Socks from the Russian Empire
I’m a sucker for anything historical; you probably know this about me by now!
In the new issue of Sockupied, Donna Druchunas delves into the sock history of Russia, which is surprisingly fascinating—and vast!
Here’s an excerpt from her intriguing article.
Socks from the Russian Empire
Examining the stitches in a sock is like traveling around the world, using a transporter machine to instantly be in the place where women and men knit familiar-looking stitches. Whether the socks were begun at the tip of the toe or the top of the cuff tells a story, as does the choice of colorwork motifs and the patterning used on the soles of the feet. With each row, the list of questions gets longer:
• Where did people use wool for making socks?
• Where did knitters use silk or cotton or linen?
• Where did knitters make socks with lace stitches?
• Where were colorwork patterns used?
• Where did people wear snug socks and fancy shoes?
• Where did people wear loose socks under sandals or wooden shoes?
• Where did knitters start their socks at the toe and work up?
• Where did knitters start at the cuff and work down?
Every stitch answers a question. In this article, the answer to all of these questions is Russia.
At different times in history, the Russian Empire stretched halfway around the world from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia on the eastern edge of Europe, clear across to the western border of Canada in North America, encompassing lands as far north as the Arctic Ocean, and as far south as the Mediterranean Sea. In each region of the empire, before the availability of ready-made clothing, children, men, and women knit and wore different types of socks made in unique local styles to complement their traditional clothing.
The Pale of Settlement was the area in western Russia (now eastern Europe) where Jews were permitted to live in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Pale encompassed the modern nations of Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania, as well as much of Poland and Moldova. This slim strip of land was just one minuscule section of a giant empire. In each geographical, climatic, and cultural area of the empire, people knit socks using a variety of techniques, pattern stitches, and color motifs. With a bit of research and close study of historical knitting trends, you can determine almost exactly where the socks were made from the construction of the sock as well as the colors and stitch patterns used.
In northern Europe, knitters traditionally made cuff-down socks in a midcalf length and knee-high stockings that were close fitting. The upper classes often wore slender-fitting shoes, but many of the rural poor wore wooden shoes, leather shoes without heavy soles, and even shoes crocheted from heavy linen cord. Under all of these shoes were form-fitting socks, sometimes shaped with decreases running from cuff to ankle. There was frequently a center-back “seam” or purl stitch running down the back of the leg, and sometimes down the bottom of the foot, serving as an end-of-round marker.
The heel was worked with a simple rectangular flap, closed at the bottom with a seam or with shaping to create a corner. After the heel, stitches were picked up on the sides of the flap rectangle, resulting in more stitches being on the needles than there had been at the ankle. These extra stitches were decreased to form a gusset on each side of the heel. The foot was worked straight and then decreased, usually in four sections, for the toe. When worked in lace or texture stitches, the foot of the sock was normally worked plain. Often the entire sock below ribbing at the cuff was worked in plain knitting, which came to be known as “stocking stitch” in England, and what we now call stockinette stitch in the United States.
—Donna Druchunas, Sockupied Fall 2015
Learning history through sock knitting, isn’t that wonderful? To read the rest of Donna’s article, get your issue of Sockupied Fall 2015 today!