Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Stockings, and an epiphany

A while back I wrote about how we should all be knitting. I have been focusing on knitting stockings mostly, because the stockings that are available commercially are really not great. I have been working on developing a pattern for knitted stockings that more closely resembles what was worn in the eighteenth century so that we can start to have our legs covered in something better than Jas. Townsend’s cotton tube socks with the modern, ribbed tops.  I wrote about the differences between modern stockings and the extant, historical stockings in museums. Two questions have been nagging me though, how do I knit that long, thin, very sexy gusset at the ankle, and how do I knit one in a contrasting colour to the body of the sock? These are two things that pop up in historical stockings, especially fine ones in silk. I have also been looking for a finer wool thread in order to knit a finer, dressier stocking, one that will also fit better in my lady’s shoe. This term, many of my classmates have been asking what I have been up to, what sort of art I have been making? And while I put on a mad rush to create the clothing that I would need if I was able to participate in Colonial Williamsburg summer internship program, my main focus has been knitting stockings. My general response when asked what I’ve been up to, is that I knit a lot of socks. I have gotten to the point that I can knit a pair of men’s work socks without a pattern, remembering where I am in the production just by looking at what I am knitting. So those questions above have been nagging me a bit.
After Christmas, Mum bought me several skeins of new yarn to play with. I Then bought Mathew Gnagy’s stocking pattern for a 16th-17th century stocking (Gnagy 2017). Those of you following along on my Facebook page have read about my trials over how to add a contrasting gusset using Mr. Gnagy’s method of knitting the gusset in a downwards method, adding stitches to increase the width as you knit, and shaping the foot through short rows under the instep. It was not pretty, so I ended up ‘frogging’, or ripping the knitting back and re-knitting the foot several times before I was happy with the stockings. They ended up being a solid colour, with just the clock decoration above the gusset being a different colour. They also ended up being too heavy a weight for my shoes, but not all was lost! I learned from knitting that pattern up, how to work a fancier ‘seam stitch’ up the back of the leg, and thought heavily about how to make that contrasting coloured gusset, knowing that this wasn’t the method. The stockings ended up being gifted to a good friend of ours who will wear them with an appropriate Tudor era outfit, and the red matches his shoes!

In the meantime, I knit up another pair of working stockings for Pierre in my favourite NSCAD yarn that my friend Lexie Arnott dyed for me using marigolds. I later over dyed them with onion skins as they proved to be a bit too 'glow in the dark', and I thought some more.

The third pair of stockings I started this term, I referenced from Sharon Burnston’s stocking pattern in Fitting and Proper (Burnston 2000, 100). The body of the stocking through to the gusset knit up beautifully in the fingerling yarn that mum had bought. I got to the gusset section though, and problems began. I thought that knitting up the heel flap, closing the heel, picking up the stitches for the gusset and then knitting in the round was the way to go. What I ended up with was a seriously misshapen foot and gusset. I put the stocking on, and realized that the leg was also far too large for me. Without a word to Pierre, who was sitting there next to me as we watched TV that evening, I frogged the entire stocking back to ball stage. He simply asked ‘Not happy?’ I nodded, I started over again the next day.

Casting on again the next day, I ended up putting on 135 stitches over 3 needles, 45/needle. I worked six rows of garter band, purling one row, knitting the next. I then knit for about an inch before starting to decrease for the leg. Following my own pattern, I decreased five times for the top of the leg before knitting in pattern again for the meaty part of the calf. I had just started decreasing again for the calf, when I stopped for a bit and knit up a couple of samples to work things out in my brain.

The first sample I knit up in leftover yarn from Pierre’s cammo socks, and it's not pretty, but it wasn't meant to be. I cast on enough stitches to closely resemble an ankle. After knitting in the round for several rows, I began knitting the heel flap. With this sample, I followed Sharon Burnston’s graph, knitting a row, then on the purl row, knitting the first two and last two stitches of the row to form the little ribbing down the edges of the heel flap. At the six inch mark, I began decreasing for the heel, knitting two stitches together on either side, about 10 stitches in from the edge. I finished the heel in a three needle bind off, but I’m not entirely happy with the little ridge this method causes. I may decrease for the heel, but leave the final stitches to be caught up in the gusset knitting.

Once the heel flap was complete, I picked up the stitches along the edges to knit the gusset. This proved problematic, as my edges are usually fairly tight, so picking up a stitch at every row was difficult (I fixed this in the second sample). I began knitting back and forth along the gusset from the top of the heel flap divide, to the other. This is called short row knitting, because you end up not knitting all the way to the end of each row, stopping and turning the work at the five stitch mark, then ten stitches from the end, then fifteen, and so on. My first sample is a bit nasty looking because I messed about with the number of decrease stitches, but also not having a proper edge to pick up stitches from the heel flap at every row.

Looking closely at the photos included in Burnston’s pattern (Burnston 2000, 101), you can see a nice firm edge to the heel flap as well, something I did not achieve with the first sample. I knit the vamp up to finish the sample to some extent, but I was already thinking of the second sample.

On the second sample, I worked a smaller heel flap, as I was more concerned with the edge between the gusset, heel flap, and front vamp.

The heel flap is knit up thusly,
First row: Slip one stitch knitwise, knit across.
Second row: Slip one stitch purlwise, knit two, purl to last three stitches, knit two, and purl one.
Repeating these two rows, the heel flap should be eight inches total, beginning the decrease for the heel at the six inch mark. I decreased for the heel on the knit rows only, the purl rows were just plain. Knitting the heel flap in this method gives you a stitch along the side of the heel flap to pick up at each row, and provides the nice little hard edge to the gusset that is noticed on the original.

Knit the gusset in short rows back and forth, keeping all the stitches on your needles, do not cast off at any point. Knit the gusset stitches back and forth from the top of the divide to the other. Begin to decrease at five stitch intervals, first row is five, then ten, then fifteen stitches from the edge. When you get to the end of each row, bring the yarn forward, slip the next stitch on to the working needle, bring the yarn back, and slip that stitch back on to the original needle, turn. Purl across, then do the yarn back, slip, yarn forward, slip back method, turn, and then knit. On the last row, I then knit up the side of the heel with the narrower gusset than the other side, so that I could start knitting the vamp.

The vamp is knit much like a heel flap, back and forth. On each knit row, I would pick up a stitch from the gusset on either side, and knit that stitch together with one from the vamp. The process went like this,
First row: slip first gusset stitch on to end of vamp needle, knit two together, knit to other side, slip stitch from other side of gusset on to end of vamp needle, then knitting those last two stitches together.
Second row: Purl one, knit two, purl to last three stitches, knit two, purl one. On this row, no stitches are picked up from the gusset.
The vamp is knit so that you are picking up gusset stitches from the knit rows only. This keeps from ‘gathering’ up the gusset as you knit and makes for a much smoother transition. The vamp is knit in this manner for 5 1/2”, then I went back to knitting in the round for the foot.

It is my belief that this is the method used to knit a contrasting gusset as seen in artwork (Styles 2008, 75) and some extant stockings from the period. In the first sample, I used scrap yarns, not really caring if they matched in weight or type of yarn. The second sample, I used one yarn throughout and knit up a much better sample. I think that if I were to dye a contrasting colour and use the same yarn type throughout the stocking, I will achieve the desired look I am after. I have returned to my stocking now, and will keep you abreast of future experimentation. So far, the stocking is working up nicely, and is looking like it will fit my leg much better than the first attempt.


Burnston, Sharon. 2000. Fitting and Proper, 18th century clothing from the Collection of the Chester County Historical Society. Scurlock Publishing Company.

Gnagy, Mathew. 2017. Seventeenth-Century Stocking with Brocaded Top. pdf, New York: self published.

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

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