A Little History…
Before the 1590s, stockings were made of woven cloth. The first knitting machines created were for making stockings. The stockings themselves were made of cotton, linen, wool or silk. A polished cotton called lisle was common.
Before the 1920s, women's stockings, if worn, were worn for warmth. In the 1920s, as hemlines of women's dresses rose, women began to wear stockings to cover the exposed legs. These stockings were sheer, first made of silk or rayon (then known as "artificial silk"), and after 1940 of nylon. It was considered the height of bad manners for a lady to appear in public without her legs being covered in some form of stocking, even if only ankles were showing under the hemline. The first pantyhose made an appearance in the 1940s and 1950s, when film and theatre productions had stockings sewn to the briefs of actresses and dancers and seen in popular films.
Nylon Stockings made from the new nylon fibre 6,6 invented by Dr, W.H. Carothers at Du Pont (see later description), were introduced to the world in 1939. They were launched at both at the Expo on the West Coast and the World Fair on the East Coast of the USA. May 15, 1940 was the first official release of the new nylon stocking for public sale. - No consumer item before had caused such a nationwide pandemonium. By the end of the year, 64 million pairs of nylon stockings were sold.
After just 18 months of production, the USA entered WWII and all nylon production went to the war effort. Silk was also unavailable so Rayon stockings were produced. Scarcity during this period, coupled with the perception that all ladies MUST wear leg covering in public, drove many women to use makeup to simulate stockings, (such as cold tea as a stain, and an eyebrow pencil to draw on seams) and a Nylon Black Market formed. When the war ended, nylon went back into stocking production. The demand for stockings was so great that fights would break out at stores. These fights became known as the Nylon Riots. It took a year for production to catch up with demand.At the beginning of the 60s, stockings comprised 80% of global hosiery sales. Then the mini skirt and overall shorter hemlines became the fashion and the use of stockings declined dramatically. In 1970, U.S. sales of pantyhose exceeded stockings for the first time, and have remained this way ever since. As the pantyhose was introduced garter and stocking manufacturers came up with different ways to compete with this new innovation. They increased the length of the stocking, made the welt narrow, developed a stretch nylon, improved non seamed nylons and introduced “run free” or micro mesh stockings, improved garter belts and introduced different ways to attach stockings (panties with little garters or clips for example). But pantyhose won the sales race and by 1970, pantyhose comprised 80% of hosiery sales.
Only In 1974 were the first health investigations into pantyhose wearing were published in the USA showing that pantyhose tended to create a humid and warm environment in the crotch area, increasing perspiration and potentially promoting fungal and bacterial growth, especially if worn together with panties. Stockings, on the other hand, provide ventilation in the crotch, resulting in a reduction of fungal and bacterial growth. These health research results have remained true ever since and are regularly repeated, however they are not widely published to the public, possibly due to commercial pressure from corporations.
Today, stockings are commonly made using knitted wool, silk, man-made fibres and specifically nylon (in the more luxurious and traditional 1940/50s type stockings). Most “modern” stockings and pantyhose are made on circular knit machines, as opposed to traditional flat knit, (see later descriptions), which drops the complexity and labour cost of manufacturer significantly. Currently there are only TWO manufacturing sites (Gio and Eleganti/Touchable), left in the U.K. manufacturing Fully Fashioned stockings (see later descriptions), on traditional flat knit machines, and extremely few (circa 4), left manufacturing this way Globally. The flat knit machines and parts for them, ceased to be made in the 1960s.
And we owe it all to….
Nylon and Dr. W.H. Carothers…
Nylon was the first truly synthetic fibre, made of phenol or benzene, extracted from coal; oxygen and nitrogen from the air; and hydrogen from water. In 1928 an American chemist, Dr W. H. Carothers, began studying synthetic materials which might lead to the production of man-made fabrics comparable with nature's own silk and wool. The name "nylon" was coined by Du Pont to describe a series of these products derived from minerals. The product was patented in 1937 and limited production began in 1939 on flat knit machines (commonly called “Reading machines, after the later patented and branded machines produced in 1941 onwards), and mass production of nylon stockings began in the USA in 1940.
Types of Machines:
Flat Knit Machines…
Throughout the post war years Textile Machine Works shipped these flat knit, 57 foot, 17 ton, 30 section, straight bar machines, with hundreds of mechanical parts and needles, to hosiery companies throughout the British Isles in wooden cases for erection on site in such factories as those of household names like Pretty Polly; I&R Morley; Wolsey and Aristoc, the then market leaders and former owners of the four Gio Reading R100 machines on which the luxurious “Harmony Point” stockings were knitted for nearly two decades at their Langley Mill facility. Each machine manufactures either 15 single legs or 30 single legs at a time.
The Reading machines later variants of the 1950’s onward, built in Reading Pennsylvania, were the pinnacle of German engineering melded with American mass production techniques recently honed by wartime needs. These machines were designed and built by a company that knew no bounds to technical innovation and excellence born of the brilliant founder Herr Thon, a German immigrant engineer. Such was the domination of this precision engineered equipment and so innovative were its features that patents were issued in protection of the automatic welt turn equipment and constant hose draw off mechanisms, both of which were totally revolutionary at the time and were adopted by full fashion outerwear machine producers of the time such as Bentley Cotton and Samco.
With the dawning of the age of seam free knitting in the 1960’s the Reading R80 machines were radically re-engineered changing the stitch formation motion to a shorter variant thus increasing knitting speeds from 80 to 100 drawn courses per minute; these last phase machines were known as the R100 and few were built before the unequal battle with the flood of seam free production was acknowledged and Textile Machine Works was effectively sold and became Berkshire Hosiery Mills in 1965.
During the latter part of the millennium all but a handful of these irreplaceable machines were scrapped and only about 10 remain worldwide today that are in working order.
Circular Knitting Machines…
Circular knitting machines were invented in the mid 19th century. However, early circular knit stockings were not popular because they bagged at the knees and ankles. This was due to the knitting process which could not alter the width of the tube, therefore there were the same number of stitches around the ankle and the thigh. Nylon improved the fit of seamless stockings due to it's thermoplastic properties.
The nylon thread was hooked onto a circular knitting machine which had 400 needles and the tube was made, with thicker thread being added for the welt and reinforcement at heel and toe. It took about 15 minutes to make a single stocking. When the stocking was removed from the machine the toe was linked together and then the stockings were 'boarded'. This process involved the stockings being stretched over flat leg shaped boards and heated. The nylon shrank slightly and took on the shape of the leg which it retained even after washing. This process is also called semi-fashioning. Semi-fashioned stockings became popular among the younger generation in the mid 1950s. RHT, demi-toe and sandal foot are all types of seamless stocking.
Modern circular knit machines are much smaller machines electrically powered producing tubular stockings, mainly made of stretch man-made material in rapid process. Many of these machines are now in China mass manufacturing inexpensive stockings.
How it’s made… (With thanks to our friends at Gio)
Full-fashioned stockings are knitted flat, then fashioned, or shaped, by hand manipulation and hand seamed up the back. Knitting is back and forth across the fabric (weft knitting) on a straight-bar machine invented in Loughborough, Leicestershire, Eng., by William Cotton in 1864.
The stocking is started at the top with the welt, with an extra-thick section for gartering. Reducing the number of needles at the ankle, then adding needles at the heel, and again reducing the number through the foot shape to the fabric.
The Welt - The first stage of the knitting process. The welt is held in place by welt bars which are at the top of the blank.
The length is about 45 feet long, makes 30 stockings at the same time. The company started out in it's early days making a single section (or 1) which made 1 stocking. Then, added length, to make 15 (half section machines) stockings, and then went to full section machines (30 stockings).
A 60 gauge machine, with a full head of needles, has about 600 needles per head. Now, 600 X 30 Heads comes to 18,000 needles. These needles cost circa 2 pence each. 18,000 X 2= circa£3600 in needles alone!
The ART of Seaming…
Seaming - The true fully fashioned stockings are seamed by joining the two sides of the blank together. It is a very skilled process starting at the reinforced toe matching up the sides of the toe and heel, and then seaming up the back of the shaped leg feeding the nylon leg through the seamer to the loop hole and on to the welt. Handling of the stocking is very important as the machinist needs to vary her handling of the stocking as she seams from toe to welt.
A 51 Gauge machines will run cold or hot. The tolerances are not nearly as precise as the 60 Gauge. These 60 gauge have more needles at a closer tolerance than do the 51's, and you have a closer tolerance on the set up, or gauging. You have to keep the temperature (summer and winter) within 4 degrees, 74 to 78 degrees F. When it gets below 74 F, they won't knit properly, over 78 F and they won't knit properly. You may have 5 or 6 good stockings out of 30. You will have to throw out the rest.
Every pattern is on a continual chain of 120 feet and about 8" wide which has studs pressed into the links. These studs tell the machine what it should do, so every design needs a new stud pattern, which is a huge operation.
Quality Control - Each stocking is checked individually by hand and volumetrically and flat length measured to ensure correct sizing. Stockings which do not meet the exacting standards are rejected. Handling of the delicate stockings are kept to a minimum and all the quality control operatives must wear gloves.
After manufacture each stocking is seamed, one at a time. People often ask why there is a hole at the top of the seam. This is called 'the finishing loop'” which cannot be eliminated, as the seaming machinist has to finish the seam turning the stocking top (called ‘the welt’) in a circle.
Every stocking is manufactured white and must be colour dyed. They must then be 'Boarded' where each stocking is pulled over a flat leg shaped stand and steamed. This tightens the knit, defines the leg shape correctly and removes creases.
Thereafter each stocking is checked for size to ensure that pairs match. Quality control for faults large and small can mean a third of production can be lost. Then the simple matter of packaging each item and distributing for sale to fulfil orders…
Anyone wonder now why Fully Fashioned Stockings, and Nylon RHTs feel so good, look so good but are expensive?
And remember, NO-ONE has invented ANY OTHER WAY of creating a true Fully Fashioned Stocking which comes anywhere near the feel and fit of the original. When these machines finally go to the great cast iron mechanical graveyard in the sky, what do we all do then???
They may be luxury now, but PLEASE support your local manufacturer and buy regularly to keep them in business. When they are gone, they are gone, never to return, and I for one will miss the look and feel of real nylons from the moment my last pair is used…
• Boarding (AKA pre-Boarding): A full-shaped heat setting operation in which stockings are put on metal leg form for a specific size and shape and then pressure set at a high temperature with steam. The term "boarding" stems from the olden days when wooden boards were used to dry stockings. This process gives shape and sheen and assists in softness of the stocking.
• Contrast: Various contrasting colours compared to the body colour have been used since the 1950s for heels, complete foot/toes, welts and seams, sometimes with all of these used at once, (aka “full contrast”) being in a contrast colour such as black, compared to a body colour such as copper. When just the seam is in a contrast colour, this is known as “contrast seam”, (e.g. a fully black stocking with a red seam).
• Demi-toe: Stockings which have a reinforced toe with half the coverage on top as on the bottom. This results in a reinforcement that covers only the tip of the toes as opposed to the whole toe. These can be with or without a reinforced heel.
• Denier: The lower the denier number the sheerer the garment. Stockings knitted with a higher denier tend to be less sheer but more durable. The denier is the thickness of one thread of nylon used in making Hosiery. The lower the number in denier, the lighter and finer the yarn, and thus the Sheerer the stocking. A hair from the average human head is about 50 Denier. The lowest denier nylon commonly produced for stockings is 5 Denier, more standard sheer in Fully Fashioned is 15 denier.
• Finishing loop or keyhole: The keyhole or finishing loop is the defining icon of fully fashioned stockings. It is produced in the seaming process. The stocking is run between two heads on the seaming machine and one of these heads ends up in the inside of the fabric of the welt. The hole is a small portion of unseamed welt which allows the stocking to be removed from the machine.
• Fishnet: Knitted stockings with a very wide open knit resembling a fish net.
• Fencenet: Similar to fishnet, but with a much wider pattern. These are sometimes worn over another pair of stockings or pantyhose, such as matte or opaque, with a contrasting colour. Sometimes referred to as whalenets.
• Fully Fashioned: Fully fashioned stockings are knitted flat, and the two sides are then united by a hand sewn seam up the back. These stockings are then boarded and steamed to shrink them slightly and give them the shape of a human leg, as well as to add sheen and softness. Fully fashioned stockings were the most popular style until the 1960s.
• Gauge: The number of threads per 1 ½” in a single knitted row. 51 gauge means 51 threads per 1 ½ inches. The more threads per area the higher the gauge. Increasing the gauge makes a stocking more silk like and adds to its durability. To manufacture a higher gauge stocking increases cost to both manufacture as well as consumer.
• Heel Shapes: The dark heel along with the keyhole is one of the most distinctive parts of the fully fashioned. Like the keyhole it is a by-product of the manufacturing process. The heel is the beginning of the reinforced yarn of the foot. It is made of thicker yarn than the leg and serves a practical purpose - namely preventing wear to the stocking at one of it's most vulnerable parts. There are several heel shapes, the Point heel aka French heels invented in the 1950s, the Cuban heel which is a thin oblong and therefore flat across the top and the wider version of this the Havanna heel, both of which predate point heels. Fancy shaped heels also made an appearance in the 1950s such as the Manhattan which is basically a Cuban heel, with a pyramid on top, and an outline stich all around it, resembling the outline of a sky scraper. In addition to heel types, various contrasting colours compared to the body colour have been used since the 1950s for heels, complete foot/toes, welts and seams, sometimes with all of these (aka “full contrast”) being in a contrast colour such as black, compared to a body colour such as copper.
• Hold-ups or Stay-ups: Stockings that are held up by sewn-in elasticated bands (quite often a wide lace top band). In the US they are referred to as thigh-highs.
• Knee-Highs: Stockings that terminate at or just barely below the knee. Also known as half-stockings, trouser socks, or socks.
• Lace tops: Stockings that have a lace material sewn onto the top of the stocking but unlike stay up stockings these do require a garter to keep them up.
• Matte: Stockings which have a dull or non-lustre finish.
• Mesh: Stocking made in a mesh form on a circular knitting machine to reduce snags and laddering.
• Mock seam: A false seam sewn into the back of a seamless stocking.
• Non Run or Run resistant or run free: A stocking manufacturing technique where the loops of nylon are knotted together (interlocking stitch or tuck stitch patterns) so that it resists runs in an upward direction. The new technique gave increased wear ability but to a loss of the silk like quality of flat knit. This style stocking became popular in the early 1970s and soon took over the market share that Flat knit dominated for years.
• Nude heel: Stockings without reinforcement in the heel area.
• Opaque: Stockings made of yarn which give them a heavier appearance (usually 40 denier or greater).
• Opera Length Stockings: Opera Length Stockings: Originally Opera length stockings were very long with a very narrow welt which is stitched to a pair of panties or held up by a suspender belt at the waist with very short suspenders. Some movie stars were even sewn into them. Today opera length merely means longer than usual for the foot size stockings.
• Pico line: Two lines of small holes running either side of the seam in Fully Fashioned stockings, on the lower calf. Part of the manufacturing process to help distribute stress from the heel and seam movement.
• Pico Band: When the welt is being knitted on the machine a row of open work stitches is made half way through, when the welt is turned this produces a picot edge at the top of the stocking as can be seen in the first picture.
• RHT: Abbreviation of reinforced heel and toe. - A stocking made most often on a circular knitting machine in the same nylon and denier as fully fashioned and also with a shaped leg, but with no seam. The toe and heel are heavier denier/nylon or double or more strength of nylon and are often of a darker colour to the rest of the stocking body.
• Open-toed: Stockings that stop at the base of the toe with a piece that goes between the first and second toes to hold them down. They can be worn with some open-toed shoes, especially to show off pedicured toes.
• Sandalfoot: Stockings with a nude toe, meaning no heavier yarn in the toe than is in the leg.
• Seamed: Stockings manufactured in the old Full-Fashioned manner with a seam running up the back of the leg. In the past they were manufactured by cutting the fabric and then sewing it together. Today stockings are generally fully knitted and a fake or mock seam is added up the back for a particular fashion look.
• Seamless: Stockings knit in one operation on circular machines (one continuous operation) so that no seaming is required up the back.
• Seams: There are two types of seam. Those in fully fashioned stockings which are a necessary part of the manufacture of the stocking and those which are sewn into circular knit stockings for effect. You can tell if a pair of seamed stockings are fully fashioned by the finishing loop/keyhole at the top of the seam.
• Shadow Welt: The welt is a double layer of fabric at the top of the stocking, it is usually made of a thicker yarn than the leg and may have reinforcement. This may be made of a different yarn such as cotton or rayon. This is where you attach suspenders. When the welt is being knitted on the machine a row of open work stitches is made half way through, when the welt is turned this produces a picot edge at the top of the stocking. Other rows of open stitches can produce designs on the welt. This isn't just for show but helps spread the stress caused to the welt by suspendering. The under or shadow welt is the intermediary area between the welt and the leg of the stocking. It is made of thicker yarn than the leg and may be patterned.
• Sheerness: This is determined by a combination of gauge and denier and not as many people mistakenly believe by gauge alone. It is obvious that the denier or thickness of the yarn has as much to do with sheerness as does the gauge. A 51 or finer gauge stocking is sheer only if the yarn with which it is knitted is a thin or low denier yarn. However a 60 gauge 15 denier stocking for example, is actually less sheer than a 51 gauge/15 denier stocking because even though the weight of the yarn is the same in both, 60 gauge has more yarn pushed together in 1 ½ inches of stocking. It is very difficult to see the difference in the sheerness of these two types of stockings but the 60 gauge has more silkiness to its feel.
• Sheers: Stockings generally of a 15 to 20 denier.
• Thigh-Highs (aka Hold-ups or stay ups): Stockings that terminate somewhere in the mid-thigh held up with an elastic top attached to the stocking. .
• Transfer (aka decal, logo top): The method of applying writing, design or logo to a stocking by transferring a design from specially printed paper to the fabric by means of heat and pressure.
• Ultra Sheer: A fine denier fibre which gives the ultimate in sheerness. Usually 10 or 5 denier.
• Welt: A fabric knitted separately and machine-sewn to the top of a stocking. Knit in a heavier denier yarn and folded double to give strength for supporter fastening.