosen” in both wool and silken threads, and how families with incomes of less than forty shillings a year would own at least one pair of silk or other fine stockings costing eleven shillings or more.

Children’s stockings however, of which we have the best record in accounts books, could be bought or commissioned for between three and twelve pence in 1550. These records were all concerning a child of the family, but several years later, ten pence was paid ‘for a pair of knit hose for the kitchen boy,’ as well.

There are several extant children’s stockings in the Museum of London and the Strangers’ Hall, Norwich, which show knowledge of shaping, are otherwise fairly unskilled when compared to other extant knitted pieces. The heels of several are turned in garter stitch, a technique that produces an uncomfortable bulk around the heel and which is usually only used when the knitter does not know how to purl. This suggests that they were knit by someone below the professional level and not belonging to the professional knitter’s guilds which existed at the time.

The only other surviving adult stocking besides Gunnister Man’s may not even be a stocking. A tube-shaped fragment found with the Mary Rose shows the type of arbitrary decreases typical of stockings of the period and described in the first English knitting pattern (1655), it may also be a scogger or hogger, handless or footless tubes used by working people to protect their forearms and calves and provide extra warmth. The knitting pattern mentioned above is reprinted in A History of Handknitting by Richard Rutt and will soon be available in the Clann library.

There were several mentions in print of the popularity of knit stockings in our period, however. Phillip Stubbes, in his same pamphlet about the evils of decadent stockings, describes the “green, red, white, russet, tawny and else what; which wanton light colours any sober chaste christian . . . can hardly . . at any time wear,” that were popular amoung artisan’s wives. William Harrison, a rector in the countryside described in his 1577 Description of England the black dye “much used by our country wives in coloring their knit hosen.” He also goes on to castigate town women for their “colored nether stocks.”

Knit stockings were one of England’s biggest exports throughout our period, and both urban and rural areas organized knitting schools to keep people out of mischief and relieve poverty. In 1578, the House of Corrections provided materials for female inmates to spin and knit with and also trained those who didn’t already knit. In 1591, John Cheseman established a kntting school for “such as are willing to come to him, or are sent by the aldermen” in Lincoln in exchange for the discharge of his debts. Knitting instruction continued at Lincoln until 1718. In 1588 a Mrs Awtherson was paid 20 shillings by the city of York “in consideration that she teaches poor children to knit.” Four counties in northern Norfolk all ordered in 1622 that poor children be put to work with spinning and knitting dames under the supervision of the churchwardens, who would pay the dames when the parents were not able. Two blue-coat schools were founded a year apart at Great Marlow and Newark for the purpose of teaching girls and boys to knit, spin and make lace, and one continued to provide knit stockings to various charities and their own students as late as 1860.

English worsted stockings were much in demand in France and Flanders, but Spanish and Italian silk stockings were imported into England. Ireland bought most of their stockings from northern England and the Lowlands because they produced a much thicker, warmer product than southern England, but Irish Stockings, presumably a kind of cut hose, were recommended for those “such as intend to plant themselves in New England” because they were “much more serviceable than knit ones.” They were also much cheaper, the Massachusetts Bay Company listing them as eleven to thirteen pence in 1628 as opposed to two shillings four pence for knit stockings.

This article was not meant to be an over view of knitting or even stocking manufacture in our period, but simply to prove that knit stockings were available and worn by the levels of society we strive to protray.

This is a seventeenth and eighteenth century pattern, but I would hesitate to recommend it to any but merchant class or higher members of Col. Gaffneyis. Eighteenth century stockings tended to be more finely shaped at all levels of society than in our period. The author also has some useful links posted after the directions.

Stockings based off the Gunnister Man find. Gunnister Man post dates our period by a few decades, but is the most complete find of knitted articles in Scotland for our time period. The complete description of the Gunnister Man and several other finds, many of which include whole or partial knitted articles can be found in "The Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland -- Publication of the National Museum of Antiquities, Edinburgh, 1951-52." in the Clann library.

These stockings are Elizabethan and would be typical of what an officer would be wearing. They are slightly old fashioned for our time period, being designed for wear with trunk hose and not high boots, but the shaping is of a skill level appropriate.

Except where noted, all quotations are from Richard Rutt’s A History of Handknitting. Interweave Press, Loveland Colorado. 1987.

Also used: Vouge Knitting. Pantheon Books, New York. 1989.

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soldier in gray coat and red stockings
soldier in gray coat and red stockings