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Knitting a 17th-century silk stocking for the Refashioning the Renaissance participatory research project

By Liisa Kylmänen

Taking on a challenge

I’ve been knitting since I was a teen and loved all kinds of needlework all my life. I also love historical clothes so when I heard that the Refashioning the Renaissance participatory research project was trying to replicate a really fine, old silk stocking from the 1650s, I enrolled as a volunteer. Challenging myself with anything hand made is always worth a try!

In early spring of 2019 our team of about 35 volunteers met for the first time. We were given the option to make three different kinds of socks, and I volunteered to knit the finest type, a replica of an old pair found in a tomb in the Turku cathedral. Before we got to work on the actual stocking we had to find out how the original pair had been knitted. Our pattern team divided into groups to study the close-up photos of the Turku stockings, counting stitches and trying to work out a logical pattern. It was quite demanding to keep track of what was happening as the socks of the pair had not been made exactly the same way and we only saw one side of the stocking at a time from the photos we had. We ended up with 11 pages of text, photos and charts, plus an excel sheet of all the rows of the stocking and what was happening on each row.

Enlargements of the photographs of the Turku stockings with my markings and the completed pattern

Testing ourselves and the materials 

The next big question was how to achieve the right gauge or stitches per cm. At our group’s first meeting we experimented with fine wool tread. I started knitting a tiny little swatch with 0,7mm needles and the thinnest wool yarn. The smallest needles I had knitted with until then were 1,75 mm, and the difference seemed enormous. The needles (HiyaHiya steel double pointed) felt really flimsy and bendy in my hands, but the result was a fabulously thin and fine piece of knitting with just over 10 stitches per centimeter! I learned to knit the continental way but on the purl rows it was impossible to open up the stitch to catch the yarn. For the first time in my life I tried the English style of knitting which I’ve always considered very cumbersome. With the tiny stitches and reduced strength of the needles, the English method was the way to go for the purl side.

             The start of my mini sock with 60 stitches and the first finest swatch with 30 stitches

For my next swatch I decided to knit in the round – like we would for the actual stocking. I used some slightly thicker yarn left over from an Estonian shawl and the same 0,7 mm needles. I ended up knitting a miniature stocking using the directions of an old Danish sock that was introduced to our team as one of the socks to be knitted by the volunteers. I often fell into trouble with a slipped stitch, a mistake to correct or just the furry yarn going into an unidentifiable mess. I had to dig out a loop to pick up the stitches from the heel flap for the gusset.

Here’s the mini sock modeled by an old action man doll. It has all the features of the 16th-century stocking: the garter, shaping by increases and decreases, a purl decoration in the back seam, a clock decoration at the ankle, a folded heel and a long gusset

In the summer we finally got to try out some silk. It was in fact much easier to knit than I had expected. Unlike the wool, any silk strands left out from the needle were easy to spot as they formed a visible loop on the outgoing yarn. We tried different kinds of silk, some still containing  their natural sericin and other softer yarns from which it had been washed out. Both had pros and cons: the sericin was harder on the hands, stiffer and hence stayed together better, whereas the washed silk was easier on the hands, more supple and also split much more. I made little swatches of many different yarns, practicing increases, decreases, purl decorations and picking up stitches at the same time. The gauge we were aiming for was around 8 to 9 stitches per centimeter, and with most yarns I achieved that with 1 mm needles.

Here is a swatch with single silk yarn where I tried out some twisted stitches, picking up from
the side, different types of increases and decreases

Getting to work on the actual stocking 

The silk we eventually received for our project was a bit of a compromise and so after all my experiments aiming for the same quality as the original, I ended up starting my sock with a double thickness of yarn.  The needles I used were HiyaHiya 1 mm steel needles and I was VERY happy that I didn’t have to take up the project with the thinner 0.7 mm ones!

Casting on and knitting the first row was very slow.

The beginning was – as always – the hardest part! It took me nearly three hours to cast on the 288 stitches and to knit the first row. I used a cast on method where the stitches were crocheted with one thread (in my case double) around the knitting needle. The knit was quite dense due to the double thickness and hence quite cumbersome to knit. I needed to tighten each stitch, especially the first couple stitches of each needle. After a couple of rows I made good use of a thimble to push the needle along! Also because of the double yarn thickness, the needles were so “full” that I managed to push only a couple of stitches forward at a time, making the process even slower.

Taking notes of time spent on each row

The stocking starts with a garter of 8 stitches knitted and 8 purled. After that it continues with a plain stocking stitch and an additional zigzag decoration on both sides of the center back. With the 1 mm needles I was near the 8 mm/cm gauge. The stocking continued with decreases down to the knee and then increasing again to make room for the calf. On both sides of the ankle there was a decorative clock which was made with purl stitches. At that point I noticed my knitting was getting looser because the purls were so hard to tighten. Compared to the rest of the stocking, the ankle remained a little looser even after washing and blocking, which was a bit disappointing…

Trying to keep the purl stitches of the clock tight enough was challenging

The heel flap was knitted down in one continuous piece with some decoration on the side. This was a very common way to make the heel. The flap was then folded in half and closed with a three needle bind off. The most tedious part of the whole knitting process was picking up the stitches from the side of the heel flap! The knit was so tight that I really had to fight with every loop picked up, using my 0,75mm crochet hook to help with every stitch, not just the extra ones picked up after every three loops. The next row was the second toughest part of the whole knitting. Not only were the stitches extremely tight but also the silk was totally split up from being worked so hard. Luckily, each row was easier and shorter after that!

The heel flap before it was folded and knitted together

Picking up the stitches from the heel flap was the toughest part of the knitting process

For the first 120 rows my pace was roughly 30 minutes per row. As the stocking progressed, slowly but surely, I managed to pick up a little speed. Normally I’m a fairly fast knitter, but with the bendy needles and tiny stitches it was impossible to knit without concentrating all the time. No “flow” like with a normal sock, just toiling away focusing on the knitting. My progress was spurred on by milestones like reaching the knee, starting the clock, and casting off the heel.

Decreases at the gusset. The last part of the stocking and each row easier from here to the end

Fortunately, I didn’t make many mistakes because unraveling the double thickness of thread was a real headache! We had noticed that the knitters back in the 17th century had not been too fussy either, so we decided with our volunteer group to accept minor mistakes, such as a decrease one row later instead of backing a whole row. Moreover, I imagine no one would have noticed anyway!

The agony of picking up a dropped stitch! Often, I had to go down several rows and with the thread being worked on many times, it ended up in an indistinguishable mess

Finally getting to the end after 260 hours 

The stocking has over 900 rows, 733 from the top to the bottom of the heel flap, plus 177 rows on the foot part. It measures 61 cm from the garter to the end of the heel. The clock or decoration on both sides of the ankle is 101 rows high. The weight of the stocking before being washed was 96 grams.

260 hours later, getting there!

The total time it took me to knit the one silk stocking was about 260 hours. I knitted on 105 days which makes an average of 2,5 hours per day. The longest I knitted on one single day was just over six hours. I have no idea what the working hours were in the 17th century, but certainly longer than that! Good lighting is imperative, so summer time would have been optimal. (Unfortunately, the silk arrived in the autumn, so I started my stocking in November and finished in April.) Other questions that came to mind: How many people would have had access to glasses, which at my age are essential? What kind of needles would the knitters have used? I knitted with what I imagine are the best quality modern steel needles and even they had a hard time keeping up with the task. I also tried a swatch with modern carbon needles, but they produced a gray stripe where I had used them and the ends of the needles seemed to disintegrate, as that was where the strain was the biggest. As a result, the tips were “frayed” and started to resemble a paint brush!

I used two sets of needles. One broke in two on row 160 and for the rest of the way, I kept rotating them. Here are the survivors 

After it was finished my stocking was handed over to the project, well over a year ago. Since then it has been washed to get rid of the sericin and dyed by the Refashioning team with fustic, which produced a beautifully deep yellow.  The stocking was exhibited at the Aalto University campus in Stitching History! Making and Wearing Early Modern Knitted Stockings, along with all the beautiful things that the research group has discovered, documented and reconstructed during the past five years.

I saw the original pair of the historic stockings at the exhibition in the Turku Castle just before starting to knit my version and remember well how daunting it seemed to try to achieve something so refined. I considered it an honor to be a part of this participatory research project and strove to make my stocking as uniform and as beautiful as the original ones. The perfectionist in me is not completely satisfied, but I am quite happy with the result. After this experience, I totally understand why a pair of stockings was such a luxury item that it might have cost you a horse!

Photos of the finished stocking

You can clearly see the needle change running through the middle of the stocking despite my efforts to minimize it. The ankle is quite wide and so is the foot part

The sole is also very short and will need a lot of stretching to fit a normal foot

The sole also has shaping to compensate for the decreases on the top side

The clock decoration at the ankle was made with purl stitches

 

 

 

Did ordinary Italians have a ‘Renaissance’? Discover how artisans lived and connected with culture from my new book!

1 February 2021

 

Italian Renaissance is known mainly through art works, decorative objects, and fashion manufactures that were owned, used and admired by the high-ranking wealthy elites. Before we started the Refashioning the Renaissance project, few scholars had been interested in studying how the lower classes experienced the Renaissance culture. So how did ordinary Italians, such as shoemakers, barbers and bakers and their families, connect to the Italian Renaissance culture through their artefacts, cultural practice and appearance?

We can admire the richness of Renaissance material culture in many surviving Renaissance images, such as in the early sixteenth-century image of an orderly and affluent household by Vittore Carpaccio on the left. A painting by Vincenzo Campi, created in 1580, on the right, however, provides a rare visual window to the material world within reach of modest peasant or working families. Depicting a moment on 11 November, after the end of the harvest, when many families in the countryside traditionally moved house, the painting shows chests, metal buckets, and other household wares piled up on the back of a donkey. Open to public view, such possessions revealed much about a family and how it wished to present itself.

My new book Artisans, Objects and Everyday Life in Renaissance Italy: The Material Culture of the Middling Class, published recently by Amsterdam University Press, explores—for the first time in depth—the question of, could people lower down the social scale participate in the marketfor luxury goods and novelties and engage in Renaissance culture?

Post-mortem inventories are an important archival source for material culture and fashion historians to investigate what kind of material artefacts people owned. Here, on the left, we can see an inventory of the sixteenth-century baker Pietro, listing all the belongings he had owned at the moment of his death, and, on the right, a fifteenth-century Florentine fresco painting showing the process of taking a household inventory.

Using a rich blend of archival evidence from sixteenth-century Siena, such as post-mortem inventories illustrated above, it explores how local artisans and tradesmen and their families conducted their lives in Italy in the first half of the sixteenth century; how they acquired a wide range of artefacts, furnished their homes, and managed their domestic economies and consumption; what types of luxury items and small personal belongings were exchanged and circulated in dowries at artisan levels; and how families of artisan rank socialized in their homes and celebrated their weddings.

Marriages and wedding celebrations were important occasions when luxuries were acquired and circulated. The bride’s dowry, transported to the new home in a wedding chest, included a number of luxuries even at the lower social levels, such as fine linens, gold embroidered scarves and snoods, jewellery and furniture. Even the modest stone-cutter Salvatore’s wife’s dowry, as appears in the document above, included such treasured valuables. Fine white, decorated household linens were an sign of the family’s status and an important store of household wealth. Chests of linen were often placed on display after the ceremonial dowry procession.

As one of the greatest challenges of studying non-elite groups is the difficulty of providing and defining appropriate categories so that it is clear what terms such as ‘artisan’, ‘small shopkeeper’ or ‘middling class’ denote, this book does not only offer new knowledge about social and cultural practice at the lower levels of society, but it also provides an important foundation for our Refashioning the Renaissance project to define what we mean when we study the lower social groups and their clothing, fashion and appearance.

Ordinary artisans, such as shoemakers, innkeepers and tailors, usually enjoyed a modest position in society. Some artisan groups, however, such as skilled master tailors, tried to claim new status and worth in the sixteenth century through greater involvement with the intellectual properties of their work, or their association with ‘design’.

By focusing in my book on the material culture and lives of men of different economic and professional statuses among the artisan ranks, some of whom were immigrants and poor, others modestly prosperous and powerful, and learning what their particular economic and material conditions were, who they connected with, what they owned, and what kind of lifestyles they led, I hope that this monograph allows the reader to understand the diversity and richness of artisans’ and shopkeepers’ cultural experience in sixteenth-century urban Italy, and makes visible the artisans’ individual experiences – their hopes and happiness, industry and inefficiency, fortunes and failures.

Many kinds of art and decorative works, textiles, clothing items and household wares were available ready-made, both new and used and in varying prices, for a range of consumers through street-sellers, local shopkeepers and auctions. Here, a sixteenth century peddler is selling cheap prints, while a number of household articles are available at the 15th-century Bolognese marketplace. Many families had to pawn some of their personal belongings, in order to borrow money for their purchases. Pawnbrokers had a common presence in the local marketplaces, as appears from the detail of the marketplace image.

Book launch

Please join me and Prof Evelyn Welch, Prof John Styles and Dr Patricia Allerston for a launch of my book “Artisans, Objects and Everyday Life in Renaissance Italy: The Material Culture of the Middling Class”, hosted by Aalto University. The event will take place on Zoom on Wednesday, 3 February 2021 at 17:30 GMT at:

https://aalto.zoom.us/j/64104753606

I would have very much liked to offer you a glass of sparkling wine and celebrate the event with a toast, but, since this is not possible now, you are welcome to bring along a glass of wine, a cup of tea or anything else, if you like.

There will be a 50% discount code available for anyone wishing to buy the book.

Join the event by clicking the image.


Images

Image 2: Vittore Carpaccio, Birth of Mary, ca. 1502–1504. Oil on canvas, 129 x 128 cm. Accademia Carrara, Bergamo.

Image 3: Vincenzo Campi, St. Martin’s Day, also known as Trasloco (‘Moving Home’), post 1572. Painting, 227 x 163 cm. Museo Civico Ala Ponzone, Cremona.

Image 4: Inventory of the Pietro, a baker in San Pietro alle Scale, 1542. Archivio di stato di Siena, Curia del Placito 706, no. 62, 8 February, 1541/42.

Image 5: Workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio, Inventory of a Legacy of the Magistrates, late 15th century. Fresco.Florence, San Martino dei Buononimi.

Image 6: Giovanni di Ser Giovanni (Lo Scheggia), The Story of Trajan and the Widow (detail). Cassone panel, tempera & gold on panel, ca.1450. Private Collection.

Image 7: Listing of dowry items belonging to the wife of Salvatore sculptor, CDP 677, 13, 1, 1528.

Image 8: Master of the Life of the Virgin, The Birth of Mary (detail), 1470–1480. Oil on panel. Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Image 9: Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory of Good Government (detail of a shoe shop), ca. 1337–40. Fresco, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena.

Image 10: Lorenzo Lotto, Scenes from the Life of Saint Barbara (detail), ca. 1523–24. Fresco. Trescore Balneario, Suardi Chapel.

Image 11: Giovanni Battista Moroni, The Tailor, 1565–70. Oil on canvas, 100 x 77 cm. The National Gallery, London.

Image 12: Anonymous, Print Seller after Annibale Carracci, 17th century. Etching, 28 × 19 cm. Musée du Louvre, D.A.G., Paris.

Image 13 & 14: Manuscript illumination from Matricola della società dei drappieri, 1411. Museo Civico Medievale, Bologna.

Historical knitting through citizen science

Knitted stockings were one of the important Renaissance technological innovations. While woollen stockings were widely available across social classes, stockings knitted of fine silk yarn were expensive luxury products and one of the key fashion accessories worn by the European elites from the sixteenth century onwards.

William Hogarth: Detail from The Tavern Scene (A Rake’s Progress), between 1732 and 1735. Oil on canvas. London: Sir John Sloane’s Museum.

Pair of 17th century knitted silk stockings, Turku Cathedral Museum.

The popularity of both woollen and silk stockings is indicated by the fact that, already at the end of the 15th century, there were thousands of professional knitters in Europe. Yet, despite their prominence in this period, there is no clear surviving documentation about how hand-knitted stockings were made or what they actually looked and felt like in real life. Restoring this lost historical material world by reconstruction can make invisible history visible and bring these items and the technology to life.

 

Reconstruction through citizen science

In 2019, our Refashioning project set up a citizen science project, in order to examine the process of stocking-making through historical reconstruction.

Towards this end, we recruited 35 voluntary knitters to carry out three different reconstruction projects. One of these was to remake a simple artisan stocking based on examples found in excavations in Copenhagen; another one to create a stocking based on an early modern English recipe titled “The order how to knit a Hose” (1655), and the third one to replicate an extant hand-knitted 17th-century silk stocking, today conserved at the Turku Cathedral Museum.

Citizen science pre-holiday party in 2019.

The most ambitious and complex of these projects was the reconstruction of the fine silk stocking, because making a fine silk stocking required a high level of skill. Together with the group of our knitters, we set ourselves to work out collectively how we could replicate the Turku stocking as accurately as possible. So how can one reconstruct a historical silk stocking?

 

Reconstructing a knitted silk stocking

Our silk stocking reconstruction project started at the Turku Cathedral Museum where our team members first measured the stocking and took close up images of it. With the museum’s permission and the help of the conservator, we were also allowed to take a tiny fibre sample at the edge of the stocking so that we could do scientific testing. With these technical details, our knitters began to examine the structure of the stocking and work on the knitting pattern.

Taking a sample from the stocking.

Two women studying a magnified picture of a knitted stocking.

Our pattern group members counted every stitch of the original stockings to create the knitting instructions for the reconstruction.

After this initial stage of technical analysis, our team began investigating where we could find right kind of silk yarn. We carried out a fibre analysis at Aalto University nanomicrosocpic lab of the original sample that we had taken in Turku. The results showed that the stocking had been made of bombyx mori -a traditional silk that had been produced by mulberry silkworms.

Silk yarn form Nido di Seta.

We found a silk farm in Calabria, Italy, called Nido di Seta, that still produces hand-reeled bombyx mori silk, and we travelled there to investigate how this silk was actually made, and how many silk cocoons should be used at once to get the right thickness for our silk yarn. We were also able to order our silk yarn for the stockings from this farm.

At the same time, we also tried to figure out what colour the stocking had orginally been. We sent our fibre sample for our colleague at the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands and he made a dye and mordant analysis of the sample. The results showed that the stocking had been originally black according to the fashion of the time.

When all these preparations had been completed, our knitters could finally begin to try the silk and the knitting needles, and start knitting the stockings. We also asked them to take notes during the knitting process so that we would have some experiential documentation to analyse after the project. 

Now that the project has been running for 1,5 years, we have already nine ready-made stockings. The only thing we still have to do to the stockings is the finishing processes and dyeing.

 

What have we learned from this project so far?

This project has shown that knitting a silk stocking was technologically challenging. It takes about 200 hours, or even longer, to knit just one silk stocking. This is because the yarn is very thin and the stocking is knitted using very fine 1mm knitting needles.

Secondly, we learned that getting optimal kind and quality of silk yarn was challenging at a time when silk was processed by hand from the beginning to the end. Our own silk yarn, for example, was not of the highest quality, because the summer was quite rainy and as a result part of the silk was glued together, as we can see in this picture.

Thirdly, we have learned that dyeing was a challenging process in the seventeenth century. Good intensive black in this period, when all colours were dyed using natural dyestuffs, was one of the most difficult colours to achieve. The dye experiments that were carried out in a Burgundian Blacks research workshop , organized in by the ERC funded ARTECHNE project and Claudy Jonstra in the Netherlands in 2019, for example, showed how a black that was initially beautiful had turned into brown overnight.

Dyed stockings at the Burgundian Blacks Collaboratory workshop.

In the light of these material and technological challenges, it is not surprising that silk stockings were expensive luxury products and one of the most important innovations of fashion that high-ranking elites used to set themselves off from the rest of the crowd in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Even though the laborious production process and the high cost made silk stockings rare among our artisans, our data shows that sometimes even lower ranking artisans and shopkeepers were able to wear silk stockings. For example, Giovanni Neri, a shopkeeper from the neighbourhood of Pantaneto in Siena, who died in 1588 in, owned a pair of white stockings ‘of silk and knitted’ that belonged to his wife[1].


Notes and further reading:

[1] Archivio di stato, Siena, Curia del Placito 263, 188, 76v.

Carlo Belfani, Calze e maglie. Moda e innovazione nell’industria italiana della maglieria dal Rinascimento a oggi (Mantua, 2005).

Andrea Caracausi, ‘Beaten Children and Women’s work in Early Modern Italy’, Past and Present, no. 222 (Feb 2014), pp. 95–128.

Jeremy Farrell, Socks & Stockings (London, 1992).