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Knit-Stockngs-art - 10/2/01


"Knitted Stockings" by Baroness Rhiall of Wystanesdon (better known as Wrynne). The history of knitted stockings in Europe.


NOTE: See also the files: knit-stockngs-msg, hose-msg, underwear-msg, hose-manu-MA-art, knitting-msg, p-knitting-bib, p-shoes-msg, naalbinding-msg.





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                              Thank you,

                                   Mark S. Harris

                                   AKA:  THLord Stefan li Rous

                                        stefan at florilegium.org                                         



Knitted Stockings

by Baroness Rhiall of Wystanesdon (better known as Wrynne)


In 700BC Hesiod states, "And on your feet bind boots of the hide of slaughtered oxen fitting them closely when you have cushioned their insides with felt".  This lining was not the only protection ancient Greeks used; they also wore "leg bindings" – strips of cloth wound around their feet.  In my mind, these strips are the earliest "socks".  By the 1st century AD actual cloth socks are found that are cut from fabric on the bias.  These cloth stockings continued to be the primary "sock" in Western Europe until approximately 1387 when Turnau cites written sources in France that mention stockings made using needles.  These early stockings were coarsely made from wool or linen with large needles, but in the late 13th century in Spain, finely knitted cushions appear and high quality "Spanish Stockings" begin to journey north.  These fine stockings were often worn over woven linen understockings to protect them from dirty feet.  Until that time, cloth stockings that were seamed up the back, some with feet, some without, some with stirrups, and some with leather or felt soles attached were the norm. By the early 16th century, knitted wool stockings were worn by everyone in England, and by 1588,  knitting schools had opened to teach the skill.  In 1589, William Lee invents the knitting frame, and by the mid 1600Õs the only people hand-knitting stockings in England were in rural areas.


Of course, things were different in the mideast and in Scandinavia.   Naalbinding, by all evidence, predates knitting and seems to date back to the Bronze Age.  Naalbinding was used for mittens, socks, hats, and a host of other accessories.  Ancient examples can be found in Egypt, Persia, and Sweden.  The oldest mitten found was from Asle Sweden dating from 200-300 AD.  This mitten is well made and evidences that naalbinding was well developed by this point. Those who do naalbinding will know the great similarity between the technique used to make mittens and the technique used to make socks.  It is almost a certainty that socks would also have been made using naalbinding from the same early date.


The history of knitting is a much argued topic.  One of the difficulties is that "Coptic" naalbinding looks nearly identical to "crossed" knitting.  The resemblance is so strong that many museum pieces of naalbinding are still mislabeled as early knitting.  It is very difficult to tell the two methods apart without unraveling the piece.  Even today, the jury is out on a "knitted"  fragment from Holland, and two ivory "knitting" needles from France dated from the 2nd century AD.  The first positive identification of knitting is a pair of gloves from 600-800 AD.


Sources agree that knitting seems to have begun either in Egypt or a neighboring Arabic country at sometime between 500-1200 AD.  Three theories of its expansion through Europe are:

1.    The Crusades – Many fashion styles followed returning crusaders back to their homelands.  It is very plausible that domestics traveling along learned the skill and brought it back, or that domestics acquired while on Crusade brought the skill with them to Europe.  This would place the arrival of knitting in Europe somewhere between 1095 and 1291.

2.    Trade – There was a strong north-south trade route from Byzantium through Russia from the 9th century to the 13th century.  As the Coptic church kept friendly ties with Muslims, the spread of knitting through Eastern Europe could accompany this trade of goods.

3.    Spain – The Muslim expansion into Spain in 710AD would also have been a good opportunity to bring the skill of knitting to the Mediterranean area.


My theory on all this is "all of the above".  HereÕs why:


It is unlikely that knitting developed in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe independently because the patterning and construction styles of stockings are very similar.  Western European stockings, on the other hand are very different.  In Eastern Europe, examples of knitted stockings found in Latvia, Poland, Georgia, and Estonia have patterns that are very similar to rug patterns found in the Middle East.  Also, the pointed toe, toe upward construction, and braid stick on the top edge are similar to socks in the Middle East.  Like the Muslim knitters, these stockings were also knitted using strong, single ply yarn in about  10-12 stitches per inch.  There are strong regional differences, Kurdish stockings were usually undyed, where Anatolian stockings featured multicolored patterns.  Some cultures embroidered their stockings, and some used a white mohair as a trim edge.  Detailed construction techniques varied also.  Sometimes the toe was started open then sewn shut and plugged with a tuft, sometimes the heel was cast on in a different color or pattern from the other parts of the foot, but overall basic construction and patterning is eerie in its similarity.


In fact, the spread of Persian knitting to Eastern Europe is easy to conjecture upon.  The Estonians had a great deal of commerce with Norway and Sweden from Viking raids, and frequently traveled the trade routes of Russia.  The Komi people in particular had an opportunity to bring knitting to Eastern Europe as they migrated from Central Asia and continued to be a migratory culture in northern Russia.  


Another interesting tidbit of information is the construction similarity between the stockings of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and the naalbinding techniques found in Scandinavian countries.  They all work from the toe upward.  They all leave off for the heel, and cast on working circular up the leg.  They all pick up stitches and work a circular "bag" for the heel, and they all use circular knitting for the entire stocking.  This in my mind shows a smooth transition of stocking technique.  In Western Europe, the woven cloth stocking was primary, and it seems that this new "knitting" skill used in Spain for cushions was clumsily adapted to stocking making.  


The differences are enormous.  Eastern socks have a front to back view folding along the side with an even leg shaping.  The toe increases to the foot.  The heel stitches are set aside, and the sock is continued upward.  The increases for the leg shaping are hidden evenly in the pattern giving a "tube" shape to the sock.  Heels are worked in a circle and decreased to give proper shape.  Eastern stockings tend to use hooked needles, and knitters use 4 needles to hold the sock, and a 5th to knit.  This allows the knitter to "shape" the heel without rearranging the stitches on the needles.


In Western Europe, socks are knitted from the top down and all leg shaping is done at the center back.  This provides an occasional "seam" line in the back where decreases take place.  These socks fold along the center back seam giving a distinctive calf shaping to the profile.   The heel is done differently than Eastern European stockings.  When the desired length is reached, the piece is divided into a heel, and 2 instep portions.  The heel is worked into a "flap" using straight needles, then joined at the bottom under the foot.  The top is continued to the desired length, then is either ended with a square toe, or decreased to a pointed toe.  Stitches are picked up along the side and bottom of the heel flap and these become side gussets and the sole.  The instep can be joined on to return to circular work and the foot section decreased at the toe, but surviving examples do not seem to support a circular worked foot.  Another variation to this type of sock is where the top of the foot is worked on straight needles to the toe with appropriate decreases, and the heel flap is worked as above.  The gussets are started at the top point where the instep separates from the heel and worked as a triangle to the heel with increases by picking up edge stitches on the instep and the heel.  A sole is then worked as a separate piece.  These methods are useful if socks need to be "re-soled" or refurbished due to wear. Expensive, silk stockings clearly were repaired.  Records show that even the extravagant Queen Elizabeth had her stockings repaired.


My theory of the late arrival of knitted stockings to Western Europe, is that the skill of knitting spread upward through both Eastern and Western Europe by the above three theories of trade and travel, but the differences in culture and materials availability between West and East Europe caused the differences in knitted sock methods and styles.  Eastern Europe maintained a cultural link with their Persian neighbors and mirrored their sock style closely using a heavier, courser wool in the more northern areas.  As Western Europe was distanced from Persia by the Crusades, their fashions were not as influenced. Knitting for caps and perhaps for socks among the peasantry developed as it did in the East, but it took the Spanish to increase the popularity of the knitted stocking among middle and upper class Western Europeans.  After the Moorish invasion of Spain, Spanish culture and style seems to go underground.  For several hundred years, everyone seems to be copying French and Italian styles. By 1500, Spain had emerged on the Western Europe social scene with a very distinctive style born of the infusion of Moorish culture.  Henry VIIIÕs knitted stockings were from Spain.  It isnÕt until Elizabeth that English-made stockings are commonly referenced.


The stockings made in Western Europe were not the startling mix of color and pattern of the Eastern European socks, but they were not plain old white things either!  Most of the stockings from the 16th century that have survived or are visible in paintings are on men.  The majority of the socks are solid stitch, but examples of colors and patterns survive also.  Mary, Queen of Scots was executed in blue wool stockings that were clocked and edged in silver.  Eleanor of Toledo, buried in 1562, was entombed wearing crimson silk stockings with turned down tops of a lattice pattern.  The legs had vertical stripes of a double moss stitch and double garter stitch.  Elizabeth I had a pair in black silk, in carnation pink, socks with gold and silver clocks, socks with embroidery, and a pair with openwork in lozenges on the legs.  A portrait of Sir Christopher Hatton in the late 16th century, shows him wearing white stockings with diagonal bands of purled patterning making an inverted V below the knee.  Johann III of Sweden was buried in yellow silk stockings with clocks that run parallel to the sole as opposed to up the ankles.  Anything goes on stockings, so be creative about patterns, embroidery, and color.


The wool I use is 70 wraps per inch, I also work  on tiny needles.  When I do a "lacy" openwork stocking I use size 0 double point needles; for a "plain" solid stocking I use 0000 double point needles.  You can purchase fine wool, wool/silk blends, and silk in a beautiful array of colors as well as tiny needles from either www.halcyon.com or www.patternworks.com.  IÕve been all over the DC metro area and canÕt seem to find anyone who carries needles smaller than size 1 or natural fiber yarn finer than fingering weight.  


A spool will provide a pair of stockings as long as you are not making thigh-high hose or a set for your 350lb lord.  First decide how long you would like to make your stockings.  I recommend to the knee.  Second, decide which of the following patterns you want to use (or pick one of your own).  Third, make a gauge swatch.  DO NOT "WING IT"! Make a gauge or spend the next year trying to find someone else to wear the stocking you took so long to make.  Fourth, measure your calf.


Sample Western European Sock Patterns (for knitting in the round):


1.    Row 1: (M2, K2TOG) Rep, Row 2: K, Row 3: (K2TOG, M2) Rep. Row 4: K.  Repeat these rows to get a lacy pattern.

2.    4 set Welts- (these increase the fabric width-wise and diminish the depth) .  (P four rows, K four rows), Rep.

3.    Lozenge stitch of Elizabeth I stockings –

Row 1: K2 *YO, SL1, K1 PSSO, K3, K2TOG, YO, K1* Repeat * to * ending with a K1.

Row 2 and all even rows K.

Row 3:K3 *YO, SL1, K1 PSSO, K1, K2TOG, YO, K3 * Repeat * to *

Row 5: K4 * YO, SL1, K2TOG, PSSO, YO, K5* Repeat * to * ending with a K4 instead of a K5.  

Row 7: K3 * K2TOG, YO, K1, YO, SL1, K1, PSSO, K3* Repeat * to *

Row 9: K2 *K2TOG, YO, K3, YO, SL1, K1, PSSO, K1 * Repeat * to *

Row 11: K1, SL1, K1 PSSO, YO *K5, YO, Sl1, K2TOG, PSSO, YO * Repeat * to * ending K5, YO, SL1, K1, PSSO, K1.

Repeat these 11 rows.


Getting Started:


Carefully document your sock pattern as you work.  This way you wonÕt be guessing where you did your decreases when you start your next sock.  As you gain experience, you will be able to "wing it" as you go and modify your pattern for other family members.


Use your gauge to determine the number of stitches per inch you are knitting in your chosen pattern.  Use your calf measurement to determine the number of stitches needed to go around your calf.


Next measure where you want the stocking to start and convert that measurement into # of stitches.  Cast on and begin your top band.  Both knitting and wool are forgiving and will allow an amount of stretch.  This will allow the top of the stocking to go over your calf.  Stockings are traditionally held up by a tied garter, as opposed to the modern elastic threads, so to be on the safe side, you may want to add a ¼- ½ inch of stitches to the top.  You can always shrink the wool in hot water if you end up with a giant stocking, but you can only stretch it so far if you end up with a toddler-sized sock!  I solve this problem by adding 2 inches of stitches onto my top band then decreasing evenly to the correct size as I begin my "leg".  This creates a cute ruffle at the top of the sock similar to the Lozenge stockings of Elizabeth I.  


Begin the "leg" of your stocking after the top band and use an appropriate number of increases and decreases to get the leg shape of your calf.  Remember to decrease in the same place to get the "seam" look in the back of the sock.  16th century stockings in Western Europe were made to mirror the woven stockings.  Many of them had patterning to imitate where a seam would have been sewn.  To create a fake "seam" down the back of your sock, follow the pattern on the attached page. (Please contact me if you obtained this handout outside of my Pennsic class and I will send you the "seam" pattern)


As you decrease down toward your ankle, think about if you want any clocks on the stocking.  


Clock patterns:

See attached sheet for patterns (Or contact me if you did not get this handout from my Pennsic class)


When you are ready to split off your heel section, divide your stitches in half. Place half of the stitches on a heel needle that you will work back and forth. Place the remaining stitches evenly on 2 needles and set aside.


Take the heel section on a straight needle and work a garter stitch (K all rows) down the back of your heel.  This stitch will help cushion the back of your heel from the shoe, and give the stocking additional durability at this point of wear.  Try on the stocking, and continue on until the piece wraps around under your foot.  Divide stitches equally onto two needles and graft together.


Take the remaining stitches on two needles and work as if on a straight needle down the foot in the same pattern as your leg, or in a stockinette stitch.  I like to decrease at both edges to narrow the strip slightly as it goes down the instep.  This keeps the foot section from becoming too bulky.  When I reach the end of the little toe, I also like to start decreasing sharply from that edge to angle the front of the stocking.  If you want to be strictly accurate, you can continue straight and bind off a square toe at the end of your big toe, or at the edge of the little toe, begin decreasing both sides to form a point.


Now work your gusset:

Leaving the bottom of the sock open, pick up stitches along the side of the heel flap. As you work the gusset in garter stitch, keep the lower edge even and decrease only from the top edge of the gusset.  With each row, pick up the corresponding rowÕs edge stitch from the top of the sock.  Decreases in the gusset will depend upon your foot.  People with flat feet will have a long, slow decrease. People with high insteps will have a sharp short decrease.  I generally decrease 2 stitches along the top edge every row.  Keep trying on the sock and write down your notes.  DonÕt be afraid to tear it out and work it again.  If you get it once, youÕll have your pattern forever. The gusset should end where your arch does on your foot.  Generally 1 ½ - 2 inches from where you started.  Bind off.


For the sole:

Pick up the bottom stitches along the heel flap and work in garter stitch along the foot.  Rather than sew it on at the sides, I pick up a corresponding stitch at each end of the row, and K2TOG to retain the correct shape.  Once you are at the toe, graft your stitches if you have a square toe, or shape corresponding decreases to match your upper half.  


Now make a 2nd sock and embroider if you like.


For garters, you can simply use ribbon, or garter stitch a strip for a tie.  I like to sew the garter onto the back of my stocking so I donÕt lose it.


If you are completely lost by this point,  please see the attached example of a "Simple Sock" pattern.


If you are not so interested in being authentic, you can use a modern sock pattern and add clocks, etc.  The "common heel" in these socks does leave a "nipple" of fabric at the back of your heel and this drives some people crazy.  A modern sock pattern will have you "turn" the heel, then rejoin and knit in the round to the toe.  You certainly can make this choice, and itÕs doubtful if anyone will see the modern heel unless you enter the sock in a competition.   IÕm an all or nothing person, so I donÕt want to spend months working on a pair of stockings using needles the size of a surgeonÕs and wool at 70 wraps per inch only to turn the heel in a modern fashion.  Ultimately, itÕs your decision, and any choice you make will be better than wearing those cotton/nylon sweat socks sold in packs of six.


Happy knitting!




REFERENCES (in no particular order)


Ethnic Socks and Stockings, Priscilla A. Gibson-Roberts.


Fancy Feet, Anna Zilboorg.


Folk Knitting in Estonia, Nancy Bush.


Mostly Mittens, Charlene Schurch.


Folk Socks, Nancy Bush.


Socks and Stockings, Jeremy Farrell.


Mary ThomasÕs Book of Knitting Patterns, Mary Thomas.


A History of Hand Knitting, Richard Rutt.


Knitted Stockings from Turkish Villages, Kenan Ozbel


Queen ElizabethÕs Wardrobe UnlockÕd, Janet Arnold


History of Knitting Before Mass Production, Irene Turnau



Simple Socks

(gauge of 16 stitches per 1")


Cast on 140 stitches, evenly spaced onto 3 DP needles size 1.  Join carefully so as to not twist the stitches.  Loosely knit in stockinette stitch for 1". Change to size 0000 needles and decrease 30 stitches evenly in the next two rounds.  Begin your seam stitch if desired.


Continue working in stockinette stitch for 7".  Begin your clocks if desired.

Also shape your calf at this time by decreasing 1 stitch each side of the back "seam" (2 stitches total) every 9 rounds 8 times. (Total decreases of 16 stitches)  


Work to heel.  Place 47 back stitches centered over the seam onto one needle for the heel flap.  Place the remaining 47 stitches onto 2 needles for the instep. Knit the heel flap in garter stitch approximately 4 1/2" until it joins comfortably under the heel.  Knit to the center of the row and break off the yarn leaving about 12" for joining.  Using a yarn needle, graft the stitches on the two needles together using a Kitchener stitch (see attached).  


Work the instep in stockinette stitch until itÕs length equals the length of the foot.  Place stitches on a holder.


Leaving approximately 1 ½" on either side of the graft for the heel, pick up stitches along the heel flap to where the instep divides.  In garter stitch, work sideways along the foot, picking up a stitch each row from the instep and decreasing 2 stitches at the instep side of each row until no stitches remain. Work the gusset on the other side.


Pick up stitches along the heel flap to work the sole of the sock.  In garter stitch, work down the foot picking up stitches at each edge from the gusset and decreasing 1 st at each edge every row.  Continue after reaching the end of the gusset by picking up stitches from the instep.  When the sole equals the length of the instep, break off the yarn leaving about 20" and join in a Kitchener stitch.


In garter stitch, knit two strips 1" wide by 20" long to use as garters. Center them over the back seam and stitch in place.


Work the corresponding sock the same.



Copyright 2001 by Debra Dunbar, 6754 Hemlock Point Rd., New Market, MD 21774. <debra.dunbar at aspenpubl.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in

the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also

appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being

reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org