A Party of Ladies and Gentlemen , from Salt-petre Bank and its environs, enjoyed the amusement of a Hop, a few evenings ago, at The Cat and Bagpipes, on the Fulham Road… the most genteelest couple at the Ball, were a Lady with red shoes, yellow stockings and blue clocks… and much to the credit of the Ladies, no more than five got drunk, during the whole evening.
Oracle and Daily Advertiser (London), Wednesday, July 9th, 1800.
In the eighteenth century, even the colour of your stockings said something about who you were. Yellow stockings were somehow shameful. Maybe a hangover from Malvolio’s yellow stockings and crossed garters, in ‘Twelfth Night’?
By the eighteenth century, they became associated with charity schools, poorhouses and prison inmates.Or flashy, embarrassing people. Red and blue became seen as ‘provincial’, but yellow seem to have not even been that.
Until the advent of aniline dyes, most yellows were probably made with weld. It was cheap and plentiful. Raw wool fibre for knitting could be dyed in the wool (ie: before spinning) or the finished yarn dyed. Before the factory system, raw wool was often distributed by middlemen – commonly grocers, and sometimes handspinners themselves – who would have it spun, then return it to the same middlemen to be re-distributed to weavers or frame or hand knitters. So hand knitters might be presented with natural coloured or wool of all colours to be knitted into stockings. The high-end eighteenth century stocking was silk, or silk with cotton feet. Then came worsted stockings (the preparation and spinning for worsted being more expensive and skilled processes than for woollen spinning).
Woollen spun stockings were often referred to as ‘thread’ or ‘yarn’ stockings. There were also cotton stockings. Stockings could be frame knitted – often knitted flat and the pieces sewn together. Silk stockings may have been frame-knitted more often. But it’s likely the stockings of the everyday (wo)man were hand knitted. In the extant stockings from the wreck of the General Carleton, (1785) the vast majority of the stockings are hand-knitted. Most stockings were dyed, and white were often high status as they required bleaching and would have been so impractical as to imply you had plenty of money, and many pairs of stockings, if you were wearing them. Some hosiers advertise white stockings as “fresh from the bleach”. Towards the end of the century, the fashion changed from white to black stockings.
Naturally grey wool was also used and some lower status stockings appear to have been called “mix’t” – probably knitted from various previously dyed colours, scribbled together in a scribbling mill – maybe leftovers from the manufacturing processes. An advert of 1798 puts “Grey and Marbled Worsted” stockings at one 1 shilling and 6d a pair. [Oracle and Daily Advertiser (London), Tuesday, October 30th, 1798]. Silk stockings might go up to anything as high as around 14 shillings a pair, at the same date. (According to the Patients’ Accounts at The Retreat asylum in York).
There are surprisingly few runaway servants or apprentices described as wearing yellow stockings, throughout the century. Most of these wore ‘grey’ or ‘mix’t’. ‘Marble’ wool is sometimes mentioned in hosiers’ advertisements; this was probably the same as ‘mix’t’. Few of the surviving extant eighteenth century stockings are yellow which may also reflect their low status, apart from brief seasons when yellow was suddenly in fashion.
On Friday night the Shop of Mr Thomas Clifton, Grocer….was broke open and robbed of… a Quantity of Stocking Yarn of various Colours… (Birmingham)
Public Advertiser (London), Thursday, October 10th, 1765.
Mr Clifton was no doubt a mill’s middleman, and would have had the stocking wool on hand for professional hand-knitters.
It made sense to dye stocking wool. Maybe yellow became despised as it was cheaper and more practical than white.
Cochineal (for scarlets) was 14 – 16 shillings a pound in 1791, according to the trading prices listed in World (1787) (London), Saturday, August 27th, 1791. Logwood (for purples) could be bought for £12 a tonne in Liverpool in 1808, according to Joseph Rogerson, the Bramley mill-owner. These were ‘exotic’ imports. Native weld, easy to grow, must have been a fraction of the price.
Talking of fashions in the time of James I, a 1777 writer says:
We learn from Sir Thomas Overbury, in his Character of a Country Gentleman, that Yellow Stockings were worn by some of the Ordinary Gentlemen in the Country.
Public Advertiser (London), Thursday, February 6th, 1777
Which implies that by the end of the eighteenth century, yellow stockings were seen as somewhat infra dig.
In a newspaper report on Cold Bath Fields Prison, we are told:
The convicted prisoners, in general, are clothed at the county’s expence. The clothing is good, and consists, for males, of a blue cloth jacket and trowsers, yellow stockings, and a shirt; for females of a blue jacket and petticoat, a cap, yellow stockings, leather shoes and a shift….
Porcupine (London), Monday, December 29th, 1800.
Yellow stockings as a badge of shame for convicts and the poor, survived into the nineteenth century. In ‘Howden, an East Riding Market Town’, Susan Butler and Ken Powls mention that Howdenshire poor were doled out “yellow stockings” according to the parish records and vestry meeting minutes. In the 1820s it was noted that stockings in the workhouse “are all in future to be dyed yellow”.
It’s possible the poorhouse bought them unbleached, maybe in the grease – so cheaper – to be scoured and dyed later.