The history of nylons

Published: 13th January 2009
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Stockings date back to the 12th century. They were individually handmade until mass production became possible. You will be amazed to learn that it was not an engineer, but a curate, who first facilitated their mass production! It was in 1589 Rev William Lee from Calverton near Nottingham who designed and built the framework knitting machine - it was suddenly possible, using the framework knitting machine, to produce stockings in quantity.

The story goes that Reverend Lee fell in love with a young lady in his local village. However at each visit his advances were all but ignored, as she was devoting all her concentration to her stocking knitting, and none to him! Spurned the curate is said to have determined to design an automated knitting process so that hand knitting would become obsolete! It took him three years to work at this idea, giving up his curate's position to devote himself wholeheartedly to the task.

After three years the stocking-weaving machine, made almost entirely of wood, was operational. It was a remarkable endeavor indeed as he was a curate with no formal mechanical training, and his tools were primitive. He had to overcome amazing technical challenges - for example the initial version of the machine had the needles stuck into a chunk of wood! Once his initial machine, said to be a 12 gauge and using wool, was working he trained his brother James and other relatives on the use of the loom.

Queen Elizabeth was known to love silk stockings so he travelled to London to ask for the patronage of the queen. His perseverance paid off and he was eventually granted an audience with the queen but when he demonstrated the machine to her, he was shocked as she did not offer the expected sponsorship. She was reputedly concerned that such mechanization of stocking manufacture in this way would put a large number of hand knitters of stockings out of work.

Disappointed and feeling rejected, and at the suggestion of one Sully, a minister of Henry IV, he set off for Rouen in France in 1605, at that time probably the foremost centers of manufacture in France. All was working well - he had taken his brother and seven workmen, and with Henry IV's patronage was mass manufacturing stockings for the first time, simultaneously using no less than nine looms. Then tragedy struck - Henry IV was murdered and suddenly Rev Lee had no patron - he was on his own, and not in his own country. His privileges were withdrawn. Devastated he attempted to fight a case in the Paris courts but he failed. He died in Paris, broken-hearted and impoverished not long after.

However his brother along with seven workmen managed to escape France, bringing seven looms with them back to Thoroton in Nottinghamshire. There he set up a mill where Ashton, a workman who had formerly been trained by William Lee before his ill-fated departure, joined him. This area of Nottingham was ideal location for woolen stocking manufacture as the quality of the wool was better - the staple or cross-linking of the fibres made for a stronger yarn well suited to weaving.

Nottingham area became the hub for stocking production and from this point on stocking weaving became an important industry for England. Just as computer knowhow is guarded today, so was this state-of-the-art knowhow guarded back then - exporting a stocking loom was actually illegal. Anyone caught had their equipment confiscated and were fine the huge (back then) sum of forty pounds.

By the 18th Century frame-work knitting of stockings had come to America in a swathe from New England to Pennsylvania. From here on mechanization gathered pace - Patents were granted in England for the first circular knitting machine in 1816, and a machine for manufacture of full-fashioned stockings in 1857.

Stocking materials - the sexy nylon stocking is born

Gradually by the late 1800's the use of wool gave way to cotton, and by 1929 the vast majority of stocking production was in silk. Then at Du Pont laboratories came Dr Wallace Carrothers momentous discovery - nylon! Carrothers was a brilliant polymer chemist with a rather turbulent private life that led to fits of depression. Nevertheless his development of what was initially known as polyamide 6-6 with its extremely high melting point revolutionized women's lives!

At the end of the Second World War nylon manufacture was geared back to the mass production of nylons. The demand was enormous - in 1945 Macy's sold out of its entire stock of 50,000 pairs of nylon stockings in six hours!

Stocking designs

The nylon seamed stockings were generally of the fully fashioned variety - that is the machine used to make then was designed to drop stitches where needed so that the leg was not simply a tube but was narrowed at the ankle and widened at the thigh. The flat material was therefore designed to fit the leg snugly, when wrapped and stitched down the back to produce the seam. As you may be aware, nylon hsa no natural stretch so it became necessary to manufacture stockings in a variety of foot length and leg lengths.

Until the end of the second world war stockings were in short supply. Because the tell-tale sign of a fully fashioned stocking is the back seam, so it was common for ladies to use an eyebrow pencil to create an artificial seam up the back of their leg to simulate a genuine stocking!

Seamless stockings

The invention of the circular stitching machine enabled the advent of seamless stockings which by 1950 had surpassed the seamed stocking in popularity. However sizing was still problematical &, because they have no stretch, the stockings tend to bag behind the knees and at the ankles with both the original seamed and newer seamless stockings from this time. There was a material revolution in 1959 with the arrival of spandex (as it was known in USA)or lycra, as it was called in the UK. For the first time one size could fit a variety of legs, snugly and without bagging.

Pantyhose or stockings?

The advent of the 'swinging sixties' brought the hemlines so short that comedians would joke that it was less of a skirt and more of a broad belt. There was a brief time when stocking tops were frequently on show before pantyhose or tights took the hosiery world by storm. However it is the sensual nylon stocking that still holds the affection of most men - and an admittedly lesser percentage of women. The first time you have the opportunity to draw a fifties full-fashioned stocking up your leg I guarantee you will fall in love with these gorgeous nylons.


Debbie Mendoza has run which she founded ten years ago. She specializes in vintage lingerie, shapewear & full fashioned stockings from the 40s to 70s. The site has supplied vintage lingerie for collectors, burlesque artists, film companies and theater groups.

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