Going through some old files on my PC the other day, I came across a project I did while in my first year at university. The project was to give a five-minute talk on a subject to do with fashion and contour fashion, and as we were designing suspender / garter belts in class at the time, I decided to give my talk on the history of stockings and the stocking industry. As I looked at the project it came to me that some of you good people who subscribe to this website are involved in historical re-enactments, so how do you deal with hosiery to go with your carefully-crafted historical gowns or knee breeches? Do you spend hours searching the shops and websites for white cotton stockings or can you make your own? Yes, you can - it’s all about finding the right fabrics to give the “look” of retro hosiery. First a bit of history (come on, I spent almost a whole 20 minutes doing the research at uni!) then how to fake it / make them.
Although stockings have been made by hand-knitters for centuries, the manufacture of stockings was revolutionised by an invention of a machine by an Elizabethan Vicar. In 1589 the Rev William Lee designed and built a mechanical Knitting machine, which utilised multiple needles arranged in a straight line to produce a flat knitted stocking that only needed seaming by hand. The main feature of the knitting machine was the spring or “bearded” needles, a design of machine knitting needle that is still used today to make modern-day hosiery. The Rev William Lee applied to Elizabeth I for a grant of moneys to perfect his “Stocking Frame”, but he was denied a patent by both Elizabeth I and James I.
Before we can start making stockings, let's go over a few of the design options.....
Designing Your Stockings: What sort of heel are you?
When the heel reinforcement area on a stocking comes to a point on the back of the ankle it is called a “French Heel” and a heel reinforcement area on a stocking that is “squared” across on the back of the ankle is called a “Cuban Heel”
So, now you know the difference between French and Cuban heels. Unless you have a “stocking knitting frame” of your own we are going to use ready made fabrics and cut out some stockings to seam up.
Understanding Stocking Weights - Denier
The weight of the denier is obtained by weighing 450 meters of nylon, silk or rayon thread. If 450 meters weighs 5 grams, the thread is called a 100-denier thread. The base of 450 meters being the standard measure, the weight of the thread will determine its calibre. The lighter the thread (the less number of deniers) the finer the weave. A 15-denier yarn is twice as fine as 30-denier yarn. The most popular denier for day/evening is still 15 denier, 30 denier has been popularised as "business sheer", 70 denier as "service sheer". "Ultra sheer" or "evening dress sheer" stockings can be 15 denier, 12 denier or 10 denier. The sheerest practical denier is 7denier, which is so fragile that it can barely survive one wearing.
One type of decoration that has disappeared from stockings is “clocking”, the knitted-in fancy patterns on the sides of the stockings at the ankle. If you look at the following pictures of 1920’s silk stockings you can just about make out the clocking on the stockings above the shoe ankle strap.
In my opinion, clocking on hosiery should make a comeback; unlike a tattoo on your ankle, clocking can be far nicer and is removable.
When you have had a go at making some plain stockings, you could try to do some embroidery clocking on some stockings before you seam them up.
Drafting a Basic Stocking Pattern
You will need to take eight leg / foot measurements for the stocking draft:
- Stocking length, from tiptoe up the front of the leg, over the knee to a point on the thigh were you wish the stocking to finish. Try to keep the leg straight. For gentlemen’s stockings and lace trimmed Cavalier boot stockings this will be just above the knee. (Or you could start a new fashion craze; “lace trimmed Cavalier boot stockings” for ladies calf boots! )
- Length from toes to heel, along top of foot.
- From toes to heel under foot, for checking foot shaping only.
- Foot diameter - around foot half way between toes and heel.
- Heel diameter - around heel.
- Ankle diameter - around ankle.
- Calf diameter at widest part of calf.
- Thigh diameter at the point were you wish the stocking to end.
As we are dealing with stretch fabrics, it’s our old friend negative-ease and again, as I do not have your fabrics in front of me I will give you basic measurement reductions for you to draft with. Then you can play around with them to match the stretch of your fabrics. Remember your foot has to pass through the ankle section so do not make the stockings too tight.
Start by drawing a horizontal line 1.5cm to 2cm shorter than “measurement 1 stocking length”. Now draw a line at right angles to the first line at a point along the horizontal line 1cm shorter than “measurement 2, length from toes to heel along top of foot”. Make this vertical line half of “measurement 5, heel diameter” minus 0.5cm long.
At the left end of the horizontal stocking length line, draw a vertical line half of “measurement 8, thigh diameter” – 1cm long. Roughly half way in-between the thigh end line and the heel line, draw a line at right angles and make its length half of “measurement 7 calf” – 1cm.
At a point 1/3 along from the vertical heel line 5 and 2/3 from the vertical calf line 7, draw a vertical line half of “measurement 6, ankle diameter” – 1cm.
Now for a test of your artistic curve drawing skills using a French curve or a Flexi curve. Join the tops of all the vertical lines with a leg outline curve. Fully-fashioned or what?
That’s the basic stocking pattern complete but as you know many stockings in history have toe, sole and heel reinforcement areas that are knitted in as part of the flat knit stocking. As we are faking it, we will need to pattern draft and sew on the reinforcement parts. First, a reinforcement panel for the toes. Measure along the horizontal line from the toe end 5.5cm and draw a vertical line up to meet the stocking outline, remember that this 5.5cm not only covers the top of the toes but also wraps underneath.
Next, a simple heel reinforcement that suits both ladies' and gentlemen's hosiery. At either side of the heel prominence draw two straight lines at 74 degrees to the leg outline so that they meet in the heel area.
For a French or Cuban combined heel and sole reinforcement panel(s), first measure across the sole of your / models foot, and then divide the measurement in half. Draw the simple heel reinforcement as a guide. From the foot part of the leg outline draw a line that is half the sole measurement distant along to the simple heel reinforcement.
Now draw a line from the simple heel to a point on the ankle; the point is your “styling” choice. You can square a line down from the ankle outline for a Cuban heel end if you wish. Use your French curve / Flexi curve to smooth the lines into a continuous curve.
Trace off the heel and toe reinforcement panels on to a new sheet of paper for their patterns.
For the stocking top, you can use a strip of stretch lace or decide on a depth for the stockings suspender / garter reinforcement area and add this to the length of the stocking for “turning” down and stitching. You can even include a “hole” in the back seaming to fake the “Finishing off” hole on real knitted stockings.
The “Fake It” Fabrics
The fabrics I have used for the examples are; a white knitted stretch cotton lining fabric used for lining the crotches of ladies briefs / foundation garments, and several examples of fine light weight Powernets. You could also try some stretchy “Fishnet” fine netting for some fancy “dancers” stockings. Some of the very shiny fine Powernets can give the look of 1900/20’s silk stockings. Heavier dark brown Powernet; the look of late 1940’s thick “daywear” stockings. Remember we are “faking it”.
To mark out the fabric, place the stocking pattern on the fabric, outline the half stocking then “flip” the pattern over to outline the other half. Do not forget to mark/cut out the heels and toes.
After cutting out the fabric pattern parts, sew on the inside of the stocking the heel and toe reinforcement panels using a three-step zig zag stitch. (In my examples I have used a black sewing thread so that you can see the sewing and seams in the pictures.)
Then sew the tops. Use a three-step zig zag to turn down stocking top hem or apply a stretch lace trim.
That All Important Back Seam
To sew the main seam down the back of the stocking you can use either an overlocker / serger sewing machine or a one-step zigzag stitch on your lockstitch sewing machine.
For overlocker / serger sewing, set up the machine to give a three-thread rolled hem i.e. remove the left needle to give a right needle only narrow seam, retract the stitch finger to give a rolled hem, set the thread tensions to give a stretch seam and disengage the upper trimming knife as it can sometimes play havoc with stretch fabrics that contain lycra or spandex. If your machine has it, set the differential feed for stretch fabrics.
For lockstitch (a general sewing machine), set the stitch to a narrow one-step zigzag, say 3.5mm wide, with a short stitch length (zigzags close together). The trick to sewing the seam with a zigzag stitch is to feed the fabric under the foot so that the needle just missies the fabric at one side of the swing / stitch formation. Because of the thread tension the hem fabric will be pulled in to give a rolled hem and should give the correct amount of “Grinning” to the seam when the stocking is worn i.e. we will see part of the stitches on the outside of the stocking.
For those who do not know, a 'grinning seam' happens when the needle thread tension and the bobbin thread tension are set to weak. Sew two bits of fabric together, open out the fabrics and try to lightly pull the seam apart, if you see the stitches as very short lines across the seam then the seam is said to be grinning i.e. it looks like a row of teeth in a open mouth. Increase the needle and bobbin thread tensions to give a good seam without grinning for general sewing.
There are sometimes another two problems that you may get when sewing very fine fabrics: as you sew the needle may try to push the fabric into the machine, or after you have sewn a seam, you see very fine uneven lines in the fabric running at 90 degrees to the seam (a run in your stockings?).
The very fine lines are broken weave threads that are part of the fabric. This is from using a general-purpose sewing needle (and it is the same thing when you do get a “run” in your stockings or tights / panty hose - broken weave threads!). To help prevent both problems you can try using a “sharps” needle in your machine.
You may find that your local sewing shop dos not stock them - or even know what they are - but they do exist and do work with fine fabrics. Also, if you are sewing knitted fabrics you could try using “Jersey” needles.
A big thank you to a friend, Anna, for modelling the stockings - the best “pins” in Stoke-on-Trent...
Here is my pattern for a woman’s pair of tights / panty hose, can you work out how I drafted them and how the pattern cuts out and sews together? Just like the stocking pattern, the straight edge is “on the fold”. The long “diamond” shape is a pattern part placed on the main leg/panty part to save on fabric when cutting out.
You may not be interested in historical re-enactments but you may be making intimate apparel to sell or show in a fashion show, so how about making some “fancy” stockings for your models to wear that compliment the main garments? Remember to measure your models legs for the stocking patterns, as professional models usually have ridiculously long legs compared to us mere mortals.
Now if that’s not an excuse to buy more shoes to go with the stockings you have made, I don’t know! And keep those seams straight!!