Hose in the 16th Century
by Melanie Schuessler
As anyone who has ever tried it will agree, when dressing for the 16th century, the underpinnings determine the success of the whole! While hose are not usually visible, they are an important part of any period ensemble. If made in a relatively accurate fashion, they can be much more comfortable and functional than most modern alternatives. The aim of this article is to present information on hose in the 16th century and some tips on how to produce them today.
The word 'hose' has such a different meaning today that a definition of the word in its historic context is necessary to begin. To be precise, the hose under discussion here are 'netherstocks', the stockings covering the lower half of the leg. These differed slightly for men and women, and men also wore 'upperstocks', which were another matter entirely. The words 'hose' and 'hosen' were used somewhat interchangeably. To make research even more challenging, the word hose is often used by 16th-century writers to refer to upperstocks, but context usually clarifies which is meant.
Though it is by no means certain, it seems as though women's hose in the 15th century and earlier came only to the knee, while men's extended to the thigh or the waist. Thigh-length stockings were not unknown in the 16th century, and Breughel's paintings show peasants still wearing 15th-century style hose well into the next century. This article focuses on the later knee- and thigh-length netherstocks worn in the second half of the 16th century.
Since women's hose tend to be hidden by clothing, they remain elusive in the visual record, but a careful study of genre paintings (especially those from the Netherlands and Flanders), woodcuts, and other crowd or market scenes yields a tantalizing glimpse here and there. Visual evidence gathered from these sources will almost always represent the lower classes, as upperclass women generally did not allow their undergarments to be painted in the 16th century. Men's hose, however, are usually perfectly visible (at least up to the knee) in any full-length portrait or any of the sources listed above.
Visual sources are not the only place to find information about hose, however. Documentary evidence, though scarce, also exists. Most documentary evidence of hose is from the upper classes in the form of inventories, wardrobe accounts, correspondence, and tradesman's bills. One notable source for all manner of details about 16th-century clothing is ironically Philip Stubbes' Anatomy of Abuses, in which he rails against the excesses of fashion and in so doing provides wonderful information for those of us wicked enough to have an interest in it. The lower classes left very little written evidence of their clothing, and their wills, when extant, do not tend to include hose.
The very best source of data about hose would, of course, be surviving examples. Luckily, at least three pairs of 16th-century hose--two woven and one knit--exist for our enlightenment. The knit hose are the well-known pair belonging to Eleanora of Toledo (1). Knitted of fine red silk, they display patterns across a border at the tops as well as in rows down the leg and foot. Of the wovens, one is a pair of white linen hose with embroidered tops and no feet (2), and the other is a pair of yellow men's hose made in the later 16th century as part of a costume meant to look like it was from the early 16th century.(3) Another pair of knitted silk stockings with taffeta tops which by tradition are associated with Queen Elizabeth reside at Hatfield House.(4)
Wearing Hose in the 16th Century: who, what kind, and how much?
The first question to ask is "who wore hose in the 16th century"? The answer is "almost everyone." Those depicted without hose in period images include the poorest of the poor (often depicted barefoot or with their feet wrapped in wrags), children, and some peasants. It should be noted that many peasants do wear hose in the paintings that survive and that most women are not shown in a manner that would reveal the presence or absence of hose! Documentary evidence, however, supports the idea that women wore hose on an everyday basis just as men did. Anne Basset writes to her mother in 1534: "Madame, and it might please you, I would heartily desire you to send me some demi-worsted for a gown, and a kirtle of velvet, and also some linen to make smocks, and some hosen and shoes." (5) In the accounts of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, an entry from 1558 lists "Item, for a pair of hose bought for my lady by Thomas Johnes: 3 shillings" and another "Item, 2 pair of hose sent to my lady by Sir Richard Verneyıs servant: 8 shillings." (6) Numerous warrants in Queen Elizabethıs accounts make it clear that she wore several types of hose. Part of such a warrant from 1597 reads "Item to Roberte Morland for seaven payre of newe silke hose of diverse colours". (7)
From the information that exists, it seems clear that many sorts of hose were available. Knit silk, woven silk, knit wool, woven wool, and woven linen all appear in 16th century sources, and they came in many colors with various kinds of decor. Much has been made of the advent of knit hose and the question of when exactly they appeared. For the purposes of this article, it is sufficient to note that they were known and worn quite early in the 16th century, as is made clear by an order in 1510 "for our dearest sister the Princess of Castile...Item xij payer of knytt hosen" (8). Despite the expense, knit silk hose gained in popularity throughout the century.
Only the wealthiest could afford knit silk hose, which were the luxury item
of the hosiery world. Woven silk was less expensive, followed by knit wool,
then woven wool. The price of linen hose depended upon the quality of the fabric,
which could range from coarse homespun to extemely fine (and expensive) imported
cloth. Embroidery added to hose would of course raise the price. As a comparison,
in 1558-9, Leicester bought these pairs of hose at various times:
Item, for a pair of Guernsey hose: 5 shillings (9)
Item, for 2 pair of knit hose for your lordship: 4 shillings, 8 pence. (10)
Item, to Mr. Holborne for a pair of white knit silk hose: 53 shillings, 4 pence. (11)
Item, for a pair of knit hose for your lordship: 53 shillings, 4 pence. (12)
The first pair is wool knit, which was often called "Guernsey", "Garnsey", or "Jarnsey", for which Leicester paid 5 shillings. The second pairs, though it is not specified, must also be wool, as the price is somewhat comparable. A difference in the quality of the yarn or the knitting may account for the difference in price. The third pair, however, is silk knit, and the cost is 53 shillings, 4 pence--over ten times the price of the higher-quality wool knit and over twenty times the price of the lower-quality wool knit! The last pair must also be silk, though it is not specified, as the price is the same. Stubbes comments tartly that "the time hath beene when one might have clothed all his body well for lesse then a pair of these neither-stocks wil cost." (13)
Unsurprisingly, most of the documentary evidence for silk hose comes from the wealthiest parts of society. An inventory of Henry VIIIıs possessions commissioned in 1547 lists "Item xij paier of hooses of blacke silke knitte".(14) (These hose are listed among a number of items of women's clothing rather than with the king's wardrobe, so it is likely that they were women's hose.) The Earl of Northumberland evidently owned knit silk and knit wool hosen, as they are listed among his posessions in 1553 (15), and the Earl of Leicester purchased a number of pairs of both silk and wool knit hose in 1558 and 1559.
Queen Elizabeth wore both wool and silk knit hose as well (16) and sometimes received silk ones for New Year's Gifts, including a pair "By Mrs. Penne, a perre of silk knytt hoose" in 1562. (17) On her royal progress in 1578, she passed through Norwich, famed for its textile production. Norwich put on a great display of its textile arts, including a number of working looms and a knitting and spinning tableau: "Upon the stage there stoode at the one ende eyght small women chyldren spinnyng worsted yarne, and at the other ende as many knittyng of worsted yarne hose: and in the myddest of the sayde stage stood a pretie boy richly apparelled, which represented the Commonwelth of the Citie." (18)
Stubbes lists several types of thread and yarn used to make knit hose in his tirade against them: "Then have they nether-stocks to these gay hosen, not of cloth (though never so fine) for that is thought to[o] base, but of Jarnsey worsted, silk, thred, and such like, or els[e] at the least of the finest yarn that can be [got]". (19) Jarnsey worsted is a fine woolen thread. In another edition of the same work, he also lists "Crewell", another type of woolen yarn (20), making it clear that many varieties of silk and wool knit hose existed. Woven silk hose appear here and there in the inventories, though at times it is difficult to tell whether the hose listed as silk were woven or knit. Queen Elizabeth had hose of sarsenet, a thin silk fabric (21), and "according to Stow 'King Henry the eight did weare only cloath hose, or hose cut out of ell broade Taffety, or that by great chaunce, there came a pair of Spanish silke stockings from Spain.'" (22) The Spanish silk stockings might have been knit, but the ones cut from taffeta were woven silk. It may be that woven silk hose never gained a great popularity, as woven silk has far less stretch than woven wool or knit and thus would conform less to the leg and be less comfortable to wear.
Woven wool hose served the lower classes who could not afford silk or wool knit. They could easily be made at home from relatively small pieces of fabric, and the wrinkles clearly displayed on the legs and ankles of peasants in many genre paintings suggest that they wore woven wool rather than knit. Woven hose were not solely confined to the lower classes, however, as is made clear by this exchange of letters from 1536 between Lady Honor Lisle and her daughter Anne Bassett, who was fostered in another household. Anne writes: "Madame, I would beseech you to send me some linen to make me smocks, which shall not be so thin as that which you last sent me, with some pairs of hosen, and a little money for my devotions." Her mother replies: "I send you by the bearer money to buy you smocks, because ye say that which I sent you was too thin. I send you also hose-cloths, because the hosier here knoweth not the bigness of your leg." (23) Generally the word 'cloth' was used to mean woolen cloth, while other types of fabric were specified either by fiber or by weave (such as linen, satin, cypress, etc.). Honor Lisle has sent fabric enough for Anne to have hose made to measure, knowing from experience that any made and sent will probably not fit. A complaint by Anne from the previous year emphasizes the universality of children growing faster than their parents realize: "Madame, I have received some shoes and some hosen which are too small for me: I beseech you of your goodness to send me some others." (24)
Woven linen hose certainly existed, but it is not clear whether they were worn on their own or as understockings beneath other hose, either to allay the scratchiness of metal embroidery or wool or to protect expensive silk stockings from soiling. (25) In Erondell's _The French Garden_ from 1605, Lady Ri-Melaine calls for various items of clothing including stockings and socks: "where be my stockens? Give me some clean sockes, I will have no woorsted hosen, showe me my Carnation silk stockins" (26) Janet Arnold feels that the sockes in this case would be linen ones worn under the red silk stockings, a hypothesis strengthened by another dialogue from the late 16th century by Hollyband, in which a schoolboy asks: "where be my socks of linnen"? (27) Both 'single linen' and 'double linen' hose appear in Queen Elizabeth's inventories, (28) but it is not clear what the difference is. Linen hose or socks made of very fine imported fabric might need to be made double to withstand wear, but this is purely conjecture. According to Arnold, colors are never listed in conjunction with linen hose, so they are presumed to be always white. (29)
Woolen and silk hose came in a variety of colors, though the colors are not always listed in the documents. Those specified in inventories include for men white (knit silk and woven silk), russet (knit silk), black (knit silk), and blue (probably woven wool). The extant woven wool hose are yellow. Portraits add to this list maroon, red, brown, and grey. Other examples doubtless exist. For women, documents list white (knit worsted wool and knit silk), orange (knit silk), black (knit silk), straw color (silk), and carnacion (silk in the inventory, but also the color of Eleanora of Toledo's hose), and one genre painting of a kitchen scene yields a woman in pale pink woven hose.
Decoration of hose took several forms. Knit hose sometimes had their decor
knitted in, as did Eleanora of Toledo's. Most embellishment clustered around
the tops of hose and their clocks, or the area about the outside of the ankle.
Often embroidered (or 'wrought'), this could be done with wool, silk, or metal
thread. Queen Elizabeth's accounts include:
for fyve peire of silke knitt Hose carnacion in graine & other colours wrought at the clockes with venice golde & silver
for two peire of garnesey knitt Hose wrought at the clockes with silke (30)
The surviving pair of linen hose have rich embroidery of silk and gold and silver thread on folded over cuffs.
One more item requires mention: garters. Even the knit hose of the 16th century did not have the elasticity of modern socks, and they would fall if not supported either by garters of one kind or another or by being attached to the upperstocks. Most commonly, garters (strips of fabric or ribbon) tied just below the knee supported the hose. Cross-gartering, mentioned so prominently in Shakespeare's _Twelfth Night_, was another more decorative option which featured garters wrapped above and below the knee, crossing behind. Garters were often made of costly materials and highly decorated with embroidery or fringe. Because they were so small, even a very rich statement might not cost too much.
Making Your Own Hose
The technical details of knit hose fall beyond the scope of this article and the expertise of the author. Suffice to say that though Rev. William Lee invented a stocking frame machine in 1589, it apparently produced only large-gauge knit, making it likely that most knit hose in the 16th century were produced by hand. (31)
While knit hose require rather specialized skills, woven stockings are within the reach of anyone who can sew by hand or machine. To produce my own hose, I used the pattern taken from the extant pair of woven wool hose (32) and simplified it. The surviving hose appear to have a seam running under the heel and an extra sole of wool. I modified the shape of the heel so that there would be no seams under my foot and omitted the extra sole. The new pattern shapes and a schematic of the constructed hose are shown here.
The double-ended arrows indicate the grain of the fabric. One of these arrows should be parallel to the selvedge, thus orienting the hose on the bias and the sole on the straight. This is very important, as it is the bias of the fabric which stretches most. Hose cut on the bias will fit more closely to the leg and feel more comfortable. They are left- and right-footed and fit very closely to my feet.
This pattern is meant as a guideline only and will need to be adjusted for the specific measurements of the leg and foot in question. Measure (a) the circumference of the leg just below the knee, (b) around the largest part of the calf, (c) with toe pointed, around the heel and over the instep, and (d) the distance between the bottom of the knee and the floor. These measurements relate to the basic pattern as shown. Draw out your own pattern based on the measurements you have taken. Notice that the hose are taller than the measurement from floor to knee. This is to allow extra at the top of the hose so that they don't slip out from under the garters. The construction may be easier if you smooth out the corners between 3 and 1 and between 1 and 4 into curves, but this will make it harder to match the sole to the leg.
Trace the feet and use the larger outline of the two to create the pattern for the sole. If the feet are very different sizes, each sole may need its own pattern. If this is the case, be sure to pay attention to which side of the pattern you use on which side of the fabric so that the right foot doesn't end up on the left. Once the two pattern pieces are sketched out, compare the outline of the sole to the matching edges of the leg pattern to make sure that they are the same length. A little extra on the top of the toe is fine, as it will create a nicer shape when eased into the toe portion of the sole. The triangular extensions of the sole must fit into the slashes in the leg portion at both sides of the ankle.
Add seam allowance to all edges of the patterns and cut them out. Using these patterns, make a mock-up in a fabric similar to the final choice. Your mock-up will need some adjustment, and the fabric may stretch more or less than you expected. Transfer alterations to the paper pattern and use it to cut out your final fabric.
Regarding fabric choices: as noted above, evidence exists for hose in woven wool, silk, and linen. Silk and linen have less stretch, but they are cooler than wool. A very thin wool would probably combine the best of all worlds and can be hand-washed in cold water and laid flat to dry. Very loosely-woven fabric will not hold up well under the wear and tear that hose experience.
A hand-sewn backstitch with a doubled thread is, believe it or not, the easiest way to construct these hose. Handsewing sounds labor-intensive, but the seams are not that long, and the fiddly corners are easier to control by hand than on a machine. I have found flat-fell seams to be very sturdy and comfortable under years of wear. It is very important to finish the seams by some method, as hose get a great deal of wear and laundering.
My garters are simply good-quality grosgrain ribbon double-tied in a bow just below my knee, but garters are very simple to make of wool or other fabric. Wool has the advantage of a certain amount of natural give, which can make garters more comfortable. Now that you have a pair of hose, surely you need another! 16th-century hose came in many colors and fabrics--why not try them all?
1. Arnold, Pattern of Fashion, p. 41 and Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd,
pp. 207-8. These hose belong to Palazzo Pitti, Florence.
2. Arnold, Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd, p. 207. These hose belong to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
3. Flury-Lemberg, p. 222-231. These hose belong to the Berne Historical Museum.
4. Arnold, Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd, pp. 209-210.
5. St. Clare Byrne, Lisle Letters, vol. 3, p. 143.
6. Adams, p. 107. I have taken the liberty of 'translating' all records from Leicester's accounts into modern English for clarity.
7. Arnold, Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd, p. 206.
8. quoted in St. Clare Byrne, Lisle Letters, vol. 2, p. 588.
9. Adams, p. 48.
10. Ibid, p. 86.
11. Ibid, p. 87.
12. Ibid, p. 91.
13. Stubbes, p. 57.
14. Starkey, p. 218, record 9926. These pairs of hose are also listed in two other clearly duplicate lists in the inventory, but instead of the 12 pairs listed here, there are only 6 pairs.
15. Linthicum, p. 260.
16. Arnold, Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd, p. 206-210.
17. Nichols, vol. 1, p. 116.
18. Ibid, vol. 2, p. 144.
19. Stubbes, p. 57.
20. Arnold, Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd, p. 152.
21. Ibid, p. 207-8.
23. St. Clare Byrne, Lisle Letters, vol. 3, pp.169-170.
24. Ibid, p. 150.
25. Arnold, Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd, p. 209.
26. St. Clare Byrne, The Elizabethan Home, p.62.
27. Ibid, p. 2.
28. Arnold, Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd p. 209
29. Ibid, p. 209.
31. Ibid, p. 210.
32. Flury-Lemberg, p. 226.
Adams, Simon, ed. Household Accounts and Disbursement Books of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, 1558-1561, 1584-1586. Camden Fifth Ser. 6. London: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion. London: Macmillan London Limited, 1993.
-------. Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd. Leeds: W. S. Maney & Son Ltd., 1988.
Flury-Lemberg, Mechtild. Textile Conservation and Research. trans. Pamela Liebundgut. Bern: Abegg-Stiftung, 1988.
Linthicum, M. Channing. Costume in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries. New York: Hacker Art Books, 1972.
Nichols, John. The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth. London: J. Nichols, 1823.
St. Clare Byrne, Muriel. The Elizabethan Home discovered in two dialogues. London: Cobden-Sanderson, 1930.
-------. The Lisle Letters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Starkey, David, ed. The Inventory of King Henry VIII. London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 1998.
Stubbes, Philip. Anatomy of the Abuses in England in Shakespeare's Youth, A.D. 1583. Ed. Frederick J. Furnivall. London: N. Trubner & Co., 1879.