Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Cut and Sewn Hose

I'm going to make an attempt to put some of my old research into a form where it can be used. I went out to the garage tonight, and dug out my box of files from my old business. I loved my work, and would spend hours and days searching out every bit of research I could find on any particular subject a client might have an interest in. And it usually sparked an interest in me.

My local librarians would get in all kinds of weird papers for me - at the peak of my research they managed to get a copy of an article written in Swedish, from one of the three copies of that journal in this country. They were not, however, able to get a copy of the accompanying English translation.

The first book on knitting I purchased when I re-started knitting in the 1990s was Nancy Bush's Folk Socks. I loved the pictures of museum-held socks and stockings, the recreations she designed to make the historic socks into modern wearables - exactly what I loved to do! I returned to this book later in my sewing career when I was asked about hose.


Hose? Like pantyhose? Tights?

Sort of, but not quite.

Think back further - before knitting (yeah - I know that's tough for some of you). What did legs get covered with back in the days before knitting and trousers?

Hose. Chausses if you're French, heuse if you're German...I'll stop there.

Long before the advent of knitting, the lower portion of legs were covered with hose: woven fabric that was cut and sewn into leg coverings.

These coarsely cut and sewn hose, made of linen or wool, were fitted to the leg and seamed up the back. They were either footed or footless or had a stirrup under the foot.
Nancy Bush, Folk Socks, p.9
So what, exactly, did these cut and sewn hose look like? And how were they made?

It's not terribly easy to find proper references for hose. (And I don't have all of my references in front of me, as many of them are still in time-out in the garage.) One that has proven extremely useful is from the journal Costume; an article written in 1989 by Aagot Noss. In the article, Noss describes interviews and fieldwork in Tinn, Telemark, where cut and sewn hose were worn until quite recently (the 1960s). They may yet be worn there, but by the 1960s, they were falling out of favor with the younger generations.

Noss shows us several ways to cut and sew hose from a woven fabric, all demonstrated by women who have made and worn them. Two of those are shown in the illustration below, taken from Noss's article.
The women in Tinn tell of several advantages to wearing such stockings, including the simple fact that woven fabric does not collect straw, hay, and weeds in the same way that knitted stockings do. They are comfortable, warm, insulate the feet well in leather, rawhide, or wooden shoes, and when cut on the bias, are quite flexible and economical in fabric use, requiring only a 24" length of fabric. Homespun and handwoven, of course.

I think one of the most telling things about this article, is the mention of a preference for bias-cut hose over straight-cut, not just because straight-cut used more fabric, but because the men struggled with pulling on the straight-cut hose. It highlights how much we miss by not being able to talk to the folk who created, made, and used the garments we now study and attempt to re-create.

Hose persisted long after knitting was invented. Knitted stockings and cut and sewn hose coexisted for centuries - even in Tinn, knitted stockings were used for young children, special days, and Sundays, while cut hose were used for everyday wear. We know that they coexisted in Europe and persisted as under-leggings for knit stockings as well as stand-alone garments for legs. After all, how many knitters haven't heard the story of Queen Elizabeth being presented with her first pair of silk stockings by one of her maids, and declaring that she would never again wear cut hose? Even if the records of her wardrobe show it to have been unlikely...

There are beautiful extant cut and sewn hose in museums, including the V & A. Some of which are embroidered and but to fit the leg (a much later innovation. Early hose were quite rectangular). Mostly you'll find pictures of decrepit, worn out hose in books on knitting, as a visual aid to appall the knitter and show how much better life became after the invention of knitted socks.


Depends on your point of view, I suppose.

Let's think about the household economy for a moment.

In the medieval European household (as this was when cut and sewn hose seem to have developed), it was necessary to provide for your family all necessary clothing items. Barter might work, but for the most part there was significant spinning and weaving going on in the home. What else would you do all winter in an agrarian society? We're assuming a small local economy, and this is before the guilds started exacting fees for doing what people used to do for themselves and were now prohibited from doing...

So the family spends the winter spinning and spinning and spinning...probably all of a fairly consistent grist from person to person, as there really wasn't all that much reason to vary it. Flax would be spun fine for linen, and wool would be spun fine for fabric, and that's probably about it. Maybe a little less-fine for coarse wool weaving for outer clothes. And remember - this is pre-spinning wheel. These folks were spindling, so it was probably a year-round activity for the women, just as was seen in Shetland, Russia, and so many other places that continued in their local traditions until we came in and took pictures of them and changed them forever...

So they spindled and spun, and finally, winter came. Time to weave. Then, as now, warping was not the simplest task, and it requires several pairs of hands to be done efficiently. How many warps would you like to sett? As few as possible, say many weavers. So maybe they sett a woolen warp, and got to weaving. Maybe it was linen. Either way, they probably didn't weave 14 different fabrics for each member of the family to have their own fashion. I expect it would be closer to one or two linens - lightweight and heavyweight, and two woolens - one for clothes and one for outerclothes.

Where, in this scheme of household management, do you see room for tedious knitting of stockings?

Because it makes far more sense to cut a 2-foot chunk off the end of a length of fabric and whip up a pair of hose than it does to meticulously knit, stitch by stitch, stockings. When cut hose were worn out, they could be unpicked and used to make or repair other clothing or household items. Knit? Ever tried to unravel and re-use stocking yarn? They can be re-footed, but the yarn is pretty useless for re-use. And cutting them up - well, there's only so many uses for small pieces of knit fabric.

The advantages of cut hose far outweighed the advantages of knitted stockings for the casual, everyday medieval family in Europe. It was not until machine-made stockings came on the scene that the everyday folk wore knitted stockings. Yes, they knitted them for other people, for pay, but they weren't wearing them themselves until they were cheaper than hose.

Clothing was all pretty much made out of rectangles, anyway. It's not like they were fretting over their baggy, saggy cut hose!

But what about garters? What about tying them up?

In Tinn, we finally have the answer: "Down at the ankle they sat!"


Kate A. said...

Testing...Blogger ate the loooong rambling comment I tried to leave, so I'm trying this to see if it's something about this post, or just a one-time fluke...

Kate A. said...

Huh. Well, it's not the post! I emailed you the shorter version of my rambles, anyway. Sorry I was too stupid to copy it before hitting send the first time!

historicstitcher said...

Thanks, Kate! I appreciate your testing it!

When I load the page, it shows 0 comments, then they show up in the popup window.

Julie said...

Very interesting, and dovetails nicely with my theory on how the lack of quality knitting needles slowed the spread of knitting and made it a more upper-crust product. I'd never thought about it in quite the terms you've laid it out, but now that you mention it -- it all makes perfect sense.

Very interesting.