Hosiery History

Originally for protection and warmth

Merriam-Webster Online defines hosiery as hose, which if you look that up says “a cloth leg covering that sometimes covers the foot.” Definition 2:“stocking, sock.” So we’ll go back in time and look at what was used to cover the leg and/or foot.

Knitted socks have been around for thousands of years. Cleopatra was said to wear sandal socks. Leg coverings in Europe were rough fitting knitted or woven trousers, which only went to the ankles. These were called hose. Between the 4th and 10th centuries tube hose was made. Tapes were sewn to the top to use as garters to tie them to a belt under clothes, though some men wore their stockings on the outside of their breeches.

In the 11th century Spain was the center for hand-knitted silk hose—of course, only moneyed people could afford these—they weren’t widespread until the 16th century. Linen hose was made by sewing two leg profile pieces together. These also were tied up with tapes. Winingas, or legwraps, wickelbander or puttees, were woven woolen strips wrapped around the lower leg in some cultures.

About the 13th century, chausses, as stockings had come to be called in Europe, sometimes had lacing wrapped around them to make them fit tighter. Eventually longer stockings were made that were joined at the crotch and became more pants-like. These were called closed hose or a pair of legs. Later yet called tights.

By the 16th century hose was divided into upper and lower hose. Upper hose became the precursor of underpants and lower hose stockings or nethersocks. The sock-knitting “machine” (a hand frame) was invented in 1589, which made socks cheaper and easier to produce. At first these machines made stockings out of coarse worsted (wool yarn), but ten years later the machines were fitted to make luxury silk stockings.

Embroidery or decorations hid the seam of where the foot of the stocking was attached to the leg. Stockings were held up with garters or ribbons in the 17th century.

In the 18th century the invention of the spinning jenny sped up the process of making enough yarn to fill the looms. By the end of the century it was possible to loom a variety of materials for hose. Stockings were hand-finished with seams at the back.

In mid-1800s machine-knitting was devised which could shape or fashion fabric automatically. This mechanically controlled rotary frame meant a faster knitting process and a resulting narrower fabric that fit the leg shape better. Socks could be made faster and were more available.

Side note: Have you heard the term bluestockings? It referred to blue worsted stockings worn by people too poor to wear black silk stockings for evening wear, but used to label educated women who had formed a literary group in the latter half of the 19th century.

At the turn of the 20th century as hemlines rose, soft transparent and durable stockings became very important to women. Silk stockings became a symbol of luxury. Of course, most women wore white or black cotton or wool stockings.

The next main event for the hosiery industry was the invention of artificial silk. In 1910 rayon was being produced for stockings. By the mid 20s this had impacted not only the silk market, but cotton and wool stocking markets, too. Hemlines were even shorter and women enjoyed showing off their legs. (This was usually still below the knees!)

In 1940 the first nylons were sold in New York. That first year, 64 million pairs of stockings were sold. Manufacturers had trouble keeping up and the Japanese silk market collapsed.

During the war, nylon production was turned to parachutes, tents and ropes. Nylons became a very hard to get commodity. Some women would draw a “seam” down the back of their leg so to appear as if they were wearing nylons.

After the war nylons were once again produced. Banded top nylons were made in 1947. The invention of the circular knitting machine brought women seamless stockings in the 1950s. Check out this clip of Cyd Charisse in the 1957 movie Silk Stockings, which caused some eyebrow raising at how risqué it was.

Most women’s hose or nylons, were not as high as Cyd’s in this movie. They were midthigh and women wore garter belts to keep them up.

In the 1960s, pantyhose was invented and women happily threw away their garters and garter belts. (Now these items are a fashion statement or a fun sexy outfit.)

If you want still more information on hosiery, these two museums have interesting info online:

German Hosiery Museum

Lingerie Clearance Sale