Sunday, December 14, 2008

Mostly Stockings

Thanks to a very mid-19th century sounding case of the sniffles, I had a bit of extra time to knit this weekend, and so have finished my husband's non-19th century sweater vest more quickly than expected.

Additional news from the knitting front includes the arrival by post of my latest yarn supply from (I know it's very un-1850s to admit ordering yarn from a website, but what else can one do these days?). The colored balls are Peruvian wool, the undyed skein is a wool and silk blend. All are fingering weight and intended for railway stockings.

I must admit I begin to have doubts about how many reasonably well-to-do urban women knitted their own stockings in the 1850s. According to Godey's Lady's Book in March, 1847:

The knitting of the family stockings has, to be sure, been in a great measure superseded by the cheapness of the manufactured article. Still, the warmest and most lasting stockings are those knit by hand. We know several elderly ladies who now do the work of charity with their knitting needles, furnishing many pairs of strong, substantial stockings for the poor.
Clearly there was considerable availability of very fine manufactured product at a price that made it unattractive for many women to make or wear 'homespun' stockings. Most fashionable seem to be silk stockings, decorated with embroidered 'clocks' or even beads, according to one article. I have seen a pair of stockings from the 1870s matching this general description. They are of very finely knitted silk -- clearly done by machine -- their ornament being in the form of a monogram. They are figured (shaped to the leg by decreases and increases) and reach over the knee. I imagine that many stockings from the middle of the 19th century followed this pattern.

It seems that knitted stockings -- credited to Spain -- have been in demand ever since the mid 1500s when they began to replace cloth hose. It did not take long for someone to invent a machine to replace the extensive human labor involved. The frame was not immediately embraced, for fear of putting hand knitters out of work, but growing demand ensured its eventual adoption. Again, from Godey's Lady's Book, June, 1853:


WE are told that Henry II. of France was the first who wore silk stockings, at his sister's wedding to the Duke of Savoy, in 1509. Howell, in his "History of the World," says that, in 1550, Queen Elizabeth was presented with a pair of black silk knit stockings by her silkwoman, Mrs. Montague, and she never wore cloth ones any more. He also adds that Henry VIII. wore ordinarily cloth hose, except there came from Spain, by great chance, a pair of silk-stockings. His son, King Edward VI., was presented with a pair of long Spanish silk stockings by Sir Thomas Gresham. Hence it would seem that the invention of knit stockings originally came from Spain. Anderson tells us— others relate— that one William Rider, an apprentice on London Bridge, seeing at the house of an Italian merchant a pair of knit stockings, from Mantua, took the hint, and made a pair exactly like them, which he presented to the Earl of Pembroke, and that they were the first of that kind worn in England. There have been various opinions with respect to the original invention of the stocking-frame; but it is now generally acknowledged that it was invented in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, in the year 1589, by William Lee, M.A., of St. John's College in Cambridge, a native of Woodborough, near Nottingham. In the "London Magazine," vol. iv. p. 337, we are told that this gentleman was expelled the University for marrying contrary to the statutes of the College. Being thus rejected, and ignorant of any other means of subsistence, he was reduced to the necessity of living upon what his wife could earn by knitting of stockings, which gave a spur to his invention; and by curiously observing the working of the needles in knitting, he formed in his mind the model of the frame, which proved of such advantage to that branch of our manufactures. Mr. Lee went to France, and for want of patronage there and in England, died of a broken heart, at Paris. The Framework Knitters' Company was incorporated by Charles II., 1663. In their hall is the portrait of Lee, pointing to one of the iron frames, and discoursing with a woman, who is knitting with needles and her fingers.

One of the ways that women contributed to the 18th-century American revolution was by foregoing European manufactured clothing and creating 'homespun' wardrobes for their families. This included a re adoption of the hand knit stocking. Not to imply that that cozy woolen article ever went completely out of favor in deference to its machine made counterpart. Merely that by the 1850s (and likely well before) it was not a la mode to encase one's calf in coarse wool if silk was available, nor was it considered a good use of an active woman's time to knit such intricate articles. Children and the elderly knitted stockings where bought ones were too dear or could not be had easily or in sufficient number. Of course there were many proponents of handmade stockings as better fitting, warmer, longer lasting, etc. Still, increasing improvements in their manufacture continued to make inroads on hand knitting.

This of course applies mainly to women's legwear. Many patterns of socks and stockings for men, and children especially, are given in the pages of Godey's (and one may presume in the pages of comparable publications) throughout the 1850s. Directions for knitting women's stockings are included in The Workwoman's Guide of 1840 (originally published earlier), and also in a number of issues of Weldon's Practical Needlework (published by a thread company in the 1870s to reintroduce lower and middle class British women to dying needlearts).

The only women's stocking pattern that I have yet found in Godey's around mid century is the aforementioned railway stocking pattern from 1861. Perhaps it was presumed that women knew as much as they needed to about knitting stockings and the railway stocking happened to be print worthy by virtue of novelty. But is it not a pretty coincidence that this simple (yet lacy), time saving pattern for hand knitting something that most women were accustomed to buy ready made was published just in time for the country to again go to war (when access to manufactured goods would be disrupted)?

Regardless of strict accuracy, I plan to continue my knitting of railway stockings in red and grey wool, and white silk. While it may have been more likely for a woman of my means to buy her stockings already made, I challenge you to find a stocking counter still in New York City, let alone one that carries figured knee-high clocked silk stockings at a reasonable price. Now if I could only convince my husband to let me build a stocking frame in our apartment...

**On another note that might interest my husband, legend claimed that the inventor of the stocking frame did so because he was tired of trying to attract his wife's attention while she sat knitting. In 1847, British painter Alfred Elmore imagined the scene in an oft-engraved painting entitled "Rev Lee Inventing the Stocking Frame" (the image below is of the engraving, also by Elmore).

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