Wednesday, 8 March 2017

When the socks from Jas Townsend just won’t do anymore: Learning to knit period stockings

I learned to knit as a child. After about twenty rows of just the knit stitch I was bored, told my mum, “I know how to knit!” and left the unfinished object in a pile at the bottom of her knitting basket. I didn’t ask to learn again until I was an adult. When Mum taught me to crochet as a teenager, she handed me a hook, a ball of yarn, and a book of crochet patterns. She showed me how to get started and then told me to “figure it out”. I made pillows for my grandmothers that year for Christmas from the patterns and the giant ball of cotton yarn.

When I started working for historic sites, there were knitted projects that I wanted to do. I was not content to farm out the much needed items to knitters and risk being seen by my bosses as not working hard enough. So mum once again showed me how to cast on, how to purl, how to knit, and then left me to figure things out. That winter I started with the Victorian working woman’s shawl, the Sontag. I made five that year. Since then I have moved on to other projects, figuring things out as I go along. I have found that I learn better this way.

Since beginning this degree I have been knitting stockings. I started thinking things through a couple of years before this in my desire to have a better, more historically accurate stocking than what is currently available commercially. Especially for Pierre, since people see his socks more than mine, being hidden by petticoats. I started with a sock pattern from the 1940s to learn how to knit in the round, how much to cast on, and how to shape the sock. I frogged that sock a few times before I figured out how to do a proper eighteenth-century garter band instead of the ribbed top to modern socks. A modern sock top has a knit one, purl one stitch for ten or twelve rows to give an elastic top to the sock, an eighteenth-century sock top has alternating rows, usually about six, of knit and purl to form a non-elastic top that acts as a ridge to hold the sock garter from slipping off the top of the stocking. I knew the heel pattern was modern, but at that point, I was happy with the outcome. Pierre received two pair of white worsted stockings that year, he saved them for wearing with his historical midshipman’s uniform.

With mum’s diagnoses I have been pumping out stockings as fast as the needles will allow. I have developed that sock pattern to give me a stocking that I like the look of and that I can basically knit in my sleep. I have also changed the heel flap for a plain stocking-knit heel instead of the 1940s double knit. Pierre now has enough stockings to do about a week, and I have begun knitting socks for the other men in my extended re-enacting family. I have just recently found finer yarn and am attempting to knit finer socks for myself, finally. My pattern is good, but I am still not entirely happy with it. They are still far better than what is available at Jas Townsend or other commercial retailers. The heel on my pattern is still modern, in that I ‘turn’ it back and forth to knit the little pouch for the heel to sit in, and historical stockings don’t have those ‘turning’ stitches. The instep gusset is also different on historical stockings. A friend in New York has been working through seventeenth-century clothing in much the same way I have been working through the eighteenth-century. He has developed a stocking pattern that has the correct heel and instep gusset, albeit much more fancy than what I would need. So, a few weeks ago, I bought the pattern from him. I finished off the new pair of stockings I had on the needles for Pierre and pulled out some lovely merino stocking yarn mum had bought me for Christmas. I am not following Mathew Gnagy’s pattern perfectly. I used his casting on numbers, but have been knitting my own pattern up until the ankle point. His garter band was a brocaded band, whereas mine is plain. His back seam stitches are also far fancier than mine. At the last decrease, I returned to Mathew’s pattern.

At the same time, I have been reading about stockings, the materials used, colours, fashionable vs. plebeian stockings. John Styles Dress of the People (Styles 2008) is a lot to digest! On page 75 is a painting that I have looked at for years, John Collet’s Modern Love – The Elopement (Styles 2008, 75). I love the old woman’s ragged and patched petticoat, but Styles would have us also look at the ‘old hag’s stockings, grey with red clocks and gussets! O. M. G! In recent weeks friends have been discussing stockings, most especially their colours. A valued peer of mine is of the opinion that all stockings should be white, and while I agree that the majority of stockings I have seen are white, they are also made of ‘thread’, which could be linen or cotton. The stockings that I am reconstructing are in wool, and throughout Styles book he mentions that worsted stockings were also knit in colours, grey, brown, and other earth tones predominantly. Styles is also talking about common people, who scholars refer to as ‘plebeian’. My peer also lives in what was considered a big city in the eighteenth century, a fashion capitol so to speak. My theory is that stockings would have been predominantly white, but that other colours would have been seen on working men and women of the period. And then we have these fancy, two coloured stockings on a very common woman in the Elopement painting.

My new stockings are grey, I have a bucket of yarn downstairs, surely there is a good red in it somewhere. This week, not only am I learning a new style of heel and instep gusset, I am also learning how to knit with two colours, carrying threads, working a clock, and setting the second colour into the instep gusset ‘just right’. Figuring things out. This has been a stressful couple of weeks. Preparing for a trip to Colonial Williamsburg for the summer, the birth of a new grandchild almost a month early, Pierre travelling to Newfoundland to visit our daughter and me staying at home to hold down the fort, alongside my usual routine of reading all of the things and looking after mum. I knit to help deal with the stress. The challenge I have set out for my brain allows me to focus more. By the end of this experiment, not only will I have a new pair of stockings, I also hope to have a new pattern written up for historically accurate, plebeian stockings, maybe even with contrasting clocks and gussets.

My reading this week

Baumgarten, Linda. 1999. Costume Close Up: Clothing Construction and Pattern, 1750-1790. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Burnston, Sharon. 2000. Fitting and Proper. Scurlock Publishing Company.

Gnagy, Mathew. 2017. Seventeenth-Century Stocking with Brocaded Top. New York, February 15.

Styles, John. 2008. Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England. Yale University Press.