History of Hosiery

History of Hosiery

We love all kinds of nylon stockings, pantyhose and thigh highs. Here's a little information about the history of stockings, we hope this will be helpful. For a dictionary of terms related to our hosiery, please visit Hosiery Basics.

The word stockings cames from Ancient Greece to Modern America. Stockings which are also known as hosiery, or 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 garters.

After the 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.

In the 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
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.

Temperature Control
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.