sock of the week no.7

Many of our socks of the week, so far, have been of a rather fancy kind, like the frame-knit silk stockings created for the eighteenth-century wealthy, or the colourwork kilt hose, worn on special occasions as part of Highland dress. As items of intimate apparel that are so frequently worn (and worn out), ordinary socks and stockings tend not to outlive their wearers, and very rarely find their way into museum collections.

This pair is an exception.

Hand-knitted stockings, 1650-1700, Rijksmuseum

This is a very ordinary pair of men’s stockings, dating from the last few decades of the seventeenth century. The stockings have been hand-knitted, in wool, from the top down, in stockinette, shaped to the calf with a faux ‘seam’ of purl stitches (which echoed the real seam that would have been visible on more exclusive frame-knit silk stockings at that time).

If you didn’t knit yourself, in the seventeenth-century, hand-knitted stockings would have been costly to buy and very expensive to replace. So if you were a hard working man – such as the man who wore these stockings – a well-constructed pair like these would have been a valuable possession, that you would wear for a long time, and carefully look after until replacement became absolutely necessary. The great value of these stockings to their wearer is told out in the manner and extent of their repairs, from the darns in darker wool that are worked towards the leg top . . .

. . . to the numerous darned, stitched and patched areas around the soles and heels.

The foot of one stocking is, in fact, more repair than original. The sole has been repeatedly darned, in different darker threads, then woven patches have been stitched on to reinforce the darns. These patches, being worn out in their turn, have been repaired with further patches. The patches are made of several different kinds of cloth, which perhaps have been repurposed from items of the wearer’s own worn-out clothing: twill-woven, plain weave, wool felt. These stockings were clearly worn and looked after by their owner over many long months and years.

These stockings are documents of the living of a hard-working human life. With their jigsaw of mends articulating the passage of time, the daily movement of the feet, and the careful hands of their repairer, they are just as beautiful as the silk pairs with their embroidered clocks which we looked at a week ago. And, as material objects, they certainly have an awful lot to tell us about the making, wearing, care, and repair of items of intimate apparel by the ordinary people of four centuries ago.

But who did these stockings belong to, and how did they end up in the Rijksmuseum?

Fascimile of Willem Barentsz’s 1598 map of the Arctic region

In the 1590s, Dutch ships began to sail around the Arctic, searching for a navigable passage to the Pacific, to speed their burgeoning seaborne trade. The navigators did not find a northeast passage, but they did discover a natural resource that became absolutely crucial to the economic aspirations of the Netherlands over the century that followed: whales.

Whales surround the location of Spitsbergen / Svalbard, as recorded on Barentsz’s map as “Het nieuwe land”

Funded by the Noordse Compagnie, by the middle of the seventeenth century, over a hundred ships were annually setting sail from Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Hoorn and other Dutch ports for the whaling station the company had established in Spitsbergen (now Svalbard) in the Arctic. There, thousands of whales were killed to process into household products like lamp oil and soap. The virtual monopoly held by the Dutch over Arctic whaling and whale products generated huge profits for the Netherlands, securing the nation’s notorious mercantile success.

One of the most profitable Noordse Compagnie whale-oil refineries was located at Smerenburg.

Cornelis de Man, The whale-oil Refinery near the Village of Smerenburg , 1639

In this depiction of Smerenburg (based on descriptions and other images, since the artist never travelled there) the carcass of a whale, is depicted at the shoreline. Oil is being boiled and rendered in the smoking vats to the foreground, and in the background are the that huts housed the refinery workers. It was in one such hut, in one such Arctic refinery, that the Dutch owner of our stockings once lived and worked.

In 1980, archaeologists investigated the graves of whalers around the old Svalbard refineries, including one on the island of Zeeuwse Uitkijk. Here they found human remains, whose woollen clothing had been extraordinarily well preserved by the cold temperatures, including hats, breeches, and several pairs of stockings. Together, these garments amounted to one of the most significant finds of working men’s clothing from this period in Europe, and are now held in the Rijksmusem.

These stockings saw their wearer through months and years of hard labour, in conditions that were undoubtedly extremely difficult and likely to have often been unpleasant. They tell the story of his body, of how it lived, what it endured, and the textiles that might be used to ensure its endurance in such conditions. In the evenly formed stitches of these stockings we are introduced to the dignity of the knitter–who is likely to have been a Dutch woman–and in their numerous repairs we can read the dignity of the human wearer–the Dutch man, who once sailed to the Arctic, who died there while processing whale oil, who repaired his heavily worn stockings, and who warmed his feet with their uneven patchwork of knitted and woven wool.