Stockings in the mid-seventeenth century

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by Pat Poppy

This article will appear in The Scoute in March 2012.

The RA dress guide states that stockings should be “either knitted in wool or silk, or constructed from cloth panels in wool or linen.(Cramer, 2011). This article will look at knitted and cloth stockings and their design, use and availability in the period around the English Civil War.


We speak of stockings and that term was certainly used in the seventeenth century, but other terms were also being used, and as the meanings of words changed it is sometimes difficult to understand precisely what is being talked about. Hose, from which we get the term hosiery, originally referred to something that covered the entire leg. Once breeches appear the term can be used to indicate either the stockings or the breeches, so as late as 1647 there are references to pockets in hose.(Oxford English Dictionary) There are also references to upper stocks (meaning the breeches) and nether stocks (meaning the stockings)(Oxford English Dictionary). Knit is another complicated word which can mean simply tied or knotted rather than knitted; so each reference has to be looked at in context.

As well as simple stockings to cover the lower half of the leg, there were also boothose, strirrup hose and socks. Boothose were a form of stocking with wide tops, which then folded over or appeared above the top of the boot, there are a pair of knitted boothose of c.1640 in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Sometimes the leg and top of the boothose were made separately, so Cunnington (1972) quotes from accounts in 1632 for legs to boothose tops, and from 1648-49 for two sizes of plain boothose tops, great and little. Cunnington also quotes accounts for stirrup hose, which were stockings without feet, but with a strap passing under the foot. There are also references to socks, but it is very difficult to work out what is mean by this, though James Master lists “2 pr. of ancle worsted socks”. (Dalison, 1883 ) In one account Charles I received 15 pairs of fine silk tennis hose, four dozen pairs of tennis socks and three pairs of tennis silk garters. (Strong, 1980)


The history of knitting is a complex and difficult one to disentangle, not least because earlier techniques like nalebinding, a form of sewn looped textile, can be confused with knitting. It is generally assumed it started in the middle east, and that nalebinding gave way to true knitting sometime between 500 and 1200AD (Rutt, 1987). By the mid sixteenth century knitted hose is mentioned often and examples are found in graves all over Europe, and not just those of the upper classes, though they tend to predominate because it is usually the graves of the important that are opened.


In sixteenth century England stockings were mainly of cloth, though already knitted stockings were becoming popular being made of worsted thread as well as silk. Even Queen Elizabeth wore them, being first supplied with Norwich worsted yarn hose in 1576. When she visited Norwich in 1578 there was a pageant, and on the stage were “small women children” spinning worsted at one end of the stage with more knitting the hose at the other end. (Arnold, 1988). By 1583 when Philip Stubbs published his Anatomy of Abuses, he was complaining that, “every one almost, though otherwise very poor, having scarce forty shillings of wages by the year will not stick to have two or three pair of these silk nether stocks, or else of the finest Yarn”. This is obviously an exaggeration, but it points to how common knitted stockings were becoming.


The price of knitted and cloth stockings varied considerably depending on the quality of the yarn or cloth, and also on the complexity of the pattern and decoration. Thirsk (1973) states a Kirby Lonsdale stocking dealer in 1578 had stockings valued between 7d and 22d a pair, while over a hundred years later in 1692 chapman Ann Clarke had stockings between 6d and 26d a pair (Spufford, 1984). These are, for want of a better term, working class stockings. Silk stockings were considerably more expensive; in 1647 James Master paid 19 shillings for green silk stockings (Dalison, 1883 ). Interestingly it is not always the cheapest stockings that are given to the poor. In 1649-50 clothing given to the poor of St Giles, Cripplegate, London included a total of 60 pairs of stockings at 22d the pair (Saunders, 2006). The stockings provided to the New Model Army varied in price from 12d to 22d a pair depending on the contract (Mungeam, 1969).


People might own both knit and cloth hose, for example the list of clothing given to a servant between 1580-1610 includes both “for knitting a pair of woollen hose for her, 4d” and for “two pair of hose for her of the defendant’s own cloth”. (Anthony, 1980) Stubbs listed knitted stockings as being of “jarnsey (jersey), worsted, crewel, silk, thread and such like”. Cloth hose could involve a wider variety of fabric, linen, worsted, fustian, kersey, silk and satin are all mentioned at various times. The Victoria and Albert Museum has a pair of mid seventeenth century linen cloth hose with a simple embroidery around the triangular gusset at the ankle (this is known as the clock) and up the rear seam. Because linen has less give than other fabrics, they are tightened at the ankle by lacing through fourteen pairs of eyelet holes (Rothstein, 1984). In one six month period in 1635 King Charles received 24 pairs of fine linen boothose with welted tops and 40 pairs of grey boothose, with no fabric specified. (Strong, 1980) Cloth Irish stockings were particularly prized for their hard wearing qualities, and were recommended for those emigrating to the New World. William Wood in 1639 advised intending settlers that they were “much more serviceable than knit ones”. (Poppy, 2003)


Stubbs says that knit stockings were “green, red, white, tawny and else what.” In an inventory of 1619 the Earl of Dorset has stockings in black, white, green, purple, tawny, yellow, murrey, grass green, crimson, pearl, and watchet (a greeny-blue), often the colour matches that of the suit. (MacTaggart, 1980). On the other hand poor children at Beccles in the 1630s were being issued with grey knitted hose. (Spufford, 1984) The fragments of whalers stockings found in graves dating from c1614 to c1660 at Smeerenburg contain blue, red, green and black (Vons-Comis, 1987).Black could also have been used among the working classes in England, for William Harrison in 1577 stated that “the alder, whose bark is not unprofitable to dye black withal, and therefore much used by our country wives in colouring their knit hosen.” (Harrison, 1577)


From quite early on the patterns of knitted stockings could be complex. The best known are probably the scarlet silk knitted stockings of Elenora de Toledo who died in 1562. These have a pattern consisting of panels of double moss stitch and double garter stitch separated by narrow stripes of reversed stocking stitch and a central wale, on the leg, while the tops have a lozenge pattern, each diamond containing four eyelets, with a zigzag of purl to above and below this band.(Orsi Landini, 1993). As well as decoration in the knitting itself stockings could also be embroidered. The stockings in the grave of a daughter of Christian IV of Denmark who died in 1628, were embroidered so that the embroidery was on the outside of the stocking and, being of metal thread, would not irritate the wearer’s skin. The pattern over the clocks shows a peacock with an outspread tail above a five petalled flower, the stalk of which continues down the foot with leaves and flower buds. (Ostergard, 1988). There is a pair of boy’s stockings from 1600-1620 in the German stocking museum knitted in yellow silk with extensive gold and silver embroidery

Many knitted stockings, plain and patterned, had a false seam at the back, this could be simply made by knitting a purl stitch, although this is not always the case. A seaman from the Spitsbergen burials wears two stockings which do not form a pair, one with a false seam, the other without. (Vons-Comis, 1988) This false seam could sometimes be quite complex in design.

Cloth hose could also be heavily embroidered. The embroidery was either around the clocks for stockings to be worn with shoes, or at the top for boothose, as for example with the surviving linen boothose supposedly worn by Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden at the Battle of Lutzen in 1632. The tops of the boothose have elaborate patterns of cornucopia, flowers and birds done in black silk and gold thread. (Rangstrom, 2002)


At all levels of society and for all types of stockings, darns, patches and repairs were made. By 1599 an English to Spanish language book has the phrase “Looke well if the stockings have any stitches broken in them.” (Minsheu, 1599) Queen Elizabeth’s accounts have references to “lengthening of a payer of white silk hose at the tooes with silke” and for “lengthenynge of a payer of silke knit hose in the feete & toppes.” (Arnold, 1988) The stockings of the Spitsbergen whaler were both darned especially at the knees, and both stockings are so patched under the foot that it is impossible to see the original construction. (Vons-Comis, 1988) With the Gunnister stockings from a burial in Shetland at the end of the seventeenth century, both feet have been replaced. In one stocking the foot has been replaced by the leg of another stocking, and its pair has had the foot replaced with coarsely woven cloth. (Henshall, 1951-2)


The earliest pattern for knitting stockings was published in Natura Exenterata in 1655, as Rutt says it is incomplete and hard to follow, being three pages long written as a single sentence. Rutt has modernised the spelling and punctuated it, however it is still incomplete as it stops just before the toe. (Rutt, 1987) p239-241. Several costume historians and re-enactors have tried to create useable variations of this pattern and others. You can find patterns online: try the Yahoo groups Historic Knit and Knitting History or Google for Gunnister stocking. Patterns for cloth hose are sold at re-enactment markets or, since the design changes so little, they can be adapted from the patterns that appear in Thursfield (2001) or Mikhaila (2006).


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Arnold, J. ed. 1988. Queen Elizabeth's wardrobe unlock'd. Leeds : Maney, 1988.

Cramer, P. and Poppy, P. 2011. RA dress guide, version 1.5. 2011.

Cunnington, C. W. and P. 1972. Handbook of English costume in the seventeenth century. 3rd ed. London : Faber, 1972.

Dalison, Mrs, transcriber. 1883 . The expense book of James Master, Esq., of Yotes Court, Mereworth, 1646-55. Archaeologia Cantiana. 1883 , Vol. 15.

Harrison, William. 1577. Description of England. 1577.

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Poppy, P. 2003. Mary Ring: the clothing of an early American settler. Costume. 2003, Vol. 37.

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Rothstein, R. ed. 1984. Four hundred years of fashion. London : Victoria and Albert Museum, 1984.

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Spufford, M. 1984. The great reclothing of rural England: petty chapmen and their wares in the seventeenth century. London : Hambledon Press, 1984.

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