Stockings: From Ancient Greece to Modern America
Stockings which are also known as
hose, and popularly as
"Nylons", are coverings for legs and feet.
Early references to hosiery go back to the
ancient Greeks. Workmen and slaves wore hosiery in ancient times, and
Roman women wore a short sock (called a soccus) in their homes. Silk or cotton socks were also worn in
Japan and China for centuries.
Socks evolved into stockings in
12th century Europe. Breeches worn by men became close fitting, reaching from the waist to the foot like modern tights. Women wore stockings held up at the knee by
1545 knitted stockings came into fashion, their seams were often ornamented by elaborate silk patterns, or "clocks". This term is still in use today as "fancy feet" the decorative seam treatments that were popular during the late 40's and early 50's.
William Lee, an English clergyman, made the
first knitting machine in 1589.
Silk and cotton were the popular fibers of the era. Silk of course was the choice of royalty as the discovery of the New World opened up trade in this rare and luxurious fiber.
There were many different ways to wear stockings. Silk stockings were sometimes worn several pairs at a time in cold weather. In the
17th century when large boots were in fashion, linen
"boot hose" were worn to protect the silk stockings underneath. They had wide lace tops, which were turned over the boots.
Men continued to wear silk stockings with garters until the end of the 18th century, but long trousers begin to appear and socks have been worn underneath ever since.
19th century machine-made cotton stockings became
available for women. After
World War I (1914-1918) short skirts were fashionable and long silk stockings were worn again, once again, proving that fashion and skirt length determine hosiery fashion!
With the discovery and ultimate use of
Dupont Nylon in the late 30's and early 40's, the primacy of silk in women's hosiery waned.
Silk was ultimately replaced by nylon after the war. But it was not without challenges from other man made fibers such as Rayon,
Bamberg, and Vilene.
Nylon stockings which became popular after World War II (1939-1945) and completely replaced the silk stocking usually had seams until the late 1960's. They were knitted flat and "fully fashioned" which means that they were shaped to fit the leg like modern sweaters. By decreasing the number of stitches as the stocking was knit towards the ankle, a garment was created that was "knit to fit".
By the early sixties, "fully fashioned" or seamed stockings were rapidly replaced by modern reinforced heel and toe (RHT) seamless stockings. Seamless stockings are made on a circular knitting machines and are shaped by tightening the stitches. Hosiery is often described as being of a particular "denier", which means the thickness of the yarn. The gauge describes the number of stitches in a row. So, the lower the denier number, the sheerer the stockings, as long as they are pure nylon. If stockings or pantyhose have Lycra added for stretch, that isn't always true.
In the 1960's when skirts were worn very short, many women began to wear tights (pantyhose) instead of stockings. To show, "a bit of stocking", was no longer accepted and while stockings fought for market share by becoming extremely long, they became nearly extinct as pantyhose gained in popularity.
Thankfully stockings have become fashionable again, and can be seen in fashion magazines and runway shows.
The Process: Making Stockings
Words to Know:
This is an measurement for knitting yarn which equals 5 centigrams per meter of yarn. The weight of the denier is obtained by weighing 450 meters of thread of nylon, silk or rayon. If 450 meters weighs 5 grams, the thread is called a 100 denier thread. The base of 450 meters being the standard measure, the weight of the thread will determine its caliber. The lighter the thread (the less number of deniers) the finer the weave. A 15 denier yarn is twice as fine as 30 denier yarn. The most popular denier for day/evening is still 15 denier, 30 denier has been popularized as "business sheer", 70d as "service sheer". "ultra sheer" or "evening dress sheer" stockings can be 15d, 12d or 10d. The sheerest practical denier is 8d, which is so wispy sheer that it literally disappears on the leg!
There is much confusion about the meaning of "gauge" in the determination of stocking quality and sheerness. Gauge is an English unit of measure. It is a characteristic of rectilinear knitting machines. It corresponds to the number of needles in a 38-millimeter section of the knitting bed, circular or flat. A 60 gauge knitting machine has 60 needles to a 38 mm section. It is obvious that, the more needles you have in this standard invariable 38 mm section, the finer the needles must be, and the tighter the weave. The monofilament or flat pure nylon thread of 15 deniers was the thread most widely used in the knitting of fine stockings.
The two most common gauges in fully-fashioned knitting were 51g and 60g. 60 gauge stockings have smoother, denser look and feel and are highly prized! 51 gauge stockings were easier to knit as the machines had fewer needles and ran more efficiently than the 60 gauge. These stockings were still highly desirable, but were slightly less expensive, and used for "fashion" and popular priced stockings.
Full-fashioned (traditional seamed stockings) stockings are knitted flat, then fashioned, or shaped by mechanical manipulation by programmed chains that articulated cams to drop needles from the knitting process creating the famous "fashioning marks" on the backs of the stocking. (The little V's on the back near the seams are created when a stitch is cast off, just like in hand knitting a sweater) The stockings are then joined at the back on a looping machine by hand, creating the seam up the back. The actual knitting is done on a flat knitting machine first developed in Loughborough,
Leicestershire, England by William Cotton in 1864.
The stocking is started at the top with the welt, with an extra-thick section for gartering. Reducing the number of needles at the ankle, then adding needles at the heel, and again reducing the number through the foot shape to the fabric.
The modern fully-fashioned machine was made from 1940-1960 by Reading Machinery Company in Reading, Pennsylvania, who stopped production of the machines in the early 1960's. In the years '59 and early 60's you could purchase one of the later models, which they called the R100, but, you had to order four of them. The cost was a little over $750,000 each for this special order.
The length of the machine is about 45 feet long, and it could make 30 stockings concurrently. The company started out in its early days making a single section which made one stocking. Soon after machines added length, to make 15 (half section machines) stockings, and then went to full section machines (thirty stockings).
Tragically, there are fewer than ten working machines in the world today! We know of many inactive machines, however, the skilled technicians required to program the timing chains and maintain the machines have long gone.
What about the needles?
A 60 gauge machine with a full head of needles has about 600 needles per head. Since 600 x 30 heads comes to 18,000 needles, knitting this ultra luxury produced became an incredible challenge. These needles cost approximately five cents each. That means it can cost up to $9,000 in needles alone!
This is a natural chemical process added to the dye bath to improve the look, feel, and wear of the stocking. Lanolin is a natural substance found in the animal fat of sheep that is used in soap and hair conditioner products. Manufacturers used different degrees of lanolin application to their hosiery. The most famous was "Albert's". Their stockings were called, "Velvetized", and contained a heavy lanoline treatment. Albert's stockings are highly prized for their high sheen and velvet touch. Hanes and others also used this process effectively.
Modern stockings use silicon to achieve the same effect. Because the lanolin has adverse effects on the Lycra that is knit into almost all modern hosiery lanolin is rarely used in modern hosiery.
51 gauge machines are not as fussy as the 60 gauge machines. They will run cold or hot. The tolerances are not nearly as precise as the 60 gauge. 60 gauge machines have more needles at a closer tolerance than the 51 gauge machines. A closer tolerance on the set up, or gauging must be kept to maintain manufacturing tolerances. Factories must maintain the temperature (summer and winter) within 4 degrees, 74 to 78 degrees. Very difficult! When it gets below 74, the machines won't knit properly, over 78 and the same problem occurs. You may have 5 or 6 good stockings out of 30. The others are unusable!
Every pattern is on a continual chain of 120 feet and about 8" wide which has studs pressed into the links. These studs tell the machine what it should do, so every design needs a new stud pattern, which is a hugely complicated operation.
After manufacture each stocking is seamed, one at a time. People often ask why there is a hole at the top of the seam. This is called the 'finishing loop', or "key hole back", which cannot be eliminated as the seaming machinist has to finish the seam turning the stocking top, otherwise known as the welt, inside out.
Every stocking is manufactured white, or "in the greige", and must be piece dyed, as a finished garment to the desired color. They must then be "boarded", a process where each stocking is pulled over a flat metal leg form, and heat set with steam. This tightens the knit, defines the leg shape correctly and removes creases. Thereafter each stocking is checked for size to ensure that pairs match. Quality control for faults, large and small, can result in a loss of a third of production.
Circular Knit Stockings
Modern stockings and pantyhose are knit on circular machines eliminating need for the back seam. Circular knit stockings originally were made with reinforced heel and toes, this was accomplished by using a "reticulating heel" machine, also made by
Reading. This machine actually knit the heel pocket into the stockings using a devise that knit the foot first, then the heel pocket and finally the leg and welt. This created the "V" in the heel that we all know and love.
During the early years of circular knit stockings, the heels and toes were reinforced similarly to the original full fashioned stockings, this gave the consumer the assurance that sharp nails or rough shoes would not cause the stockings to run. Later stockings were knit with different types of reinforcements on the toes and heels, eventually all reinforcements we discontinued!
Stockings reinforcements evolved from standard circular toes to tear drop toes, a toe that was seamed under the foot and looked like a teardrop, Demi-toes, a very dressy look with a 1/2 toe reinforcement, and finally to sandal foot with a nude toe for sandals. Heels also evolved from fully reinforced heels to the scalloped heel, and eventually, to evolve finally to the nude heel, and again to the fully nude, sandal foot stocking.
What about the different types of knits?
Regular flat knit: This is the original knit made on all stockings until 1945. It is a smooth stitch that is silky and soft to the touch. It has a wonderful shine and is the premier knitting technique of the era.
Kant run: This knit was developed to help prevent runs in the stockings. It is a lock-stitch and has a slightly rougher texture.
Micromesh: This stitch was developed to create a matte finish on the stocking that was very popular during the 60's. It is soft and smooth, but not as silky as regular flat knit.
Pebble mesh: A very rough knit to prevent runs used in teen and utilitarian stockings.
Textures: Patterned stockings. Diamonds, herringbones, and waves were the most popular. These styles were very popular during the 60's. Hosiery companies began to buy modern knitting machines which had infinite knitting possibilities that allowed enormous variations.
As modern knitting techniques improved and the machinery became more expensive and complicated, stockings evolved through several phases.
Modern machines knit tubes that are boarded, or "heat set" to the shape of the leg; the heel pocket was no longer knit-in as in the 50's. To improve fit, the yarn companies came up with several "improvements" that would forever change the future of classic hosiery.
The first was the stretch stocking, actually a crimped yarn that was knit and packaged unboarded in a limited size range that conformed to the leg when worn. Popular brands were, Cling-Along, Agilon, and Cantrece. The ultimate fit solution that effects the stockings made today, is to add Lycra, another Dupont invention that creates an elasticized stretch stocking that clings to the leg to the knitting yarn. This is used in almost all modern stockings and pantyhose. The effect is to create a support stocking effect. This type of stocking is not as sheer as the flat knit version of these stockings. Different types of stockings, tights and pantyhose
Pantyhose: Stockings worn till the waist that covers the feet as well.
Opaque stockings and Opaque Tights: These stockings are made of a heavier yarn that gives an opaque appearance on the leg
Sheer Stockings: Now back in current style by Kate Middleton, these are skin-hued and give a nude appearance. We think its great that they are back
Ankle-length leggings: These come in pantyhose styles but end at the ankle.
Thigh highs: Stockings that end mid-thigh and stay up on their own
Sandal toe: These have a nude toe so you can wear them with open front or backed shoes.
Fishnets: Stockings that have a wide open knit like a fishnet.
Open-toes: These stockings stop at the toe base with a fabric piece extended to reach between the first and second toes so that you can wear them with open toe shoes
Trompe l'oeil: French terminology for ‘trick the eye’ and they have the illusion of lace or a suspender belt or a floral embellishment.
Seamed: Stockings with a fake seam at the back.
What is denier count?
Stockings and pantyhose come in various fabrics such as pure nylon, nylon/lycra blends, polyester, viscose, wool mix, lace, etc. But to know its level of transparency, the denier count is important. Denier is a French term which is a calculation of the thickness of the thread. A stocking with a 10-20 denier has transparency aspects. While a stocking knitted with a higher denier i.e. 20 or more, will be less sheer and usually more durable. 40 denier stockings or tights are opaque./span>