Hosiery originates from the Anglo-Saxon word “hosa”, which means “tight-legged trouser”. Likewise, stocking comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “stoka” and means "stump". The first evidence of hosiery in history was that worn by young Venetian men underneath short jackets during the fourteenth century. These leggings were made of silk and often brightly coloured and embroidered. The older venetians considered these garments immoral.
In 1589, the English Reverend, William Lee, invented the world’s first knitting machine. Thereafter, hosiery was made from cotton, wool and silk. A pair of knitted black silk stockings was presented to the Queen. So impressed was she that she requested more, and wore only silk stockings for the rest of her life. She believed that the knitting machine was a national treasure and imposed the death penalty for anyone who attempted to take one out of England.
In the 1930s, the circular knitting machine was invented. It produced the first seamless stockings by knitting tubes of fabrics to which separate foot and toe pieces were later attached. Although these stockings did not have the back seams, they were baggy at the knees and ankles. Around the time of the Second World War, improvements in the circular knitting machine resulted in the production of complete stockings, without the need for sewing individual sections together. However, production of the seamed stockings prevailed.
One of the most significant advancements in hosiery was the advent of the synthetic fibre, nylon, in 1938 by Dr Wallace Carothers at DuPont in the US. After the yarn is knitted into a tube (like a “hose”), the nylon fabric could be heated and manipulated into a shape that it would thereafter retain after wearing and washing. The first two letters of nylon are believed to have been derived from the capital city, New York, where nylon was first shown to the public at the World’s Fair in 1939. The first nylon stockings appeared in New York stores on the 15 May 1940. More than 72,000 pairs of nylon stockings were sold on that first day. Before this, the majority of stockings were made of silk. As a consequence of the popularity of nylon stockings the Japanese silk market collapsed almost overnight. In the first year on the market, 64 million pairs of nylon stockings were sold and manufacturers could not keep up with demand.
In 1942, when the US joined the Second World War, most nylon production was switched to tent and parachute manufacturing for the military forces. Nevertheless, American GIs still had access to nylon stockings. They used them as a currency of seduction to “woo” their way into the hearts of British women.
After the war, demand for nylon stockings soared. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, stockings were known as "fully-fashioned" because of the way in which they were made. Creation of the stocking started at the top, at the welt, the thick band to which garters were attached. After the production of the tubed fabric was taken off of the knitting machine, it was manually cut to the shape of the leg and seamed up the back. It was known that women who could not afford or were unable to acquire them would draw a vertical line up the back of their legs to simulate the effect of back seamed stockings. The fashions of the 1960s witness the rising up the leg of the hemline, culminating in the mini skirt, making the cumbersome stockings with their necessary garters and garter belts difficult to conceal. As a result, fashioner designers attached the stockings directly to panties and created the pantyhose (or tights). They were marketed as a convenient alternative to stockings and the traditional suspender belt. Consequently, pantyhose became the dominant product in the hosiery market for the following 30 years. However, the popularity of stockings is returning. This, in part, can be attributed to the creation of stay-up (or hold-up) stockings that are held in place on the upper thigh by an elastised band containing rows of silicon.
Nylon remains the most widely used fibre in the production of hosiery. Today, however, most hosiery is also made with Lycra, ranging in composition from 8 to 20%. Lycra is the registered trademark of the elastane fibre, which, like nylon, was created by DuPont in 1959. It was initially used for medical stockings. Lycra gives the garment elasticity. As compared to the original nylon stockings, those with the addition of Lycra are strong, more durable and provide a better fit.
Today, hosiery products are not simply accessories but garments in their own right.
Today, hosiery products are produced by industrial high technology automation machinery. Depending on the manufacturer and the quality of the products, the automated process may incorporate manual stages of production.
First the raw nylon yarn is stretched and tightened on the bobbins to make the fabric flat and thin. Texturisation (or twisting) is the next stage in the yarn preparation. The parallel nylon yarns are curled and then a strong twisting force is applied, which is fixed by the application of heat. They are then released and the yarn returns to its original twisting status, resulting in the yarn’s acquisition of elasticity.
Next is the covering stage, whereby the nylon yarn is joined and knotted onto the elastomer (Lycra). There are two covering techniques: air-jet and spiral. Air-jet covering is used to create products with high volume and elasticity but with limited transparency. This technique is used to create high-denier, opaque tights. In spiral covering, the nylon is wrapped around the elastomer (Lycra) in a spiral fashion. This technique creates products with a smaller volume and less elasticity, but with high transparency, stockings with lower deniers, for example. Covering may be either simple or double. With double covering, one yarn is wound in a clockwise direction and the other in a counter-clockwise direction (double cover elastomer).
After preparation of the yarn by stretching and texturisation, the yarn is weaved using high-speed circular (rotating) machines. In a single continuous operation, fully controlled by a computer, these machines combine different types of yarns and create complex patterns, waist bands and reinforcements. Lycra 3D is a recent technological technique for the insertion of elastane. Stockings made with this technique are superior in terms of comfort and fit, elasticity and resistance to ladders. This technique is used to create of microfibre, high-denier tights.
The two leg parts (tubes) of the hosiery are joined together at the top region by seams. Seams are very important as they greatly influence the garment’s fit and comfort. Automatic sewing is an automated system that joins the two tubes, inserts the gusset and sews the toes, which results in a “raised seam”. Flat seam is usually performed manually, and results in a comfortable fit because there are no overlaying materials. In flat seam assembling, the gusset is inserted by hand.
After being assembled, the product is placed in special polyester fabric bags and dyed. There are a number of dyeing methods. Low denier stockings are kept still while the colouring bath is moved by pumps. In dynamic or rotating dyeing, which is suitable for microfiber, wool, cotton or acrylic products, the multiple stockings are dyed together in a single drum that moves continuously, like a top-load washing machine. The third type of dyeing involves a machine called cabinet. Items are sorted and individually placed in drawers, so as to prevent the garments from rubbing, which might cause creases or pulled threads. This is especially suited to delicate or heavy microfiber products. After dyeing, the garments are treated with conditioners, to give softness to the fibres.
Fixing stabilizes the yarn and contributes significantly to the final appearance of the product in terms of smoothness, shape, elasticity and shape recovery of the stockings. It is also the stage whereby additives and special processes required for some types of stockings are added, to give them particular properties such as unshrinkable and strength. Whilst still wet, the item is stretched and laid in a leg-shaped metal frame and a hot treatment using steam is applied. The result is a soft, compact tight.
The final stage of hosiery production is packaging. The highest quality, most valuable tights are packaged manually after several quality control checks. All products are parcelled into their respective covers. After packaging, the products go the manufacturers’ warehouses for dispatch and shipment.