The Story of Nylon Stockings

Although the history of hosiery dates back to ancient times, knitted stockings first came into fashion in Tudor England. The world’s first knitting machine was invented in 1589 by William Lee, for the purpose of making stockings. Over the centuries, successive inventors manufactured improved versions of the knitting machine and in 1864 William Cotton patented a flat machine in Loughborough, Leicestershire, England that was able to automatically drop and add stitches. This meant that the knitted fabric could now be shaped and tailored to follow the contours of the leg.

Until the early 20th century stockings were manufactured from wool, cotton or silk prior to the introduction of rayon in the 1920’s as a cheaper alternative to silk.

The next major development in the hosiery industry resulted from Du Pont’s introduction of Nylon at the World Fair in New York in 1939. Nylon was a revelation – just as sheer and glossy as silk and rayon but much harder wearing and without the sensitivity to getting wet. The first nylon stockings appeared in New York stores on May 15, 1940, and over 72,000 pairs were sold on the first day alone. Unfortunately these extremely popular nylon stockings were only available for a relatively short period due as the US entered World War 2 after the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbour at the end of 1941 after which the War Production Board immediately announced that Du Pont’s nylon manufacturing would be used exclusively for war materials production. The scarcity of nylon stockings led many women to brown their legs and to apply an imaginary seam with an eyebrow pencil to emulate the look.  Some cosmetic companies such as Helena Rubenstein even marketed “liquid stockings” for that very purpose.

Fully Fashioned Stockings

A fully-fashioned stocking is knitted on a traditional flat bed machine into flat sheets of nylon cut to the shape of a leg (to include a shaped foot, narrow ankle and shaped calf) and sewn together at the back to form a tube.   The seam therefore exists for practical reasons as opposed to being purely decorative. Fully fashioned stockings are most often knitted of 15 denier nylon yarn with no stretch and always have a top welt that is formed by doubling over the fabric and sewing it back on itself.   A finishing keyhole (loop) always features in the middle of the seam at the back of the welt as a consequence of the manufacturing process.  Fully fashioned stockings appear long when taken out of their packaging but the volume of the leg will reduce this overall length when worn.  The thicker the calf and the thigh area, the more length will be taken up and this needs to be taken into account in addition to foot size when determining which stocking size will provide the best fit.

A genuine fully fashioned nylon will feature a keyhole loop, compression stitching, a functional seam and a reinforced heel formed with additional layers of nylon. The diagram below highlights the various features

Welt – The welt is knitted first on the machines and is a double layer of nylon. This is the part of the stocking where the suspenders are attached and needs to be more robust than the rest of the stocking.  Genuine vintage stockings frequently  have writing printed on the welts which adds that extra touch of authenticity and the stockings should be worn with the writing on the outside of each thigh.

Shadow welt – This is a single thickness of welt – a lighter transitional area between the darker welt and the single layer of nylon found in the rest of the stocking.

Keyhole – The keyhole is a decorative bi-product of the manufacturing process but please be warned – it is not robust enough to support suspenders so do not clip them through this hole!

Seam – As previously mentioned, this binds the stocking together. Fully fashioned stockings can be easily distinguished from modern seamed stockings by examination the seam.  If it appears to have been printed on or sewn on unnecessarily, it is a decorative seam.

Compression stitching – This is a row of needle marks equidistant each side of the seam formed during the seaming process.

Heel – The heel is designed to reinforce the sole of the foot and comes in many different designs (see below).

RHT (Reinforced Heel and Toe) Stockings 

An RHT stocking is made of nylon, just like a fully-fashioned stocking but exhibits several major differences. The RHT has no keyhole, no fancy heel and most importantly, no seam, (although seamed RHTs are available where the seam is purely decorative as mentioned above).

RHT stockings have been in existence since the 1940’s when Hanes began marketing “no-seam stockings” with reinforced heel and toe produced on circular knitting machines where the leg shape could be achieved by tightening the stitches. They took time to gain popularity as ladies of the day believed the absence of a visible seam made them appear bare-legged and it was considered undignified for a respectable lady to be seen without hosiery.  Many actually preferred the modern seamless look and the popularity of the RHT eventually overtook that of the fully fashioned stocking by the early1960’s.

Different types of knits

Regular flat knit: This was the original knit made on all stockings until the early 1970’s. It is a smooth stitch that is silky and soft to the touch. It has a wonderful shine and was the premier knitting technique of the era.  These are the highly sought-after true nylon stockings of yesteryear.

Kant run: This knit was developed to help prevent runs in the stockings. It is a lock-stitch and has a slightly rougher texture.

Micromesh: This stitch was developed to create a matte finish on the stocking that was very popular during the 1960’s. It is soft and smooth, but not as silky as regular flat knit.

Pebble mesh: A very rough knit to prevent runs used in teen and utilitarian stockings.

Textures: Patterned stockings – diamond, herringbone, and wave designs were the most popular during the 1960’s. Hosiery companies began to buy modern knitting machines which had infinite knitting possibilities allowing for numerous variations in design.

Modern Stockings

As modern knitting techniques improved stockings evolved through several phases. To improve fit, the yarn companies came up with several refinements that would define the future of classic hosiery.

The first of these was the stretch stocking – a crimped yarn that was knitted and packaged unboarded (shapeless and wrinkled appearance until stretched) in a limited size range that conformed to the leg when worn.  Popular brands were Cling-Along, Agilon and Cantrece.  The ultimate fit solution that defines the stockings of today is the incorporation of Lycra, another Dupont invention, to create an elasticised stretch stocking that clings to the leg.  Lycra is used in almost all modern stockings and pantyhose to create a support stocking effect which is not as sheer as the flat knit version of these stockings.

In the 1960’s when skirts were worn very short, many women began to wear tights (pantyhose) instead of stockings. To show, “a bit of stocking”, was no longer accepted and while stockings fought for market share by becoming extremely long, they became nearly extinct as pantyhose gained in popularity.  Thankfully stockings have since become fashionable again and the genuine article is now highly sought after.

Denier count

Stockings and pantyhose come in various fabrics such as pure nylon, nylon/lycra blends, polyester, viscose, wool mix, lace and in order to establish their level of transparency, denier count is important. Denier is a French term which refers to a calculation of the thickness of the thread.  A stocking with a 10-20 denier has transparency aspects while a stocking knitted with a higher denier i.e. 20 or more, will be less sheer and usually more durable.  Stockings 40 denier and above are opaque.  The sheerest practical denier is 7d, which is so wispy sheer that it literally disappears on the leg while the most popular denier is still 15 denier which gives a compromise between sheerness and durability.

Gauge

The two most common gauges in fully-fashioned knitting were 51g and 60g.  60 gauge stockings have a smoother, denser look and feel and were highly prized!   51 gauge stockings were easier to knit as the machines had fewer needles and ran more efficiently than the 60 gauge. These stockings were still highly desirable but slightly less expensive.

The Kid Glove Treatment – Caring for your vintage stockings

Finally, you need to look after your beautiful vintage stockings to avoid snagging.  This lovely instruction card from a pair of English Rose stockings says it all really: