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Knitted Socks – A Tale to Tell

While designing and knitting socks I began to daydream about the origin of socks. Soon I was searching for information on the topic and I came upon fascinating research attributed to a Nancy F.:

Historians have not found writings about the humble sock prior to the 8th century. It appears most everyone was walking about in sandals a la the Roman gladiators for about 700 years. The first recorded reference to something sock like was felt wrappings worn inside bound leather boots. This was around 700BC. The first direct reference was before the 1st century AD describing wrappings worn as protection from the cold. However, this was seen as a sign of weakness if worn by a man not in the military. Ironically, in the next century for a man to wear felted slipper-like foot coverings was seen as a sign of refinement in dress.

After the fall of Rome in the 5th Century and the Saxons gaining control of Britain, wearing what was called socque made of woven cloth or thin leather spread across Europe. But it was really in the 12th Century when breeches were shortened to the knee that a separate, coarse garment or hose made of linen or wool became common. It was the men (Always the first in fashion, right?) who wore embroidered knee-length stockings.

By the early 14th Century European men were wearing hose in various lengths: just below the calf, to the knee, or thigh-high with decorations, stripes or each leg in a different color. About then, advances in woven textile manufacturing allowed for hose to stretch. Scarlet was a fine elastic wool fabric suitable for socks. It was dyed in numerous colors, but red was most popular—this red became the color we know today as scarlet.

Socks played an important role in the evolution of fashion, especially for men. Fashion was shortening men’s tunics to jackets and breeches were abandoned. Simultaneously men’s hose began extending up the leg to meet at the crotch where they were attached to the jacket with laces. What started as a pair of socks turned into a garment that reached from the waist to the feet. To add to this terribly immodest display, the jacket became shorter and a codpiece was added.

By the late 1600s true breeches that reached just below the knee were common and worn with stockings held up by garters. These stockings were made using a remarkable new technique known as knitting. The oldest examples of hand knitting are from about 200AD. This craft became what we know today between 500 and 1200 AD in the Arabic countries.

As metalwork advanced, finer needles allowed for finer work. A pair of silk knitted stockings were the prized possession of Henry VIII of England. And when Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots was executed in 1586, she was wearing a pair of white knitted stockings held up with green garters.

By the time Elizabeth I became queen knitting was becoming a widespread craft. The queen received her first pair of silk stockings from Mistress Montague as a New Year’s gift in 1560. In 1577, she switched to knitted wool hose made in Norwich, still known today for its worsted wools. By 1588, Queen Elizabeth was wearing carnation pink and many other colors. By the early 16th century most English children and country people were wearing wool socks.

In regions throughout the British Isles stockings were being knit, with each region producing different types of socks depending on the available wool in many colors, style and lengths. The knitting of socks and other garments provided a livelihood for many a peasant laborer, allowing an independence he may not have had otherwise.

The first British knitting school opened in York in 1588, and by the end of the 1600s, one to two million pair of hand-knit stockings were being exported from Britain to other parts of Europe.

Today there are literally millions of patterns for hand knit socks. So far, my contribution numbers five.

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