A Brief History of Stockings
Compiled from various sources by Elaine Duigenan
The story of stockings began in 1589. That was when
the English churchman Reverend William Lee invented the world's first
knitting machine and started to make hosiery out of cotton, wool and silk.
The machine was a national treasure. In fact, the queen of the day threatened
the death penalty for anyone who attempted to export it.
The technology remained reasonably static right until the 1930s, when
a new circular knitting machine meant garments could be made in one piece,
and no longer needed to be sewn together. Around the same time, scientists
at the Du Pont company in Delaware, USA started experiments in molecular
chemistry that would quite literally change the world.
Julian Hill was one of the scientists there, and he was looking for a
silk substitute. One day he discovered that by pulling a heated rod from
a mixture of coal tar, water and alcohol he could create a filament that
was strong, sheer, and silk-like in appearance. Further research led to
the first synthetic fiber, which soon came to be known as Polymer 6.6.
Two years later, in 1937, Du Pont patented the discovery.
Synthetic fibers were first shown by the company to the public at the
World's Fair in New York in 1939. Taking the NY from the city's initials,
the fiber became known as "nylon". The 'lon' is for London.
Nylon was a revelation. The first nylon stockings appeared in New York
stores on May 15, 1940. Over 72,000 pairs were sold in the first day alone,
and the Japanese silk market collapsed almost overnight. Department stores
throughout America saw a similar stampede. In the first year, 64 million
pairs of stockings were sold and manufacturers could not keep up with
When the US joined the Second World War in 1942, most nylon production
was switched into tent and parachute manufacturing for the military forces.
American GIs could still get hold of stockings, though, and they became
the gift of seduction as the GIs tried to woo their way into the hearts
of British women.
After the war, demand rocketed. The first post-war hosiery sale took place
in 1945 in Market Street, San Francisco, and attracted 10,000 shoppers.
Throughout the '40s and '50s, stockings were known as "fully-fashioned"
rather than the single size of most hosiery today. Fully-fashioned stockings
were tailored to the shape of the leg, and had a distinctive seam at the
back. When women could not afford stockings, or had difficulty getting
hold of them, they would often draw a vertical line up the back of their
legs to simulate the effect.
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