The Humble Sock: A Short History – Part 2

Eggs Socks Sockgaim Purple Yellow Aqua

Your monthly sock subscription from Sockgaim is the most welcome thing in your letterbox, right?  Yet socks are so often overlooked when we think about our wardrobes!

Our last blog looked at the history of the humble sock from the Stone Age to the beginning of the Middle Ages. Today, we continue looking at how socks have evolved throughout Mediaeval times…

Socks in the Middle Ages

  • Fashions of the Middle Ages saw trouser length for men extend and, as such, socks became a relatively tight piece of clothing that covered the foot and leg below the knee. The socks were often brightly coloured and were held up by garters to prevent them from slipping down the leg.
  • Europe’s working class wove or homespun their own socks by the end of the 1100s. The socks worn by the nobility, however, were vastly superior and were made from higher-quality cloth, bias cut and with a seam at the back.
  • Knitted hose made their way to Scotland in the 1400s and followed to France.
  • Around 1490, breeches and hose (stockings) were joined to create a single garment (tights). For the nobility, these were made of woven or knitted silk, wool, and velvet, and each leg was often a different colour!
  • Fashions of the 1500s evolved so that men wore short tunics and hose styles had to adapt. This meant that hose was now crafted as one piece reaching the crotch as opposed to two separate legs.
  • During the reign of Elizabeth I in the 1500s, all stockings were handmade and woven and the queen favoured silk stockings – women having only adopted stockings for wear from 1560. Elizabeth I favoured white stockings. At the same time, France’s favoured stocking colour for women was blue. Mary Queen of Scots wore light blue stockings with green garters and woven with silver thread.
  • Stockings became regulated in England in the 1500s. In 1566, there were “sock police” in London; officials were employed to ensure nobody wore the wrong kind of stockings in the city. Sock police were stationed at the gates of London to check the legwear of anyone entering or leaving the city for impropriety.
  • In 1589, William Lee, an English clergyman, invented the knitting machine, and this invention’s principles are still used today. The first patent for this machine was refused by Elizabeth I as the stockings were wool, unshapely, and she found them too coarse and uncomfortable to wear. She also believed the machine’s use would lead to a reduction in employment for Englishmen. Lee eventually received financial support from French King Henry IV and he moved to France. Knitting machines became common in the 1590s and so did knitted hose. Working class people wore wool hose; noblemen wore silk hose.
  • Throughout the 1600s and 1700s, changing fashions dictated that stockings, the socks of the time, changed from longer to shorter, and they could rise to anywhere from mid-calf to mid-thigh. They were also to become more colourful and striking. Spanish gentlemen wore silk knitted stockings with emblems embroidered on them. Swiss and German gentlemen wore slashed clothing to expose their colourful and decorative hose.

Italian Stockings c 1700s (IMAGE: Pinterest)

  • In the late 1600s, men’s trousers lengthened, and men’s stockings became known as socks. Cotton also became more widely available and was a popular material for the creation of socks.

Next time, we’ll continue our history of socks by looking at socks from the Industrial Age forward to the present day. In the meantime, have you arranged your Sockgaim monthly sock subscription?