On social media lately there has been a call for more activities for the ladies, more women’s material culture being represented at events. For most of its history, the living history movement has been focused on the major battles of North American history, and with it, the major focus has been on the men. Women’s roles have been relegated to that of camp drudge, prostitute, or silk dressed ‘belle’ out to view the encampment. As living historians have expanded their research, we have found that any number of roles for women could exist. Camp following women were not just soldier’s wives or prostitutes, but could be tavern keepers, merchants, Loyalist refugees, immigrants, the list could go on as far as your imagination will allow.
So what should we, as women, be doing in camp?
As I prepare for this upcoming season, I am working towards goals set out by the more progressive members of our community. I have already completely hand stitched our clothing, I’ve been doing that for over a decade now. I’m working on the little things, the accessories that round out our impersonations. Getting those little things right can lead to a bunch of little, short term projects with a big bang for the buck. Lots of accomplishment feelings can go a long way when you are mid-way through a gown that feels like it is taking forever to finish. I also have a lot of time sitting and waiting right now, and so need little projects that I can take with me as I sit in waiting rooms. My latest project has been knitting stockings for Pierre. His legs are the most visible, and so I have started with him. The eventual plan will be to have all three of us in knitted, period stockings and that none of us have to carry with us modernly constructed, over-the-knee socks.
Eighteenth-century stockings are different from modern stockings in relatively few ways. Starting at the top edge, the ribbing is constructed differently so that instead of being elastic, like modern socks, the ‘gartering’ is a fat rib to allow for your garters to hold up your socks. The top band is knit in alternating rows of knit a row and purl a row, instead of knit one, purl one on the same row. Does that make sense? The garter rib usually also is only about ½ - ¾”, rather than a fat 2-3” band of ribbing.
Stockings should also come up, over, the knee. Unlike modern knee socks, these stockings have to extend up beyond the knee band of your breeches. It drives many a living historian nuts to see sloppiness of socks drooping down around the ankles, or having to constantly struggle to keep your own socks up because they are just too short. The stockings I’m working on started off as a modern knee-length stocking pattern that I added 5-6” to the length, I also added more stitches to the initial cast on so that there would be enough room for the lower thigh to be comfortable in the sock. I think I may have added 20 stitches to the cast on. I then have two separate decreases to the leg, one from top of stocking to the knee, and then a second from the calf muscle down to ankle.
The third main difference is the heel. Most stockings I have seen have a plain knit heel, no modern fancy stitches to make the heel knitting thicker to last longer. As boring as it sounds, plain knit heels are the majority. But if you come across an oddball outlier, I’d love to see it!
There are many references to historical stockings in books such as Sharon Burnston’s Fitting and Proper
(Burnston 100), or Linda
Baumgarten’s Costume Close Up (Watson 75), the latter
being frame knitted, but holding similar characteristics to their hand knit
counterparts. The stockings I am
studying are from the New Brunswick museum collection, accession numbers 59.81,
OTTY 22586, and OTTY 22587. These
stockings are all knit in fine thread, possibly cotton or linen and are
white. References from run-away ads from
American sources in the period also mention woollen stockings with varying
colours, such as blue, heathered grey, and even red.
Publication: The Pennsylvania Gazette
Date: August 30, 1764
RUN away from the Subscriber, living in New Britain Township,
Bucks county, a Servant Woman, named Catherine Palmer, about 5
feet high, well set, of fair Complexion, full faced, pretty
fresh coloured, with brown Hair, has a Scar on her Breast, and
another on the left Side of her Head, grey Eyes, supposed to
be about 29 years of Age, sometimes says she was born in
England, but talks with the Scotch Accent; she is much given
To Liquor, and Chewing Tobacco; Had on, and took with her whenShe went away, a long Calicoe Gown, with purple Flowers; a
Striped Linen short gown, Kenting Handkerchief, and a blue and
White one, three Shifts of homespun Linen, one with the
Sleeves something finer than the Body, two Linsey Petticoats, one
Blue and white, the other red and white; two Caps, one
With Cambrick Border, and the other with a Lawn one; Black
Bath Bonnet; a Pair of Pockets, one the same Stuff as her
Gown; a Check Apron, a Pair of new Shoes, her Buckles not
Fellows; a pair of Woollen Stockings, with blue Gores, Stole a
Pair of blue Stays, new Silk Handkerchief, about 8 yards of
Fine Linen, a Pair of red Worsted Stockings, and several other
Things supposed to be taken by her. Whoever takes up the said
Servant, and secures her in any Goal, so that her Master may
Have her again shall have Five Pounds Reward, and reasonable
Charges, paid by John James, jun.
N.B. All Masters of Vessels are strictly forbid to
Carry her off.
(The Accessible Archives - the
In a very quick search on Pinterest this morning, I also came up with several instances of women of all class levels knitting.
Given that it has taken me a month and a half of knitting to produce one pair of stockings for my husband, it seems as though we should all be knitting. Everyone needs socks. The ones you can buy commercially just won’t cut it anymore for several of the events we want to participate in. It’s time we stepped up our game and started knitting our own stockings. It is also a good way to keep our idle hands busy, and interpreting an activity that many of us enjoy already. For those of you needing an actual pattern to follow, there are several available through places such as the Plimoth Plantation and the Modern Maker. I am also currently working on a pattern based on my own research which will be published in the near future.
Baumgarten, Linda and JohnWatson. Costume Close Up: Clothing Construction and Pattern 1750-1790. New York: Costume and Fashion Press, 1999.
Burnston, Sharon Ann. Fitting and Proper: 18th Century Clothing from the Collection of the Chester County Historical Society. Texarkana Texas: Scurlock Publishing Co. ,Inc., 1998.
The Accessible Archives - the Pennsylvania Gazette. 30 August 1764. accessible-archives.com/collections/the-pennsylvania-gazette. 26 April 2016.