sock of the week no.4

Today’s sock of the week hails from the north west of Scotland, and dates from the 1840s:

Gairloch stockings, or Gairloch hose.

Gairloch stocking Photo Jim Dunn, for Highland Threads

Gairloch stockings have an immediately recognisable appearance. Hand-knitted in stranded colourwork, they feature a dense, allover diced pattern which is overlaid with a motif of large interlocking diamonds, worked over a panel of 30 stitches. While the fabric of the stockings is warm, durable, and practical, their appearance is decorative, colourful, and highly distinctive. Carefully designed and shaped so that the pattern works continuously around the leg, these joyous stockings celebrate the creative medium of hand knitting.

Detail of Gairloch stocking. Photo Jim Dunn, for Highland Threads

A brief glance at the colours and pattern of the stockings immediately recalls the familiar tartans of Highland dress . . .

. . .and perhaps particularly the plaid hose familiarly worn by eighteenth-century Highland regiments.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore (1765). National Gallery of Scotland.

Such plaid stockings were not knitted, however: they were formed from seamed pieces of woven woollen fabric, and their distinctive diamonds are the result of the fabric being cut on the bias to improve fit and stretch.

Coming in from a spell of wet weather, these women have removed their Gairloch stockings, and dry their feet by the cosy bothy fire. Courtesy Alex Gray Muir, via Gairloch Museum and Highland Threads.

The distinctive hand-knitted colourwork stockings for which Gairloch became, over the course of the following century, widely renowned, arose from a problem, and were designed to create an opportunity.

Head of Loch Gairloch, from Ayton’s Voyage Around Great Britain (1820)

In the 1840s, the potato harvests of many crofting Highland communities were struck by blight and failed, causing widespread famine. While the men of such communities were put to work building lowland railways, or so-called “Destitution Roads” to support their families and communities, Highland women sought new forms of remunerative employment to do the same. During the famine years, the Mackenzie family of Gairloch encouraged the development of local spinning and knitting enterprises to support their crofting tenants. Highland women had of course spun wool, and knitted their own stockings for their families for generations, but the aim of the Mackenzies and their knitters was to to develop a locally-distinctive pattern that might find an external market, and provide a reliable source of income.

Gairloch stocking, embellished with the caberfeidh of the Mackenzies. Gairloch Museum.

In 1847, John Mackenzie requested a grant from the Destitution Board in Edinburgh (which oversaw the famine relief effort in the Highlands), to purchase “materials for female employment.” He told the board that his sister, Mary Mackenzie had then “above one hundred women employed spinning wool which is then knitted into stockings.”

Gairloch Stocking. Photo Jim Dunn for Highland Threads

The durable, plaid-patterned Gairloch stockings proved quickly very popular. As in Shetland, Highland knitters initially exchanged their work with local merchants for food, tea and other goods (truck) but later, under the auspices of the Highland Home Industries Association, were able to achieve fair prices for their work in cash. “Nothing can beat good Gairloch stockings,” enthused an article written for the association in 1895, “their superiority is well known to all who are in the habit of wearing them, for they have an elasticity and a softness which are only found in Shetland hose, but are much more durable.”

Gairloch stockings pattern on Ravelry. Photo by Jim Buchanan.

Gairloch stockings are a true Highland design success story: making the most of a motif with strong local associations, a pattern that was difficult to reproduce to the same high standard in any medium other than hand-knitting, and a product (kilt hose) that would always have a market among Scots home and abroad. Though the number of Gairloch stocking knitters had markedly declined by the middle of the twentieth century, in the 1970s, talented local knitters like Becca Macaulay, helped to revive the pattern once again, spearheading the creative development of other hand-knitted products featuring Gairloch’s distinctive double-diamond motif.

Gairloch Stockings pattern on Ravelry. Photo by Jim Buchanan.

With the support of the Gairloch Museum (which commissions and sells stockings and headbands featuring the motif) this design tradition continues. And if you would like to knit your own warm, durable and gloriously decorative pair of Gairloch stockings, the Gairloch Museum has produced a very well-written pattern which is available on Ravelry. All proceeds from pattern sales support a brilliant local museum (which like many in Scotland, has had a very difficult year due to Covid) and help to support the continuance of a Highland design tradition!

You can also find more images and information about Gairloch stockings at the the Highland Threads exhibition, a really inspiring inter-institutional collaboration, which allows you to digitally explore fourteen distinctive historic garments held in different local collections around the Highlands. Highly recommended!

My thanks to Karen Buchanan, and the Gairloch Museum for permission to reproduce the images in this post.