The year is 1917. The United States has entered World War I and General Pershing is preparing his battle plans. The previous two winters in Europe were bitterly cold. Thousands of troops suffered foot maladies due to the cold and wet conditions in the trenches.
Behind the Scenes
General Pershing didn’t want that for his troops, so he made a bold request. He would need 2 million woolen vests, scarves, wrist warmers, and socks for the approaching winter season. How would the US government meet this request? They called in the knitters.
And the knitters answered the call. In total, American knitters produced 14 million items for the war. Several writers and historians have noted that the handknit socks proved especially critical to the war efforts.
To the average person, socks are likely an afterthought – a necessary addition to a daily outfit. To knitters, socks are more special. They can be created with an endless combination of techniques in a rainbow of colors and styles. The history of sock knitting is just as fascinating as the latest trends in sock patterns.
Some iteration of socks, also called stockings, hose, and hosiery, has been in use for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks used felted animal fur, while Romans wrapped cloth or leather straps around their feet. The Romans exported the use of socks into Great Britain, where they were probably needed more than in Rome.
Unraveling the Origins
The origin of the first knit sock, or any knit garment, is still up for debate. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has several examples of socks from Egypt that appear knit, but were actually created with a technique called nalbinding. Colorwork socks decorated with Islamic motifs appear in the early Middle Ages in North Africa and many believe these are the first definitive examples of socks created with modern knitting techniques. Knitted socks slowly became more prevalent in Europe through the Middle Ages and early Renaissance periods. It wasn’t until the 16th century that knit stockings became mainstream in England.
Up until this point, the majority of stockings were created with woven fabric. They could be made up of multiple pieces or have several seams. I also imagine them to be highly uncomfortable. Luckily, someone had the foresight to knit some socks out of silk and gift them to royalty like Queen Elizabeth I of England. Due to their comfort, they were an instant hit and the use of knitted stockings proliferated throughout her reign.
Silk stockings were the epitome of luxury, which meant only wealthy people could afford them. The majority of people made socks for themselves, their family, or for sale out of local wool with 4 or 5 needles, the precursors to modern-day DPNs.
These needles could be fashioned out of any available material, so they often resulted in bulky, homespun stockings. But at the same time that the idea of knitted socks took off, England improved its metal-making technologies and it became possible to produce the thin metal knitting needles we recognize today. This resulted in more refined handknit wool stockings.
A New Approach
With the demand for knitted wool socks rising, local philanthropists saw an opportunity: they could open schools for poor children and teach them how to knit stockings and other items. They would learn a viable trade and then not need to depend on local charity for support. The first knitting school opened in Yorkshire in 1588, with many more to follow.
Handknit stockings were critical to England’s economy at this time. With their abundance of wool, improving needle technology, and growing numbers of citizens learning to knit, the industry was poised for success. In the late 1590s, that success was threatened by a man named William Lee. He invented the first mechanical knitting machine and applied for a patent. We don’t know if Lee actually presented his invention in front of Queen Elizabeth I, but we do know that she did not support it. Her alleged reasoning? She did not want to disrupt the livelihood of so many of her subjects.
In 1655, the first knitting pattern appeared in print. It was a pattern for, you guessed it, socks! The author is unknown, but the “pattern” was called The order how to knit a hose. I say pattern loosely because it consisted of three pages of a single run-on sentence poorly describing how to construct a sock on 4 needles. Thank goodness we have magazines with higher editorial standards like Knotions.
The handknit sock industry could not stay immune to technological advances forever. In 1657, the first company of machine knitters was established in England. While handknitters could produce a similar output as the machines for a time, by the early 1800s they were finally outmatched in regards to time, cost, and quality.
In the American colonies, knitters continued to produce all the socks for their households as the export of knitting machines from England was banned. The tensions with England culminated in the Revolutionary War and American Independence. And of course, sock knitters had a role to play.
In the Revolutionary War
Martha Washington, the first First Lady, was instrumental in organizing knitters to knit socks for the soldiers and even brought them to the war camps. She also had at least two enslaved people in her household at this time whose main job was to knit and socks were some of the most common items they created. We know of two of these knitters, Peter and Sarah, from the Washington family correspondence. Unfortunately, their role in knitting for the household and the Independence efforts are not as recognized as Martha’s role.
We know from both historical records and literature like Little Women that sock knitters were also important during the Civil War of the 1860s. After this war, sock production was increasingly mechanized due to inventions like the circular sock knitting machine, in which a person could turn a handle and crank out a knitted tube. But wartime would still require handknitters.
And in the World Wars
During World War I, and to some extent World War II, sock knitters were almost essential to the war effort. The American Red Cross led the way when it came to organizing. They encouraged everyone – man, woman, and child – to knit as much as possible. Some families were even given a sock knitting machine and several pounds of wool yarn to make socks more efficiently. If they produced a certain amount, they could keep the machine after the wartime efforts and use it for supplementary income.
The need for handknit socks became desperate in 1918. The Red Cross discouraged knitting anything but socks. The government forced all US yarn companies to give any yarn that fit the military dresscode over to the Red Cross so that they could then distribute it. And if a knitter could not produce a pair of socks within three weeks, they were forced to return the yarn, so someone else could.
The First Circular Needle
After the World Wars, most handknit socks were created for leisure. Until this time, all circular knitting, including socks, was accomplished with 4-5 double pointed needles. This all changed in 1918 when the first patent for a circular needle was issued in the US.
Like most new technologies, this one took a few years to work out the kinks. The first circular needles did not have smooth joins between the needle and cable, which caused problems for the knitter, including snagged stitches. Eventually, this issue was fixed and now it seems like circular needles are the preferred tool for sock knitting.
Magic Loop, Finally
In 2002, a new method of knitting socks stormed the knitting universe – the Magic Loop. The Magic Loop method is the process of knitting a tube, like a sock or a sleeve, on a single circular needle with a long cable. Half of the stitches are kept on one of the needles, while the other half reside on the cable. Sarah Hauschka is credited with the idea of the Magic Loop and instructions for the method were first published in a booklet written by Bev Galeskas for her company Fiber Trends.
Love The Process
Today’s sock knitters can choose from a variety of yarns – indie-dyed, non-superwash, nylon-free, self-striping. They can select from thousands of knitting patterns or customize their own with an endless combination of techniques – toe-up, top-down, afterthought heel, ribbing, cables, lace. But most importantly, today’s sock knitter creates socks because they love the process, they love to wear them, and they love to gift them. Knitters of the past didn’t have these choices, and I hope we know just how lucky we are to be able to create and share these small but necessary accessories.
About the Author: Katherine Mead
Katherine Mead is a knitter, spinner, and lover of all things fiber and textiles.
She writes a weekly newsletter called Meander Textiles, where she shares lighthearted takes on crafting.
She currently lives in Chicago with her fiber-loving cat and a supportive partner.