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Yarn for 16th Century Wool Stockings

Grazia Morgano 29 June A.S. XLVII

Entry Contents

Included is a sample of raw wool, a lock of clean wool, a skein of spun yarn, and a knitted swatch for gauge comparison.

What it is

This is stocking yarn for 16th century nether stocks. It is worsted-spun 2-ply yarn made from the wool of a brown-black Leicester Longwool lamb.



Historians believe the English Longwool family of sheep breeds was brought to Britain by the Romans some time before the fth century. The Leicesters (including Leicester Longwool, Border Leicester, and Bluefaced Leicester) are the foundation of the English Longwool family today, though they are not the whole of it[6, p. 83]. Leicester Longwools today are known for the strength and durability of their ber[6, p. 94] M.L. Ryders study of sheep breeds for the Agricultural History Review gives Romney, Cotswold, and the Lincoln and Leicester Longwools (by way of the Midland Longwools) as the descendants of the Medieval Longwools. He gives the Romney and Cotswolds as the most ancient breeds in Britain. The Leicesters have undergone more selective breeding since the 18th century[9, p. 9-11].


Fleece preparation

Wool, fresh o the sheep, is full of yolk, a combination of grease (lanolin) and suint (sweat). There also tends to be bits of grass and other plant matter stuck in the eece. It is possible to spin in the grease, but if there is too much yolk, the wool can clump up[1, p. 28]. Ammonia has been a common cleaner for millenia, so it is no surprise that 18th century instructions for scouring a eece call for urine as a source of ammonia in cleaning the wool. Oil would be added back to the wool once it was cleaned to make combing and spinning easier[1, p. 30]. According to Robin Russo the oiling is to make the resulting combed top smoother and keep static from forming during the combing process[7] Both combing and carding bers were done in the Renaissance. Combing involves moving two combs with a row or several of long teeth against each other in perpendicular directions to transfer the ber from one comb to the other. This can be seen in Figure 1 on page 6. Combing would separate the longer bers from the short ones, leaving little tufts of fuzz. The long combed bers were pulled from the combs into a long rope of ber called a sliver through a ring called a diz[1, p. 34]. The long bers could be spun as is, while the short ones would then be carded to prepare them for spinning. Carding

involves scraping the short bres with wire tools[4, p. 79]. Carding can be seen in Figure 2 on page 6.


Spinning yarn

There are two main ways to prepare and spin wool. Today, these are known as woolen and worsted. Worsted yarns are the result of combing the wool bers so that they lay parallel. The ber is then spun using short movements when drafting (separating the bers), and pinching with the hand to prevent twist from entering the ber supply. This is called short-draw[2]. Woolen yarns are the result of carding the bers, so they are untangled, but when the ber is rolled o the cards into rolags they cease to be parallel (if they were to start with). Woolen spinning is done by getting a large amount of twist into the yarn nearest the spinning wheel then pulling the rolled up bers out away from the wool in a long motion, so that the bers are trapped in the twist in whatever position they happen to have been in the handful. They do not lie parallell, so the yarn produced is loftier. This is called the long-draw. There are intermediary stages depending on how much care is taken in each step, how much skill the spinner has, and exactly what result the spinner wants[2]. The rst spinning wheels in Europe were spindle wheels, turned using one hand while the other performed a long-draw, creating woolen yarn. This can be seen in Figure 3 on page 7, an excerpt from the Luttrell Psalter. The yarn would then be wound onto the wheels spindle manually, as with a drop spindle. Woolen yarns are weaker than worsted yarns due to their loftier shape and lower twist, so they were unsuitable for use as the warp thread on a loom and actually banned from use for warping in Speyer[1, p. 53]. This weakness would also make them a poor choice for high-stress, high-wear articles of clothing such as stockings. Wheels capable of spinning long bers were soon invented. These are sometimes called linen wheels or ax wheels and had a yer mechanism to wind the yarn onto a bobbin as it was spun. The fact that the wheel wound the yarn itself meant the spinner did not need to stop their spinning to wind the yarn by hand[1, p. 69]. By the middle of the 16th century, the use of linen wheel was widespread. A widow who died in 1585 is recorded to have owned two woollen wheels, two linnen wheels and a little ne linnen wheel with frame for fringe[1, p. 90]. Modern spinning wheels continue to use the yer/bobbin construction. Distas appear to have been used to hold wool (just like linen), allowing for a short draw from the dista[1, p. 88]. The timing of the addition of the foot treadle, freeing up both hands to draft the bers with a short-draw, is unknown. Meister Jurgen Spinnrad was credited in the 18th century for introducing in the 1530s the version of the spinning wheel used in Brunswick, but it is unknown exactly which changes he made to spinning wheel construction. Some historians believe the foot treadle was his invention. The earliest illustration of a wheel with a foot treadle is from 1604[1, p. 91-92].


Use of yarn for stockings

Knitted stockings became popular in the 16th century, rst for children and workers. Records of George Medley of Tiltys account books show that he purchased knit hosen for his nephew in 1550 and his kitchen boy in 1572[8, p. 65]. In 1552 Parliament under Edward VI passed Acts of Parliament pertaining to knitte hose,[10, p. 26] implying they had some economic importance by this time[8, p. 65]. Elizabeth also encouraged Englands wool trading in worsted stockings[10, p. 26], including the establishment of knitting schools and programs for inmates to knit them[8, p. 76]. Knit wool stockings were common enough for women that by 1586 Mary Queen of Scots wore nether stocks of worsted over Jersey hose white at her execution[8, p. 66]. Wool was not the only material used for knit hose. Edward VI received Spanish silk stockings as a gift, as did Elizabeth. Silk hose were out of reach of all but the wealthiest[8, p. 66-8]. Elizabeth oversaw the popularity of knit wool hose rise to the point that England was producing them for export to Germany, France, Italy, Holland, and Spain[8, p. 75] Examples of extant knitted wool stockings prior to 1600 could not be found; however, the stockings found on a Gunnister, Shetland man in a peat bog can be dated to the 1680s or 1690s based on the coinage in the mans pocket. This is a bit late, but it is still before modern industrialization of yarn production. These stockings are knit from a heavy 2-ply of mixed dark brown and black bres, knitted in the round at 71/2 stitches to the inch wool yarn[8, p. 168]. The yarn is described in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland as being spun S, referring to the direction of the twist of the single strands making up the yarn. The spinning and the knitting are both described as very even, and the additional information that there were 10 rows of stitching per inch is given[5, p. 37]. Another pair of boot stockings dating to the 1640s exists in the Victoria & Albert Museum. This pair is also knit from 2-ply yarn, and there are 140 stitches at the knee[11]. The gauge at which they were knit is not mentioned in the Victoria & Albert Museums description of the stockings, but 10 stitches per inch seems reasonable by comparison to an actual knee.

This item

Most commercial combed top available on the modern market is Merino wool. Merino is a newool, too weak to make socks that will last. The breed did exist in the Middle Ages, but it was a Spanish breed[6, p. 135]. The rare Leicester Longwool breeds wool was purchased from a nearby shepherd after seeing the sheep being sheared (Figure 4 on page 7) because it is a known descendant of the medieval English Longwools. First the wool was scoured. Due to concerns about biological processes, a modern detergent was used instead of stale urine. Two washes were done in warm water with soap to remove the yolk, then the eece was rinsed several

times (Figure 5 on page 8). The eece was allowed to air dry(Figure 6 on page 8). By feeling the wool, it was apparent the wool had not been completely stripped of its natural oil (lanolin), so it did not need to be oiled to comb easily. Next, combs were borrowed from Baroness Rosalind Bennett so the wool could be combed. The locks of wool were moved from comb to comb, moving the combs in a perpendicular fashion, separating the bers and allowing small pieces of vegetable matter to fall out (Figure 7 on page 9). This aligned the bers (Figure 8 on page 9). Then the wool was pulled from the combs into sliver (Figure 9 on page 10). The wool was spun into ne singles, with the goal of creating a 2-ply yarn of a suitable thickness for period stockings. Most of the spinning was done using the two-hand drafting method common with treadle wheels (Figure 10 on page 10), but some of it was spun with only one hand drafting the bers from an inanimate object (in this case the comb acts as a dista), as was done before the invention of treadle wheels (Figure 11 on page 11). When two bobbins were lled with yarn, they were plied together, creating a 2-ply yarn. The initial spinning was done with the wheel spinning counterclockwise, creating a S-twist single. Plying is done in the opposite direction, to make the singles twist around each other, similar to rope. This strengthens the yarn[2]. The plied yarn was then wound o the bobbin using a niddy noddy, similar to that shown in Pieter Pieterszs 16th century painting Man and Woman by the Spinning Wheel (Figure 12 on page 11). The skein was tied together with handspun linen thread. The resulting skein of yarn was then re-washed in hot water. This removes the dirt and oils that accumulated from the spinners hands while spinning, and it sets the twist of the bers so they are stable and will not be inclined to untwist[3]. This also gives it a chance preshrink before knitting. A swatch of stocking stitch was knitted on size 1.75mm knitting needles. The swatch is 40 stitches by 10 rows, or 6x1 when pulled down from the needle, for a gauge of 7st/in and 10 rows/in (though knitting does stretch one direction while shrinking the other direction).

[1] Patricia Baines. Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning. B.T. Batsford Limited, 1977. [2] Abby Franquemont. Drafting: the long and short of it. DVD, 2009. [3] Abby Franquemont. Respect the spindle. DVD, 2009. [4] John Rigby Hale. Renaissance. Time, Inc., 1965. [5] Audrey S. Henshall, M.A. F.S.A.ScoT. and Stuart Maxwell, M.A. F.S.A.ScoT. Clothing and other articles from a late 17th-century grave at gunnister, shetland. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1952. [6] Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius. The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook. Storey, 2011. [7] Robin Russo. Combing ber. DVD, 2012. [8] Richard Rutt. A History of Hand Knitting. Interweave Press, Inc., 1987. [9] M.L. Ryder. The history of sheep breeds in britain. The Agricultural History Review, 12(1), 1964. [10] Irena Turnau. History of Knitting before Mass Production. Instytut Historii Kultury Materialnej, 1991. [11] Unknown. Pair of hose. T.63&A-1910.

Figure 1: Weaving, spinning, and combing ax. MS Fr. 598, f. 70v, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris; 15th c. France

Figure 2: Weaving, spinning, carding wool, and combing ax. MS Royal 16 Gv, f. 56, British Library, London; 15th c. France

Figure 3: Woman spinning on the great or walking wheel. Luttrell Psalter, British Library, London; 14th c. England

Figure 4: Leicester Longwool lamb and its eece, just after shearing

Figure 5: Raw wool soaking in warm soapy water

Figure 6: Freshly-washed wool drying

Figure 7: Small pieces of vegetable matter fall out of the wool during the combing process

Figure 8: The wool bers are aligned and the luster is apparent when it is freshly combed

Figure 9: Pulling the wool from the combs through a washer being used as a diz

Figure 10: Using one hand to hold the ber supply while the other hand drafts from it


Figure 11: Propping the ber supply on an inanimate object from which one hand drafts the bers

Figure 12: Pieter Pietersz, c1570, Man and Woman by the Spinning Wheel