Saturday, November 29, 2008

Well Stockinged

I'm pleased to report, thanks to weeks of frantic knitting, that my first pair of stockings is completed; never again shall my legs be chilled, or less than historically accurate, when I wear 19th-century clothing. It's rather a surprise to me still that I undertook such a project, having always planned to purchase modern "thigh-high" stockings rather than waste the time on such a gargantuan effort.

I was finally tempted by a pattern published in Godey's, 1861. Its appeal lay largely in its relative ease, being merely an abbreviated tube partially unraveled to give it length, shaping, and a pretty openwork pattern.


CAST on the needles as many stitches as would be required for an ordinary stocking for a child. Knit it once around, then rib it until an inch long, then bind off. Take up the stitches and commence knitting straight around plain stocking stitch until you have a finger and a half done; then knit once around, dropping every other stitch off the needle; then stretch out the stocking ; and the stitches will run down until it reaches the ribbed piece, and no farther, forming a beautiful open worked stocking . Having kept the remaining stitches on the needles, finish off the toe by knitting straight around, narrowing every time on each needle. It will shape itself on the leg, and will be sufficiently long, as it only requires two fingers in length for a lady's
stocking .

A combination of foolish ambition and a desire to start right away without waiting for a new shipment of yarn convinced me that it would be a good idea to knit them in a heathered brown lace weight merino wool that happened to be lying about my apartment. I used a set of 5 double pointed pins in modern size 00.

I was a bit worried over length at first. Partly because I know that my legs are rather long, especially by mid-19th century standards, and partly because I was not sure if the stockings should reach over my knee. In the illustration accompanying the pattern, they do not cover the knee. I have seen references to the great garter debate pitting over-the-kneers 'gainst under-the-kneers, but I could not remember where. So I decided to see what The Workwoman's Guide (1840) had to say:

Knit stockings are considered so much better than woven ones for wear, that it is advisable for all servants, cottagers and labourers invariably to adopt them, as the former will last out three or more of the woven, which are more suitable for the higher classes.

The children of the poor should always be taught to knit, and each member of a family ought to have a stocking in hand to take up at idle moments, by which means many pairs might be completed in the year. It is difficult to make very correct scales for different sized knit stockings, as so much depends on the quality of the worsted and of the pins, as also on the knitter, as some persons work much slacker than others, so that two stockings knit with the same pins and worsted, may be of very different sizes when knit by different persons.

The following proportion for a general rule is good, and may prove useful, though to tolerably experienced knitters, it is recommended to procure a pair of stockings that fit very well, and to knit others like them, which can easily be done by means of constantly measuring and comparing them with the pattern.


Ascertain the proper breadth of the stocking. From the top to the bend of the knee is one square, or the length of the breadth. From the bend of the knee to the beginning of the calf is one square or breadth. From the beginning to the end of the calf, is one square or breadth. (See note.*) •
I suppose most of that is quaint and colorful rather than useful to the question at hand, but the final paragraph helped me quite a lot. As you can see, the top breadth is clearly meant to be taken above the bend in the knee, assuring me that stockings, at least in 1840, often covered that portion of the leg. They were also quite figured, with many complicated formulas for decreasing, making me very thankful for my tube stocking pattern.

(Perhaps the change in length has something to do with the universal introduction of drawers around mid century...but that is merely speculation!)
After testing a ribbed band that turned out to be far too large, I settled on 116 stitches divided between four needles. I was particularly curious to see how much the knitted fabric expanded after every other stitch was unravelled. My guess was a 3 to 1 increase, and I was very nearly right. Having decided to make them over-the-knee, I knitted 11 inches (2 inches extra) before dropping the stitches and narrowing for the toe.

Here are more pictures of my stockings in various stages of progress:

11 inches long and ready to drop half the stitches.

Stretching out to unravel the dropped stitches.
Finished and worn with garters.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Order of the Garters

It's hard to relive the 1850s in slacks, let alone skinny jeans. Researching, and occasionally recreating, historic fashion has long been one of my favorite hobbies. As you might guess, lately I've been focusing on the middle of the 19th century.

Having spent the last year or so reading issues of Godey's Lady's Book and poring over The Workwoman's Guide, I'm finally ready to start sewing, knitting, crocheting, etc. It seemed a good idea to begin from the inside out, since 19th-century undergarments have a great deal to do with the way the rest of the clothing fits.

My first official project (remind me to show you some of my earlier slapdash 19th-century efforts when I'm in a self-effacing mood) was stocking and garters. Knitting is more space economical than sewing and therefore more suited to a studio apartment.

I tackled the garters first, having already knitted a pair for a friend from the pattern accompanying this illustration, as seen in Godey's June 1862 issue:

Since this particular pair was billed as "NEW STYLE OF GARTER" and I am interested in the previous decade, I figured it might be as well to find an earlier reference. Here's what the Workwoman's Guide, c. 1840, had to say on the subject:

PLATE 21. FIG. 23.

These are chiefly worn by females, and are merely narrow strips of knitting, of three quarters of a yard long, and a nail, more or less, wide. They are made of worsted, cotton, or soft wool ; the latter is most elastic and pleasant. For garters, set on from twelve to twenty, or even thirty stitches, according to the fineness of the material. Knit backwards and forwards till of the proper length, when fasten off. Some persons prefer a loop at the end ; for which purpose, when near the end, divide the stitches equally upon two pins, and knit each pin about ten ribs, after which connect them together by binding them in fastening off. Garters arc sometimes knit by putting the material, which is fine, twice round the pin at every stitch, letting the pin be very thick. Garters are sometimes ribbed, at others knit, in a succession of squares of different patterns.

I used some leftover fingering wool as it seemed to achieve the correct gauge. By combining generalities from the earlier source with some of the later pattern, this is what I came up with:

The only problem with foot/leg wear -- you have to make two! More soon.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Those Honest Days of Yore

"They recall the pictures my fancy used to draw in the May morning of life, when as yet I only knew the world through books, and believed it to be all that poets had painted it; and they bring with them the flavour of those honest days of yore, in which, perhaps with equal fallacy, I am apt to think the world was more homebred, social, and joyous, than at present!"

-- Washington Irving, 1820

One of the great consolations for life in the present is the splendid vantage point it affords for eulogizing the past. Hindsight claims the privilege of selectivity; it casts a silvery glow over the things we choose to remember, and tactfully obscures those points that interfere with nostalgia.

How many of us, when conforming to modernity becomes onerous, have turned a longing eye to this watercolor vision of yesteryear? What would we not give to return to those harmonious days of sincere affection, beautiful dwellings, and verdant nature -- when men and women rose with the sun and retired after a well-ordered day of joyful labor to an ivy-covered cottage?

Delusional? Perhaps. But our race has earned the right to make its own version of the past -- earned it by enduring all the present days that once were. The gift history brings is the ability to speak to future generations, through oral tradition and written record; to transmit that which is best of ourselves and of our times so that it may be saved, and the rest, like a pain that has subsided, blessedly forgotten.

The past, like a fine wine, benefits from aging, that it may mellow and take on the elusive flavor we are seeking. 150 years seems a decent interval for the cellar. And there is no one left living to tell us what we do not wish to hear. Won't you join me in reliving the best of the 1850s? I chose New York City because that is where I am now -- it's enough to transmute time without worrying about place. Besides, I have a feeling New York City was (as some feel it is now) the place to be in 1850...