A brief history of British socks

socks

Things are very busy around here! For those of you interested in Peerie Flooers kits, I’ll be updating the shop this Friday, May 9th, at around 9pm GMT. Meanwhile, here’s another article I’ve had time to excavate from my archives — a survey of the history of socks and stockings in the UK, which was originally published in The Knitter a few years ago. The distinction between what I’ve referred to here as “luxury” and “utilitarian” socks, and the historic gendering of that distinction among sock / stocking knitters, still really interests me.

——–
A Brief History of British Socks

Socks have always been needed to protect the feet from the vagaries of the British weather. To stave off the wind and rain, our Celtic ancestors customarily wrapped and bound their feet and legs with woven woollen cloth. Later, Roman invaders found that Northern climes were tough on their Mediterranean feet, and found themselves ditching their sandals in favour of the footwear of the sensible ancient Britons. One of the 1st century correspondence tablets discovered at Vindolanda in Northumbria notoriously includes the instruction to “send more socks,” and among the site’s most important discoveries are a child-sized pair of woollen bootees. These ancient socks are formed like a rudimentary envelope, with a separate sewn-on sole and upper to accommodate the curves of a tiny foot.

vindolanda

(Child’s woollen sock, found at Vindolanda)

Throughout the Medieval and Tudor periods, socks evolved with the changing vagaries of men’s fashion. As breeches decreased in length, so stockings grew longer, eventually extending from foot to waist in an all-in-one garment that resembled a pair of tights. Though Britain’s working people were certainly knitting their own homespun socks and stockings by this time, the hosiery of men of upper rank was still generally made of woven cloth with a back seam and bias cut. But by the 15th Century, the men of France and Italy led the way with their fine hand-knit silk stockings. Men found that the stretchy fabric had two benefits: ease of movement and an ability to show off a shapely leg. Aristocratic Britons were soon following their European neighbours, and knitted silk stockings became the rage among the British fashionable elite.

fashionableeconomy

CI44.8.13ab
(Late eighteenth-century stockings. Met Museum CI44.8.13ab)

By the 16th Century, hosiery, like other forms of clothing, was regulated by strict sumptuary laws. In 1566, surveillance techniques were employed by the City of London to ensure that the wrong kind of socks were not being worn anywhere in the capital. The London sock police comprised four “sad and discreet” persons, who were positioned twice a day at the gates of the city, checking the legs of those entering and leaving for erroneous hose.

Woodcockstocking
stocking frame knitter

In 1589, a sock revolution began in the home of William Lee of Calverton, Nottinghamshire. A somewhat shadowy figure, Lee has become the stuff of knitting myth and legend through his development of the stocking frame. One story has it that he invented out of spite: having discovered that his sweetheart preferred her knitting to his addresses, he created a machine that would deprive her of her favourite occupation. But another version of the story suggests that Lee devised the stocking frame for his beloved wife, who had been forced to knit feverishly to supplement the family income. Either way, the origin of the stocking frame in a supposed battle of the sexes points to a division between male and female that was intriguingly written out in the later history of Lee’s machine: while framework knitting, much like weaving, became a respected masculine occupation, hand knitters were thought of as unskilled, remained un-incorporated, and were primarily women.

9livingmuses
Women of the Bluestocking circle, depicted as The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain in a print by Richard Samuel, 1779.

But British women changed the history of socks in different ways. Originally, “bluestockings” were simply common-or-garden socks; the ‘blue’ referring to the greyish hue of the worsted yarn from which they were spun and knitted. Rather than the costly white silk that was favoured by her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots famously wore stockings of blue worsted at her execution. But by the middle of the eighteenth century, “bluestockings” had assumed an entirely new significance. British women were widely admired for their learning and literary abilities, and a salon culture flourished. In 1756, botanist, Benjamin Stillingfleet, turned down an invitation from woman-of-letters, Elizabeth Vesey because he didn’t possess the formal attire usually worn at a polite assembly. Vesey replied, “don’t mind dress! Come in your blue stockings,” and from then on, “bluestockings” became a shorthand not just for the informal spirit of such gatherings, but for Vesey’s group of learned friends, and female intellectuals more generally. By the close of the century, bluestocking had also become a term available for satire and abuse, as demonstrated by Rowlandson’s famous print of 1815.

bluestocking1815

The contrast between formal silk, and ordinary blue worsted, points to a division that defines the modern history of British socks. Socks basically came in two categories: luxury, and utilitarian. In the 18th century, the luxury sock would have been made from imported silk, or the fine fibres of long-wool sheep, by a male frame knitter in London or one of the growing towns and cities of the Midlands. The utilitarian sock, meanwhile, would have been hand-knit by a poor woman in a rural village, from the much coarser wool of the sheep of Westmorland, Wales, or Scotland. While frame-knit silk stockings were costly accessories worn by those of middling and upper rank, hand-knit worsted socks were plain, hard-wearing items favoured by soldiers and working folk. Such utility socks sold from 5 to 7 pence a pair, and, despite technological advances, the market for them remained buoyant for most of the 18th Century. Thousands of pairs were exported and sold in the British colonies, which were at that time bound by the mother country’s restrictions on manufacturing. In rural areas famed for sheep and wool, whole villages—such as Dent in Westmorland, Sanquhar in the Scottish Borders or Bala in North Wales—might be kept employed hand-knitting socks for the Americas. In 1767, Benjamin Franklin’s enterprising maidservant, Ann Hardy, made a reasonable secondary income by selling to Philadelphians the worsted stockings that her friends would regularly send to her from Britain.

janebrown1
knitting stick, used by early nineteenth-century knitter, Jane Brown.

Following the American Revolution and Napoleonic wars, the bottom fell out of the export market for British hand-knitted socks. Village knitters found themselves forced to change strategy, and devised alternate woollen products which appealed to a more exclusive buyer, such as the famous patterned gloves of Sanquhar. Meanwhile, the luxury sock market seemed to shift in the opposite direction as skilled framework knitters found their craft increasingly downgraded and cheapened by the effects of the industrial revolution. The original Luddites were, in fact, sock knitters: men who, empowered by the license their charter gave for collective action, destroyed the wide stocking frames and shoddy goods of the new mill owners. The actions of the Luddities were punished by transportation and, in some cases, death: giant mills spread their chimneys over the Midlands, and the skill of framework knitting was soon lost. By the twentieth century, fine stockings of silk, cotton and nylon were being churned out on wide frames in factories all over the country. But the hand-knitting of socks never really disappeared: utility socks continued to be produced commercially on a small scale in the Shetland Islands and Aberdeen, and elsewhere throughout Britain, women (and girls) continued to knit socks for themselves and their families as they had done for centuries.

frankmeadowsutcliffe
Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, Girl knitting a sock on Whitby Pier, c.1880. ©Frank Meadow Sutcliffe Gallery.

Today, in a world of cheap, mass-produced textiles, where we are often separated from the material origins and making of our clothing, a sock knitted by hand is a truly marvellous thing. Ann Budd has described knitted socks as “intimate luxuries” and, indeed that is what they have now become. Socks are ideal small canvases for the skills and preferences of knitters: made with beautiful hand-dyed, or colourful self-striping yarns; showcasing breathtaking stitch patterns; and featuring a level of detail and ornament to rival any sixteenth-century silk stocking. Contemporary sock designs range from the gorgeous to the whimsical, with beaded tops, lacey cuffs, intriguing heels, or incorporated hand-spun pet hair. Many new sock designs feature innovative shaping techniques, allowing knitted fabric to adapt to the curves of instep and ankle, in a way that recalls the bias cut of early stocking hose.

But, however luxurious the yarn, however complex the design, most of all, socks are made to be worn and walked in. The popularity of hand knitted socks has also meant that the age-old skill of darning has gained a new lease of life, as today’s knitters prolong the life of their favourite accessories by repairing worn-out heels and toes. And, as our Roman ancestors found, socks have always been uniquely connected to the British climate and landscape.

swaledaleseasocks
Felicity Ford’s “Swaledale Sea Socks”

Handling skeins of wool raised and spun in Cornwall and Kent reminded artist and knitter, Felicity Ford, of the sounds and textures of the beaches of Britain’s South coast. Inspired by the connection between yarn and landscape, she knitted up her “Swaledale Sea Socks” using natural and blue worsted yarn. “I like the imaginative link between the tactile qualities of wool (used to clothe the feet) and terrain, (upon which those clothed feet walk),” says Ford. “In a world where yarn is increasingly sourced from nameless, faraway places, this sense of locale and traceability – plus their evocative, tactile qualities – made my Swaledale sea socks seem intimately connected to the landscapes where I have since walked in them.” In Ford’s new bluestockings, the history of British socks seems to have come full circle.

felixsocks
(Felicity Ford’s “Swaledale Sea Socks”)

Further Reading:
Nancy Bush, Folk Socks (1994)
Richard Rutt, The History of Handknitting (1987)
E.P. Thompson, The Making of The English Working Class (1963)
Joan Thirsk, “The Fantastical Folly of Fashion: The English Stocking Knitting Industry, 1500-1700” (1973; reprinted 1984).

First Footing (Ceilidh Oidche Challain)

sox

I’m really pleased to introduce my first sock pattern, which is now available as a kit in my online shop. I knit socks all the time, but for some reason have never yet designed a pair…until now! This very seasonal design celebrates the Scottish New-Year tradition of First Footing, which, in Gaelic is known as Ceilidh Oidhche Challain (translating as “a visit on Hogmanay night”). In Gaelic, Ceilidh does not really signify a party, in the terms we know it today, but should be thought of more generally as a sociable visit. Ceilidh Oidhche Challain would traditionally have been very jolly affair indeed, as communities celebrated the turning of the New Year together with the sharing of songs, tales, and verse. So if you fancy first footing this Hogmanay, why not do so in a fresh pair of socks?

socktoes

The cuff-down sock pattern covers two sizes – small and medium – to fit adult feet with 8in or 9in circumferences. The kit contains pattern, project bag, and lovely Jamieson and Smith Shetland Heritage yarn, in a choice of two colourways, indigo or madder (the same as the Toatie Hottie kits).

socks2

So pop on your socks and prepare for Hogmanay!

First Footing kits are now available.

Ode to my Socks

Image

 A comment from CinOz in response to the previous post pointed me towards this wonderful Pablo Neruda poem, which I thought you’d enjoy reading.

Ode to my Socks

Mara Mori brought me
a pair of socks
which she knitted herself
with her sheepherder’s hands,
two socks as soft as rabbits.
I slipped my feet into them
as if they were two cases
knitted with threads of twilight and goatskin,
Violent socks,
my feet were two fish made of wool,
two long sharks
sea blue, shot through
by one golden thread,
two immense blackbirds,
two cannons,
my feet were honored in this way
by these heavenly socks.
They were so handsome for the first time
my feet seemed to me unacceptable
like two decrepit firemen,
firemen unworthy of that woven fire,
of those glowing socks.

Nevertheless, I resisted the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere as schoolboys
keep fireflies,
as learned men collect
sacred texts,
I resisted the mad impulse to put them
in a golden cage and each day give them
birdseed and pieces of pink melon.
Like explorers in the jungle
who hand over the very rare green deer
to the spit and eat it with remorse,
I stretched out my feet and pulled on
the magnificent socks and then my shoes.

The moral of my ode is this:
beauty is twice beauty
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool in winter.

Pablo Neruda. Trans. by Robert Bly.

Of Note

coopsox

I’ve been really inspired by some fantastic knitting books which have turned up here recently, so I thought I’d give them a shout-out. First up is Rachel Coopey‘s much anticipated first collection. Rachel is truly the Queen of Socks — she has a distinctive feel for pattern and structure which suits her foot-shaped canvas perfectly. Her designs are thoughtful, precise and definitively knitterly — she often reverses or mirrors stitch patterns across her socks in ways that are not only aesthetically pleasing but will really engage the maker’s interest through a pair. For example, Milfoil (the green pair that you can see above), has a horizontal mirror between cuff and foot that makes each sock the opposite of the other, while in Budleigh (my favourite design in the collection) neat cables and twisted stitches flow through the design with a vertical reflection that separates left from right.

budleigh

Inside the book are ten beautifully written and laid-out patterns; a technical section with instructions for essential sock-knitting techniques (including a useful illustrated afterthought heel-tutorial) and jolly English seaside photography. What’s not to love?

yoohoo

You can pre-order the book directly from Rachel here.

Next up, and top of the tree for pure knitterliness, is Lynne Barr’s new book, The Shape of Knitting. Lynne has an amazingly innovative approach to stitch, and I think she is one of the most creative and inventive designers around today.

lynn

My approach to design tends to be very referential. I see a thing, or read a thing, or hear a thing — I like the thing — and I want to somehow render, or celebrate, or get to the heart of the thing in stitches. Lynne’s approach is completely different, and I completely love it. She says:

Inspiration isn’t always derived from things we see around us — or even from words we read or hear. Sometimes it comes from something intangible within us. When playing with a technique, I sometimes feel like a dowser, but holding knitting needles instead of a dowsing rod to guide me toward an unknown goal.

I feel about two hundred years behind Lynne’s design-aesthetic — a plodding Wordsworth to her John Ashberry. Don’t get me wrong — I love the technical aspects of designing, and I like to make stitches do things for me, but I think that Lynne’s relationship to stitch is on another level entirely — like the listener of a symphony who has somehow become a sort of instrument themselves. If you have any interest in the creative possibilities of knitwear design, then you need to immediately get hold of a copy The Shape of Knitting to put on your shelf next to Lynne’s previous book.

Finally, here is a book I’ve been looking forward to seeing for some time.

rosa1

I admire Rosa Pomar for many reasons, but perhaps most for her thorough commitment to exploring and documenting the history of Portuguese textiles from the grass-roots up. Behind this wonderful book stands several years work, as Rosa has travelled around Portugal, researching animal husbandry, spinning, weaving, knitting, garment construction, and the traditional craft and design practices of men and women all over her beautiful country. Though my Portuguese is non-existent, I still find so much food for thought here.

rosa2

rosa3

rosa4

As well as exploring the history and distinctive techniques of Portuguese hand knitting, the book also includes patterns for twenty lovely accessories inspired by traditional design. I think that this one is my favourite . . .

bag

. . . not least for the way it showcases Rosa’s own Mirandesa yarn, which is hand spun and plied in Trás-os-Montes from the wool of Churra Galega Mirandesa sheep. This book marks an important landmark in the way the history of hand knitting is researched and written about, and you can buy it from Rosa here.

hedges, walls, and an ancient sock

We have been out and about in Border country. This part of the world is rolling and green and utterly lovely at this time of year. The fields are full of lambs and calves; the hard edges of the roadside are softened with the haze of new growth; the hedgerows are white with hawthorn and cow parsley. “It really looks like England,” said Tom, as we drove South. “Probably the hedgerows,” I replied. However much Wordsworth tried to gloss them as natural – “little lines / Of sportive wood run wild” – hedgerows are, of course, one of the obvious signs of private property and enclosure. This landscape is completely parcelled up inside their pretty green walls. Pretty stone walls abound down here, too.

We had crossed the border to have a walk around the Borders’ definitive wall – the one belonging to the Emperor Hadrian.

It has been quite a while since I’ve done any low-level walking in England, and I found it interesting. The land is fertile and well-drained; the paths are clear and well-defined. There are stiles and gates enabling you to pass through the criss-crossing walls and hedges. There are wooden waymarkers everywhere — one rarely has to consult the map. There are wary sheep and dubious cows. One’s dog must walk to heel at all times. I am not saying that the Highlands are in any sense any more wild or natural or anything – Scottish landscapes are, of course, equally carefully managed and controlled. It is just different, and those differences feel quite striking.

The most interesting walls we saw yesterday were those at the Roman fort of Vindolanda. When researching a feature a while ago, I had read about a child’s sock that had turned up at the Vindolanda excavations – an ancient, envelope-shaped bootee of woven wool. It had been pulled from the ground intact, and is probably the oldest complete woolly sock in existence in Britain. I really wanted to see it.

If you haven’t been to Vindolanda, I would definitely recommend it. The site’s finds are marvelous, and are presented extremely well in the recently-refurbished museum. Being a snotty historical type, I was less sure about the 1970s reconstructions of a wooden gatehouse and section of wall, but the museum collections really blew me away. No photography allowed, so I can’t show you any of these wonderful objects, which I found moving in their ordinariness and what they suggested about daily life in a garrison town on the edge of Empire. The textiles were the highlight for me: the sock was incredible, and certainly well-worth the wait, and there was also an intriguing insect-proof wig, and an amazing and very beautiful collection of shoes (Vindolanda probably has the best-preserved collection of Roman leather in the world). References to textiles abound, too, in Vindolanda’s famous writing tablets, with one correspondent sending the no-doubt grateful recipient “socks from Sattua, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants.”

After all those walls, we crossed back over the border to take advantage of Scotland’s more liberal ideas of public access with a spot of wild camping.

There is nothing quite like a copper beech on a soft Summer evening

even the bracken looked nice

and you can’t argue when your chosen spot comes complete with its own swimming pool.

socks, owls, &c. . .


(recognise that darned heel, Mandy?)

Some of you may be interested to know that the above appears in this month’s issue of The Knitter magazine. It is the first piece for publication that I’ve produced since the stroke, and because of this, I feel unusually proud of it. Did you know that such a thing as sock police existed? No? Get hold of a copy of The Knitter and find out more! I really enjoyed researching this article, and turned up many whacko stocking-related oddments on ecco and elsewhere….For example, I didn’t have a chance to include this intriguing piece of advice from John Gardiner’s Inquiry into the Nature, Cause, and Cure of the Gout published here in Edinburgh in 1792, but I thought you might enjoy it. . . (if enjoy is the word, ahem).

“As soon as a fit or the symptoms of an approaching fit appear, the patient is directed to draw on each foot three or four socks, made of the finest and softest wool, commonly sold under the name of Welsh flannel; over them a pair of short hose or bootikins of oiled silk, drawn as close as possible around the ankle…After the bootikins have been neatly applied, one, or two more socks are to be drawn over each and to cover the whole, a pair of soft woolly Shetland stockings.”

If I’m counting correctly, that’s eight pairs of socks. . . imagine.

This now-familiar image of my headless torso also appears in The Knitter in the context of a discussion of Ravelry knitalongs. And when I went popped over to Ravelry to have a look at recent o w l-related activity, I noticed that there were more than three thousand projects listed ! Three thousand o w l s! I felt I should commemorate this exciting discovery in some way, and found that Amy, from Hartlepool, was the three-thousandth knitter of an o w l sweater. Congratulations Amy! (I am sending her a wee owl-themed gift to commemorate the momentous occasion.)

And finally, as this picture would suggest, I did make it to Stirling, but unfortunately not for very long. . . frankly, I can hardly believe that I actually wrote a whole blog post about having a migraine and I do not want to produce another along similar lines . . . suffice it to say that I was able to spend a few happy hours with my friends before returning home.

I was quite put out, but this wee feller was still happy to see me.

obliging

shoes

Last weekend I was lucky enough to visit Rosie’s Yarn Cellar, and spend a lovely afternoon with Jen, Jenna, Wendy, Magda, Lisa, and many other knitters. It was so nice to spend a few hours knitting and chatting in exceptionally good company, and when I left, they presented me with some good, strong, black leaf tea (which made me feel very at home as I had been, just that morning, cursing the generic horror of Liptons — whatever it is in those bags (cat fluff? ground-up egg shells? dust balls?) it certainly is not tea!) . . . as well as this marvelous vessel from which to imbibe my favourite beverage:

owl

Hoot hoot! Thankyou, Rosie’s! I wrapped the owl in many layers and you will be glad to hear that he made it safely back across the Atlantic with me. I arrived home to find that a number of Very Exciting things had turned up in the post. First, a package of delight arrived from Hamburg. Lovely Viv (who loves neeps as much as me) made me these beautiful embossed leaves socks.

vivsocks

How fab are they? In the package were a number of other gorgeous treats, including some seeds, which shall produce actual — rather than knitted — leaves on the allotment next year. Viv, you really are a *star* – your socks made me very happy. Thanks so much!

And here we see the contents of another exciting package:

beet1

This is Liz‘s beetheid, which she kindly sent on a brief trip North so I could see just how nice it looks at first hand. What I find really interesting (as I always do with colourwork) is how radically colour placement affects tone. The grey background of the ‘neepheid’ and the ‘beetheid’ are exactly the same shade (Jamieson & Smith no.27), but appear totally dissimilar — the purple / gold of the neep colourway, and the burgundy / brown of the beet colourway have brought out completely different qualities in the grey. ( Here are pictures of my original neep, and Viv’s super incarnation, if you, too, are interested to compare.) I love Liz’s beetheid — its so jolly and autumnal. It’s with some regret that I’ll return it in the post tomorrow. . . .

beet4

. . .but I’ve been keeping myself occupied, colourwork-wise, swatching like crazy, and repeatedly marveling at the remarkable things that colours do to one another. Here’s one favourite that I recently knitted up.

band

This is a swatch with a purpose. I made it wide and deep enough to fit my heid; added a knitted-in lining out of some exceptionally soft and cosy angora; and finished the edges with (you guessed it) icord . . .

lining

This cosy, ear-warming headband constitutes item no.1 of my proposed entirely-woollen-winter-walking-outfit. I was looking forward to trying out its unique warming properties upon a windy Scottish hill . . . . But then someone got his hands on it first. . .

bandheid

This headband is very practical, quick to knit, and clearly appeals to blokes as well. I now need to make myself another, which will prompt me to write up the (very simple) pattern. This will be a FREEBIE, and I’ll post it here later this week

And finally, as so many of you have been asking about The Shoes, I shall oblige you with the details: They are made by Red or Dead and are available here from Schuh. I saw my friend Mel in a pair a few weeks ago, and immediately had to buy some exactly the same as hers. At the top of this post, you can see my giant copy-cat hooves pictured alongside Mel’s neat, wee originals. Both of us agree that these shoes are exceptionally good for walking. They are also the sort of shoes that feel immediately foot-friendly, and require no breaking in. I like mine so much, in fact, I may well have to buy another pair in a different colour.

some socks

I have been knitting some socks for about three months now, and finally finished them last night. It generally takes me a good long while to make a pair of socks. While I enjoy the process, for me, there is somehow no urgency about them. I do understand how some knitters find them completely addictive, but I am not among their ranks. For I am, at the moment at least, an outfit knitter. That is, in this year of making rather than buying clothes, I have become a shallow product-focused person who tends to knit things with specific outfits in mind. As said outfits rarely involve woolly socks, they are generally shoved to the bottom of the knitting pile. I’m also not commuting by train at the moment, so the sock knitting has definitely been suffering.

Anyway, here are the socks I made:

They are the Spring Forward pattern from the current Knitty that everyone seems to be making at the moment. I like the zigzags, and the lace, but it is the yarn that really swings these socks for me. It is from the wonderful Oxford Kitchen Yarns and came in a package of treats from Lara (thanks L!). The yarn is British Blueface Leicester. It is deliciously soft and slightly sheeny and there is something very distinctive about the way it takes colour. I love the natural dye on the yarn: both delicate and saturated. And the colour is really just lovely. To me it has a rather old-fashioned English feel: like the colour of old silks, or plum jam in rice pudding. I think the name of the colourway is actually light plum, and this seems just right to me. I also really like the way this very slightly semi-solid style of yarn shows off a textured pattern. Anyway,I now find myself very tempted by the lovely biscuity colours of some of the DK and Aran weights of Blueface Leicester dyed at Oxford Kitchen Yarns.

It is difficult to take pictures of socks whilst one is wearing them. But it was even harder for Tom to photograph my feet with the use of just one hand. I insisted he have a go anyway. He did a good job considering.

Patern: Linda Welch, “Spring Forward” Knitty, Spring Summer 2008
Needles: 2.5 mm circ (I am stuck in the magic loop)
Yarn: Oxford Kitchen Yarns, British Blueface Leicester sock yarn, “Light Plum”
Ravelled here

monkey see, monkey do

I made monkeys! Just like everyone else. . .

monkey1.jpg

But how I love em!

Monkey love!

monkey2.jpg

Monkey dance!

monkey3.jpg

The wonderful Sue made me a superb pair of blue Monkeys last summer, which have served as my staple walking sock ever since. It was time to make myself a new pair before I walked hers into the ground. I don’t make socks very often, but they really were a delight to knit. These are made from old maiden aunt sock yarn, in the cherry colourway. I knit them on one 2.5mm circ. I am also sporting my favourite shoes, for maximum monkey fun.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,960 other followers