Sunday, August 28, 2011


It's common knowledge even among casual historic costumers that, before knitting became established in Europe, most Europeans wore calf-high stockings cut and sewn from cloth, either linen, wool, or, for the very wealthy, silk. This raises a natural question: How does one cut a pattern for such a garment? What sort of patterns will achieve a reasonable fit when fairly inelastic fabric is used? And were those early stockings bias-cut, to enhance their stretchability and fit?

My stockings, hand-sewn from linen
On Friday, in a moment during which I should have been doing something else, I stumbled across the blog of a woman, a fellow historic costumer, who calls her blog Historic Stitcher. She had posted an interesting pattern for cut and sewn hose which she found in an article in Costume, The Journal of the Costume Society of Great Britain. The pattern was derived from research done in Tinn, Telemark, a town in Norway, where people continued to make and wear cut-and-sewn hose into the 1960s. The pattern shows rectangles cut from fabric placed on the bias, though it is far from clear to me from the pattern how the rectangles were seamed together.

Historic Stitcher made a comment about the Telemark pattern that puzzled me. She said, as though it was indisputable, that "straight-cut used more fabric". I'd always thought that bias cut required more fabric, since it required cutting on a line at an angle to the grain, resulting in odd-shaped pieces that would be more difficult to use.

Trying to reason my way out of that conundrum got me thinking about how cut and sewn hose were designed. In particular, I wondered about the Telemark pattern composed mostly of rectangular bias-cut strips, since I know of no  examples like it. For instance, early medieval hose, such as this 12th century pair attributed to Saint Desiderius, look like modern Ugg boots, with a U-shaped piece covering the toes mated to a cylindrical shaft and a sole piece. The late medieval hose sketched on Marc Carlson's website do not seem to be made from small rectangular pieces. Instead they are vaguely conical tubes, such as the Bocksten Man's hose, with a point at the top for tying the hose to a waistband and a cup-like structure for covering the rest of the foot.
My stockings, in wear. Sorry about the angle!

Renaissance hose are different in pattern from both the early and late medieval styles. They tend to be in three pieces: one for the sole of the foot, one for the calf, and one to cover the instep and join shaft and sole, according to Katerina of the Purple Files. The shaft is shaped somewhat to the calf, and a triangular gusset at each ankle bone produces a better fit around the foot. The cut and sewn stockings that were still being produced in the 18th century apparently used a two-piece pattern;  a shaft piece with a long tongue and flaps to cover the sides of the foot, and a separate piece to cover the parts of the sole that the specially shaped shaft could not reach.

The Medieval Tailor proposes a similar pattern for 14th century stockings, and shows a photo of an actual 14th century pair  which had been cut on the straight of the grain; she notes that sometimes, 14th century stockings were fitted along the leg but that other times, they were not. Eighteenth century stockings add an additional refinement to the Renaissance model. The 18th century model consists of only two pieces: a shaft with a tongue-shaped flap to cover the instep and tabs, on either side of the flap, to cover the sides of the foot; and a sole. The two together make a complete covering for the lower leg and foot, more closely fitting than earlier models.

But these are not the only ways to sew a calf-high stocking from cloth. The attached pictures are an old project of mine, a pair of stockings handsewn from gray linen. I didn't use a pattern at all for these stockings. Instead, I draped and pinned them on my feet and legs, first to make a shaft and then shaping a piece to cover the instep and fasten to the sole. Unsurprisingly, they fit very well despite the non-elastic fabric I used, though I believe it unlikely that anyone would have used fabric in such an extravagant manner before the 17th century, at least.

So why is the Telemark pattern so different, both from my draped effort and from early historical examples? Is it a genuine survival from a much earlier time, or a later invention, based on mistaken ideas of historic stocking construction, that became part of the local culture? Seeing what the Telemark stockings look like and the context in which they were worn would help answer that question.

For now, I will settle for having made the point that sewing stockings from fabric is not as simple and straightforward a task as it may appear, and will make a mental note to seek out information about how different cultures balanced the competing concerns of fit and fabric conservation. Any thoughts, additional facts, or different patterns for cut and sewn hose would be welcome.

EDIT: A commenter has drawn my attention to several other examples of cut and sewn hose. One is from Martres de Veyre, from about the second century CE. It appears to be a two-piece construction, with a shaft that covers the part of the sole of the foot closest to the heel, and a front section that wraps around the toes; the join between the two is at an angle. You can see a picture of it here, along with marvelous closeups of the textiles it is made from, and other textiles from the same find. The second site my commenter drew my attention to has pictures of several 11th century CE finds. One is English; I can't tell whether it is of the same cut as the Martres de Veyre hose or whether the shaft has additional flaps; you can see the image here. Another pair, said to have belonged to Pope Clement II, looks a lot like the Martres de Veyre find, though picking out the seam placement is impossible; that picture is here. The stockings from the German regalia (approximately 13th century CE) are here; they appear to have more shaping than the earlier pair, though they also seem to have a front that wraps around the toes. Interesting stuff--maybe a timeline of surviving stockings organized by find location would yield more interesting information?


  1. Nice post. I had never seen that method of sock construction before. Might need to try that.

    Here are some sock links you might be interested in.

    A Man's Caftan and Leggings from the North Caucasus of the Eighth to Tenth Century: A Conservator's Report

    Early medieval footwear of the Northwestern Caucasus: the finds from Moshchevaya Balka.

    Peter Beatson


  2. Thanks for your kind words, Lara. Actually, I have seen both sources you cite before, I had just forgotten about them. Duh!

    The 8th-10th century CE find from the North Caucasus described in the Metropolitan Museum article is *very* interesting. It features a pair of stockings with a patterned silk shaft, to the ankle, and plain linen feet. The author theorizes that these may have been fancy over-leggings, worn over plain stockings. The authors show a diagram of the leggings; the plain foot is made from one piece of fabric, sewn around the bottom and sides of the foot with tucks taken at the heel. There's a photo of a plain hemp/linen pair I can't make out details on, as well. It's a great article; I need to read it again. Peter Beatson's article contains a drawing of the same legging pattern but with easier-to-read detail. They are great articles; I commend both to any interested reader's attention.

  3. There's an early find of stocking/socks from Martres de Veyre and some later pontifical stockings mentioned here: - I know it's not exactly the period you're interested in, but just a food for thoughts...

  4. Dear Anonymous: Although most of my costume history efforts involve the "Dark Ages", the point of my essay on stocking construction was to ponder whether construction techniques became more sophisticated over time, or whether different areas/cultures simply used different approaches for other reasons. So the Martres de Veyre and German information is most welcome!