Friday, February 06, 2009

Discipline and Silk Stockings (but not what you might think)

This is the first week of my six month sabbatical. That sabbatical will be followed by long service leave and annual leave, taking me up to Christmas this year. Some of that time will be spent on holidays and taking a break, but much of it will be spent working, of course. Two books to finish; and a couple of other projects clamouring for attention, too.

This week I've taken delivery of a new sofa for my study at home; re-arranged the furniture to make room for the sofa; and nearly got to the bottom of the piles of papers and files, sorting and putting them away: a job at which I am truly dreadful.

There are lots of little things to do still, like booking my ticket to the US, and writing a new subject to teach in 2010. But I'm now ready to start going through all my files on the Garter project, and making sure anything that needs to go in goes in in the right place in the right chapter. I want to get this done in the five weeks before I leave for Philadelphia, so I don't have to take the files with me, and so I can just concentrate on starting to write the last chapter and revise the whole ms. while I'm away.

It's sometimes hard, doing it this way, not least because this material is so fantastic, that everything clamours to go in. But I've learnt from past experience how easy it is to clog up a book with detail that isn't strictly necessary. Often, in the kind of long-range projects I like to grapple with, such detail is wonderfully new to me, but quite familiar to historians of the sixteenth or eighteenth century, for example.

But that's why I'm glad I have this blog! So, for example, there is no room in my chapter on fashion, but there is room on the blog, for the information, from Stow, that in 1560 Mistress Mountague gave Queen Elizabeth a pair of black knit silk stockings, which she had made herself. The Queen liked them so much, their 'pleasant, fine, and delicate' appearance, that she never wore cloth hose again.

On the other hand, the import of the fashion for knitted silk hose from Spain does go into the chapter because Henry VIII really liked them too; and they would have made the Garter look fantastic. So all those portraits of long white legs and garters are probably indebted in part to this fashion and the use of silk instead of wool for knitted stockings. All part of the popularity of the Garter in its belegged form in the early sixteenth century, because you'd be much more likely to show off your leg in its new silk than its old woven cloth hose (cut on the cross and with a seam up the back).

Later on in this article, by Joan Thirsk, "'The Fantastical Folly of Fashion': The English Stocking Knitting Industry, 1500-1700," in Textile History and Economic History: Essays in Honour of Miss Julia de Lacy Mann, edited by N. B. Harte and K. G. Ponting (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1973), there's another fantastic reference to a debate from textile history.

William Lee, a curate of Sherwood, had invented a frame to make knitting easier, and applied to the Queen for a royal patent to knit wool stockings on it. She refused, and the story persisted in oral memory till it was written down in 1831 that this was a merciful resistance to technology that would have impoverished her poor subjects. But Elizabeth had urged Lee, instead, to perfect a method of knitting silk stockings that the wealthy would have purchased.

This is the kind of textual and historical knot (get it?) I just love untangling. But just because I love it doesn't mean it can be fitted into the book.

Discipline, Stephanie! Discipline!

3 comments:

Mindy said...

I can just imagine pulling on a pair of silk stockings after wearing woolen ones. I can understand why she never looked back. You'll have to save all the snippets and put them together into another book of mediaeval trivia or something. Somehow trivia makes it sound trivial, but I think it would be quite fascinating.

(here via Pavlov's Cat)

WhatLadder said...

Okay, so now I am totally going to knit you a pair of black silk socks.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Mindy, thanks for dropping by...
Yes, a book of medieval trivia would be fun: one could be completely undisciplined for good reason.

WhatLadder: you know I thought of you the other day when I finally had to throw out the beautiful painted egg you gave me years and years ago. It lost a big piece of shell about six years ago, but it just held on and on, upside-down in its little cup. I bet your knitting is as "pleasant, fine and delicate" as one could wish.