English Woman's Knit Wool Stockings, 16 th Century

This pair of orange hand-knit wool stockings is similar to those worn by women in England at the end of the 16 th Century. They were knit in the round on five needles of store-bought fingering weight merino wool and based on photographs of extant stockings, slightly post-period stocking recipes, and traditional sock-knitting techniques.

Stockings in Western Europe before 1600 were knit of wool, silk, cotton, or linen, with wool and silk being the most popular materials (Turnau, p. 100). They were knit in the round (Rutt), a task accomplished by working with at least 4 double-pointed needles, three to hold the stocking and one to work the stitches.

The Materials: Yarn and needles

Not being a spinner, I chose to buy modern yarn at my local yarn store for this project. Guild knitters in 16 th century England would also have purchased their yarn from a local yarn supplier (Turnau, p. 107).

I looked for a wool yarn in a plausibly authentic color that would give me a gauge around 10 stitches per inch when knit in the round using stocking (stockinet) stitch. I selected two yarns to try: a dandelion yellow 3-ply wool with 168 meters to 50 grams and a dark orange 4-ply superwash merino wool with 195 meters to 50 grams.

I chose these two colors because I felt they were suitably garish for Philip Stubbes comments in The Anatomie of Abuse in England (1583) as transcribed in Rutt (p. 70) that women's stockings were 'green, red, white, russet, tawny, and else what; which wanton light colors any sober chaste Christian...can hardly...at any time wear." And yellow and orange can be made from a number of period dyestuffs including welt and madder (Leed).

I worked 30-stitch watches in the round with each yarn on US size 0 (2mm), 1 (2.5mm), and 2 (3mm) needles. Size 0 needles and the finer, orange yarn worked up to the 10 stitches per inch that I wanted. The size 0 needle is close enough to the same size as one of the needles of the smaller needle (1.9mm) from the York finds.

I used two sets of 5 plastic-coated aluminum needles. I chose these needles because they are the ones that were already in my knitting box when I began this project.

Design: How I did it and why

These stockings are knit in the round on 5 needles from the top-edge down with a shaped heel flap worked back and forth, a seam at the bottom of the heel, a shaped gusset formed from picking up stitches along the heel flap, and symmetrical toe shaping (Rutt 74).

The stocking stitch used is at a gauge of 10 stitches per inch. I chose 10 stitches per inch because Rev. Lee's knitting frame for wool stockings had 8 needles per inch (Grass & Milton, p. 109). Lee would have aimed to build his frame to duplicate a common gauge for a stocking, my 10 stitches per inch is a bit fine, but still quite reasonable, especially considering frame knit stockings may change gauge from needles to fabric like hand knitting does. And 10 would be a much easier number to work with if I calculated a pattern. Something I decided against before I even starting working on the stocking, so I did not consider the number of rows per inch and instead, I measured the stockings against my leg to determine the right size and shaping.

I chose to make these stockings contoured to fit my leg like the stockings from the coffin of Duke Barnim XII of Pomerania (1549-1603) Figure 1 . Since they are women's stockings to be worn under a skirt rather than men's stockings to be worn with trunk-hose, they only come up to the knee, rather than over the knee like Duke Barnim's stockings.

(Image removed)

Figure 1 : Duke Barnim XII of Pomerania's stockings (Rutt p. 73)

I used a garter-stitch top to these stockings to prevent the top edge from rolling. The Eleanora of Toledo stockings (Figure 2) use this technique at the edge of their cuffs. Should I need to wear garters to keep these stockings from falling down, the garter-stitch edge is thicker than the stocking stitch of the leg, so it won't slip through the garter. For future stockings, I will make a fold-over cuff like the one on the Eleanora of Toledo stockings as this offers an opportunity to do some decorative stitches and provides even more friction to keep the stocking from slipping through a garter.

(Image removed)

Figure 2 : Cuffs of Eleanora of Toledo's stockings (Arnold, p. 41)

The rest of the stocking is knit in plain stocking stitch with a purl-stitch seam down the back of the leg through the heel flap. While this seam is not clearly visible on any of the photographs I based my designs on, it is specifically mentioned in the first English stocking pattern in Natura Exenterata which was printed in London in 1655 as well as being part of the description of stockings from the tomb of Johann III of Sweden (Bush).

Figure 3 : Back seam and shaping

The leg shaping to fit the contours of my leg is all done at the back seam, which is consistent with the shape of Duke Barnim's stockings. Decreases were done by knitting two stitches together (creating a right-slanting stitch) or by slipping two stitches as if to knit, then knitting them together through the back loops, SSK, (creating a left-slanting stitch). In the absence of any photographs of the left side of extant stockings to show whether or not the stitch construction for the gusset decreases are symmetrical, I based my decision to use these two types of decrease on the heel described in Natura Exenterata. "Work plain till you come within two stitches of your seam, and work them both into one stitch plain, as they lie, and then knit your seam stitch; and your other two stitches next your seam stitch must be looped outward from the seam" (Rutt, p. 240) I was unable to locate a suitable source for the techniques used to increase stitches, so I used the increase I like best. I picked up the yarn between two stitches from front to back and held it on the left needle, then I knit through the back of that picked up stitch to twist it prevent a hole.

Figure 4 : Heel flap and seam

The heel flap begins at the point where the foot begins, even with the ankle bone. At this point the stitches were divided into thirds, with one third on each side of the purl-stitch seam and the other third across the instep. I worked the heel flap back and forth alternating knit and purl rows, always maintaining the seam stitch, and shaping the heel flap with decreases along both edges. The heel flaps of Duke Barnim's stockings have decreases along the outside edge. The stocking recipe in Natura Exenterata uses decreases every four rows on the heel flap. I did my decreases every 6 rows because it created a line that was pleasing to me. Since I could find no support for the technique in any of the pre-1600 sources, I chose not to use the modern technique of slipping the first stitch of each row of the heel flap to create a smoother edge stitch.

For the last inch of the heel flap, to bring the back seam in for the turning of the heel, I decreased four stitches every row, one stitch on each side of the back seam and one stitch the distance of the desired bottom seam length from each edge. To create the seam along the bottom of the heel, on the wrong side of the stocking, I purled to the seam stitch, then folded the heel flap with right sides together. The seam stitch stayed on the left needle, which became the front needle. I knit the seam stitch from the front needle, then knit the next stitch from the front needle together with the first stitch from the back needle, then passed the first stitch on the right needle over the second stitch on the right needle to bind it off. I discovered this technique when working on a modern sock that required Kitchener stitch to turn the heel. I didn't want to break the thread to weave it through the stitches, so instead I bound the stitches together to create a seam. Natura Exenterata also uses this technique (Rutt, p. 240).

Figure 5 : Heel gussets

For the heel gusset, I picked up one stitch for each row along the heel flap, knit across the instep stitches, and picked up one stitch for each row along the other side of the heel flap. Since the photographs showed no holes where the gusset stitches were picked up, I used a technique I learned from Nancy Bush's Folk Socks where each stitch is picked up by knitting through the back loop of the edge stitch of the heel flap (p. 57). This may be the technique described in Natura Exenterata "Then take two needles and take up all the knots on the wrong side" (Rutt, p. 240) because twisting each stitch in this way is the same as creating each stitch from the wrong side, but then working it from the right side in the next row.

Since the Duke Barnim stockings have a high, narrow heel gusset, I chose to use the Natura Exentera technique of decreasing three stitches at once on each side for the first rows, decreasing one stitch on each side for the next few rows, decreasing one stitch on each side every other row, and then decreasing one stitch on each side every third row until I had the number of stitches needed for the rest of the foot. The photograph in Rutt of Duke Barnim's stocking seems to have a line of shaping from the heel seam that continues nearly to the beginning of the toe shaping. Without being able to see the stitches in more detail, I couldn't tell how this shaping was done, so I chose to ignore it.

I knit the foot of the stocking until the length from the back seam to the needles was long enough to go around the four fingers of my hand held flat. This is a measuring technique mentioned in Folk Socks that seemed so silly that I had to try it, and happily it works very well for my feet (Bush, p. 52). I used a variation of the wedge toe as described on page 66 of Folk Socks (Bush) because it looked like the toe shaping of Duke Barnim's stockings. This shaping splits the stitches in half, with half on the top of the foot, half on the bottom. The second and third stitch of each half are decreased by knitting together and the second- and third-last stitches in each half are decreased by SSK, first in every other row, then for the last 6 rows in each row to make the shaping more rounded and less pointy.

Conclusions: What worked, what didn't, and what to try next

I'm very pleased with the overall look of these stockings.

Figure 6 : Gusset stitches pulling

The one thing that did not work as well as I would have liked is the gusset shaping. The stitches pull across the ankle Figure 6 and are baggy at the bottom of the foot. Starting the heel gusset earlier will help with the pulling and also give more room for a high, narrow gusset like the ones on Duke Barnim's stockings. The bottom of the foot needs fewer stitches. The modern technique of slipping the first stitch of each heel flap row would make fewer stitches along the whole of the heel flap. Turning the work before the end of the row when turning the heel, like a modern round heel, would put fewer edge stitches along the bottom of the foot while allowing room for the heel turning (Bush, 59-60).

For the next stocking, I would like to determine how the shaping along the bottom of Duke Barnim's stockings was accomplished. This shaping may be unique to these stockings for it isn't present in any other photograph I viewed while working on these stockings. I would also like to work with hand-spun and naturally dyed wool. I would also like to be able to examine a stocking knit before 1600 in person to see how decreases and increases were accomplished, to see clearly how compact the stitches are, and to see how the toes and heels are shaped.


The Archaeology of York Volume 17: The Small Finds. The Archaeology of York. Ed. P.V. Addyman. 1 ed. Vol. 17. York: Council for British Archaeology, 2002.

Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women c. 1560 - 1620. New York: Macmillan, 1985.

Bush, Nancy. Folk Socks. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1994.

Grass, Anna & Grass, Milton. Stockings for a Queen: The Life of the Rev. William Lee, the Elizabethan Inventor. London: Heinemann, 1967.

Leed, Drea. Colors for Lower-Class Elizabethan Clothing. http://costume.dm.net/lowerclass/lcolors.html

Rutt, Richard. A History of Hand Knitting. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1987.

Turnau, Irena. History of Knitting before Mass Production. Translated Agnieszka Szonert. Warsawa: Oficyna Wydawnicza, 1991.