Socks for status

Posted on 11th Dec 2014 Categories: News

The original ‘sock’ would not have looked anything like what you or I would recognise them as today, as they were originally made from animal skins which were secured around the ankle to protect our feet from cold and wet. The word stems from the Latin soccus, meaning a slipper or low shoe that was not fastened with a tie, with the Greeks fashioning them from matted animal hair and the Romans using woven fabric and leather.

The oldest knitted socks that exist were discovered during an Edwardian expedition, at an excavation in Egypt and Syria. These were known as coptic socks and date from the 2nd-5th century, and had a divided toe so they could be worn with sandals.

Sock

A coptic sock from around the 3rd century, which would have been worn with sandals. It was excavated from Christian burial grounds of the late Roman period, found in the present-day city of al-Bahnasa in Egypt © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Status Symbol

By the Middle Ages, socks were no longer simply a practical item, but had evolved into a status symbol for the upper classes. Records such as wills and inventories from the 16th century show that stockings had become an essential and highly fashionable item - particularly for men. By this time, men were wearing short breeches with a woven lower leg covering that was held in place with a garter - a combination which is similar to the traditional breeks and shooting socks outfit we wear in the field today.

 As breeches got shorter, so socks increased in length, until they eventually covered the whole leg, as a kind of early pair of tights and Britain’s elite were soon copying the elegant fine knitted silk stockings seen in Europe, which had the benefit of displaying shapely calves and thighs as they strutted in court. Both Henry VIII and Edward VI were partial to silk stockings and imported them from Spain. Sandy Black in her book Knitting: Fashion, Craft, Industry writes how one of the port books from this time recorded 12 pairs of silk stockings brought in from Spain for the cost of nearly £4 - a phenomenal price when you consider top servants at the time were earning only £5 a year! It is said of the time that a nobleman could have dressed himself from head to foot for less than the cost of a pair of silk stockings.

Tudor Sock This miniature shows a Tudor gentleman shows him dressed in breeches spangled with moons and suns, a pelmet and stockings © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Throughout history, sumptuary laws, which regulated consumption, have been used to identify social rank and privilege, and even socks could not escape these restrictions. In 1561 the amount of fabric that could be use in making hose was heavily restricted and anyone flouting this rule would be imprisoned and marched through the streets by the ‘sock police’ wearing the offending, now shredded, item. At around this time, an Act of Parliment in 1581 stated that all men over six years (apart from nobility and people of good social or official rank) must wear a woollen cap on Sundays and holidays or they would face daily fines. Its aim was to stimulate domestic wool consumption and is responsible for the flat cap becoming the quintessentially British piece of clothing that we know today.

Rejected by royalty

 Where shooting socks are concerned, it has to be House of Cheviot - and this eye-catching orange Lochnagar sock is perfect for the shooter who likes to dress in a stylish, yet classic manner. By 1589, an English clergyman named William Lee created the first knitting frame, by mechanising two needles. Rumour has it that he made the knitting machine because the lady he was besotted with barely glanced up at him from her knitting needles! Unfortunately the Queen refused to give him a royal patent as she said the machine made socks that were ‘too course’ for a Royal. In response, Lee improved his machine to use 20 needles per inch, capable of creating a much finer fabric.

From this point on, sock production never looked back and many of the principles used in Lee’s original machines are still used in modern knitting machines today, including those at the House of Cheviot, where the finest quality socks are created for the discerning country gentlemen and ladies.

With thanks to

Kate Davies Designs

Knitting: Fashion, Craft, Industry by Sandy Black 

Knitting Together 

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities by William Smith, LLD, William Wayte, G. E. Marindin, Ed