Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A Waistcoat with Stockings for Sleeves

I can't remember when I first came across a description of a waistcoat "with stocking sleeves" in an eighteenth-century source, but I know I was immediately intrigued. Men did wear some knit garments in the late eighteenth century, including breeches and coats made from frame-knit material sometimes called "stocking web," but I'd never heard of knit sleeves. As it turns out, people made stocking sleeves not from new knit yardage but from old stockings. A handful of runaway advertisements published in the years around the American Revolution indicate that creative individuals cut the feet off worn-out stockings and sewed them into the armscyes of waistcoats as makeshift (and warm) sleeves.

Don Hagist wrote a brief article in The Brigade Dispatch: Journal of the Brigade of the American Revolution (Spring 2005) and included this interesting 1777 expedient from the orderly book of the British 49th Regiment of Foot:

"Sir Henry Calder desires A Return may be given in of the No. of Caps wanting in each Company The Men are not to wear their Hatts or Coats on any Account; they are to put Sleves to their Waistcoats out of Old Stockings, or Such other Stuff they can procure."

No original such garments, civilian or military, survive. I'm aware of only one period image depicting one. Johan Joseph Zoffany's 1772 portrait of London optician John Cuff and an assistant shows two men wearing distinctive waistcoat sleeves. The man on the viewer's right wears stocking sleeves, identifiable by their contrasting color, the darker binding at the wrist (sewn on to prevent the cut knit from unravelling), and the texture you'd expect from a knit sleeve section.

From the Royal Collection Trust, here.

Detail published in Desmond Shawe-Taylor, The Conversation Piece: Scenes of Fashionable Life (London: Royal Collection Publications, 2009), 122.

I'm not the first person to try recreating a waistcoat with stocking sleeves. Jay Howlett at Williamsburg wears one regularly, and here's a blog post about one made by another reenactor. But I was curious how this sort of garment was assembled and what it felt like to wear. In recreating a stocking-sleeved waistcoat, I chose similarly blue stockings and a white flannel body. Flannel was a common material for waistcoats and underwaistcoats, and numerous runaway ads mention sleeves whose color contrasted with the jacket body, probably because such garments resulted from the combination of old waistcoats and worn-out stockings, with color matching less of a concern. The body of my jacket matches the dimensions of one recovered from the 1785 wreck of the General Carleton (you may remember I wrote about sewing a copy of this jacket here).

Image of my waistcoat with stocking sleeves. You'll forgive the anachronistic beard and glasses, I'm sure.

My waistcoat is indeed warm. The stockings I had to use were for a smaller man than I, and so they they fit my arms more snugly and end higher on the forearm than my own stockings might (at least without being taken in and thus tightened for sleeve use). Where my sleeves end, you can see the same sort of tape binding the wrists as in Zoffany's painting. This is the sort of garment that someone used to the loose clothing of 2015 really feels when they're wearing it. It gives you a sense of how the fit of clothing, whether loose or tight, shapes the body, supporting or hindering certain postures and actions.

Optician John Cuff's use of such sleeves was probably more related to a sensitivity to cold that came with age and historical heating methods. But I've run into two hints that stocking sleeves may have been part of the occupational clothing of weavers, at least in the nineteenth century. In fiction stories from 1825 and 1863, respectively, weavers wore blue-stained aprons (a strange detail I can't explain) and stocking sleeves: "wearing his stocking-sleeves on his arms" (The Hull Advertiser, and Exchange Gazette, November 4, 1825), and "a pair of stocking sleeves drawn over his otherwise bare arms" (The Saturday Press, December 5, 1863). Unrelated to weaving or runaways, stocking sleeves also appeared in two notes on play costuming in 1826 and 1835.

Stocking sleeves even made a much later appearance during the lean years of Britain amid the Second World War. "Sometimes, too," wrote a columnist documenting the make-do solutions of wartime women, "they convert the legs of the boys' wool stockings into sleeves for a jersey which has 'gone' at the elbows," (Somerset County Herald & Taunton Courier, February 12, 1944).

But the most numerous and detailed accounts of stocking sleeves come from American and British newspapers. Using databases, I've located ten American  and five British descriptions of stocking-sleeved garments dating between 1765 and 1829. Certainly more eluded my keyword searches and lurk in undigitized newspapers. I've provided full quotations and citations below for those who may be interested in more detail. In short, they suggest that the people who turned worn-out stockings into sleeves attached them to garments known as jackets, waistcoats, vests, coats, and even "a kind of hunting shirt" (for more on hunting shirts, see Neal Hurst's work here) with little regard for matching sleeve and body color.

The American runaway ads also indicate that stocking-sleeved jackets were a regional garment. All of them appear in advertisements for runaways from the Mid-Atlantic, from Westfield, New Jersey, west of New York City, to Culpeper, Virginia. I don't mean to discount confounding factors (such as the problematic nature of digital keyword searches; the higher number of newspapers and corresponding digitization in this region than in those farther south; and perhaps a higher number of runaways than in New England), but these still can't account for why I couldn't find any examples in digitized sources from New England or the South.

Instances of stocking sleeves with dates, plotted with Google Maps. Some locations are approximate, based on county given.

With the documentation and the sewing behind me, I'm just waiting for an appropriately cool living history event to really break in my stocking-sleeved waistcoat. I figure it needs a few miles and some good stains on it before it will look like the sort of "old flannel jacket" mentioned in the advertisements below. Until then, I'm quite ready for whatever winter has in store.

Thanks to Neal Hurst, Michael McCarty, Joseph Privott, and Nicole Belolan for discussions related to this research.

American Primary Descriptions of Stocking Sleeves (Sources: "America's Historical Newspapers" and "Accessible Archives," unless otherwise noted)

A servant butcher from Kent County, Maryland, "with stockings for sleeves to his jacket," (Pennsylvania Gazette, March 28, 1765).

A servant from Uwchland Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, wearing a "blue and white striped jacket, with old blue stockings for sleeves," (Pennsylvania Gazette, January 19, 1769).

A supposed servant from Culpeper, Virginia, wearing a "blue waistcoat with stockings for sleeves," (Virginia Gazette, March 22, 1770).

A slave from Westfield, New Jersey, wearing a "white woolen waistcoat with stocking sleeves," (The New Jersey Journal, May 10, 1770; page 14 here).

Two convict servants from Elk-Ridge, Maryland, wearing "an old flannel ditto [jacket], with black stocking sleeves" and "an old flannel ditto [jacket], with grey stocking sleeves," (Virginia Gazette, September 20, 1770).

A convict servant  from Langford Bay, Maryland, wearing "a brown vest, with stocking sleeves," (Pennsylvania Gazette, April 4, 1771).

A servant from Charles Town, Maryland, wearing "a striped linsey ditto [jacket], with blue stocking sleeves," (Pennsylvania Gazette, December 23, 1772).

A servant from Brandywine Hundred, Delaware, wearing "an old blue cloth jacket, with stocking sleeves, of near the same colour," (Pennsylvania Gazette, August 2, 1775).

A servant from Chester County, Pennsylvania wearing a "light coloured cloth coat, with blue stockings for sleeves in it," (Pennsylvania Gazette, July 7, 1784).

A probable servant from York[town], Pennsylvania, wearing "a kind of hunting shirt with grey yarn stocking sleeves," (Carlisle Gazette, May 29, 1787), from here.

British Primary Descriptions of Stocking Sleeves (Source: "The British Newspaper Archive")

An apprentice currier of Southampton, wearing "a short Waistcoat, with the Leggings of a Pair of Blue Stockings for Sleeves," (The Hampshire Chronicle, March 22, 1773)

A man from Morcot, Rutland, "deranged in his intellects" wearing "a brown Fustian Jacket with Greased Stocking Sleeves," (Lincoln, Rutland, and Stamford Mercury, June 6, 1800).

A murder victim of Straid, County Antrim, Ireland, wearing "a wylie-coat (flannel-waistcoat), into which witness had sewed the legs of worsted stockings, as sleeves to it, and put check buttons on it," (Belfast Commercial Chronicle, August 25, 1810).

A young runaway from Higham Ferrers wearing a "yellow striped Waistcoat, with cotton stocking Sleeves" (The Northampton Mercury, December 25, 1825

A Littlebury highway robber wearing "a waistcoat, with stocking legs for sleeves," slash "a waistcoat with stocking sleeves stitched into it," (Evening Mail, December 11, 1829).


  1. Re weavers and blue stained aprons -- sometimes weavers advertise that they will dye the yarn their customers bring them for an extra fee, if the customer is unwilling or unable to dye it themselves. Blue is more likely to stain an apron than other dyes, since it doesn't need a mordant, whereas other dyes (yellows and greens) need a mordant to adhere to fabrics and would wash out of an apron more readily than indigo.

  2. Thanks a lot for this comment and the interesting point about blue dyes!


  3. I can't see any way to subscribe to this blog? Can you help please?
    Regards, Keith.

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