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Fully fashioned, seamless, FF, RHT, Cuban heel, flat knit, mesh, keyhole, micromesh - nylon stocking terminology can seem a little confusing at first. Instead of having to read endless vintage how to books, here is a useful guide to buying vintage nylon stockings.
Did you know that the 15th of May is National Nylon Stocking Day? Wear your vintage nylon stockings with pride!
Stockings are a timeless fashion staple that can add a certain level of sophistication to any outfit. They are perfect for formal events such as weddings, anniversaries or black tie occasions, but also add a touch of elegance to everyday looks. Stockings come in all kinds of styles from sheer and opaque to lace-top or with classic film-noir back seams. With the variety available, you are sure to find a pair that suits your style and needs!
A fully-fashioned ('FF') stocking is knitted on a traditional flat bed machine into flat sheets of nylon cut to the exact shape of a leg (to include a shaped foot, narrow ankle and shaped calf) and sewn together at the back to form a tube and creating a distinctive seam in the process. Because it is a join, the seam therefore exists for practical reasons as opposed to being purely decorative, or 'mock seam'. Fully fashioned stockings are most often knitted of 15 denier nylon yarn with no stretch and always have a top welt that is formed by doubling over the fabric and sewing it back on to itself. A finishing keyhole (loop) always features in the middle of the seam at the back of the welt as a consequence of this manufacturing process. Fully fashioned stockings will appear quite long when taken out of their packaging but the volume of the leg will reduce this overall length when worn. For the wearer it is essential to purchase stockings in the correct leg length as pure nylon does not stretch. The thicker the calf and the thigh area, the more length will be taken up and this needs to be taken into account in addition to foot size when determining which stocking size will provide the best fit. This essential advice for the buyer is rarely covered by vintage how to books.
A genuine fully fashioned nylon stocking will feature a keyhole loop, compression stitching, a genuine seam and a reinforced heel formed with additional layers of nylon.
An RHT stocking is made of nylon, just like a fully-fashioned stocking but exhibits several major differences. The RHT has no keyhole, no fancy heel style and most importantly, no seam, (although seamed RHTs are available where the seam is purely decorative as mentioned above). RHT stockings have been in existence since the 1940’s when Hanes began marketing “no-seam stockings” with reinforced heel and toe produced on circular knitting machines where the leg shape could be achieved by tightening the stitches over a conical mould. They were slow to gain popularity as ladies of the day thought that the absence of a visible seam made them appear to be bare-legged and at that time they considered it undignified for a respectable lady to be seen without stockings. Many actually preferred the more modern seam-free look and by the beginning of the 1960's the popularity of the seamless RHT stocking eventually overtook that of the fully fashioned seamed nylons.
Fully fashioned seamed stockings explained in a short video. A visual video guide to seamed stockings.
Just three of the many popular stocking heel types - Point, Cuban and Havana.
Point heel (or French Point heel): A fairly long heel that is delicate in width and comes to a point at the end.
Cuban heel: A fairly high, vertical and rectangular shaped heel in a contrasting colour to the rest of the stocking.
Havana heel: As the Cuban heel but shorter (not so high) and wider. Typically late 1940's to mid-1950's.
Manhattan heel: Very similar to the Cuban heel but with a more decorative design. Pointed end, like a New York skyscraper.
Welt – The welt is knitted first on the machines and is a double layer of nylon. This is the part of the stocking where the suspenders are attached and needs to be more robust than the rest of the stocking. Genuine vintage stockings frequently have writing printed on the welts which adds that extra touch of authenticity and the stockings should be worn with the writing on the outside of each thigh.
Shadow welt – This is a single thickness of welt – a lighter transitional area between the darker welt and the single layer of nylon found in the rest of the stocking. This is also known as the Underwelt.
Keyhole – The keyhole is a decorative bi-product of the manufacturing process but please be warned – it is not robust enough to support suspenders so do not clip them through this hole!
Seam – As previously mentioned, this binds the stocking together. Fully fashioned stockings can be easily distinguished from modern seamed stockings by examination of the seam. If it appears to have been printed on or sewn on unnecessarily, it is merely a decorative seam.
Compression stitching – This is a row of needle marks equidistant each side of the seam formed during the seaming process.
Heel – The heel is designed to reinforce the sole of the foot and comes in many different designs (see infographic above). 'Point heel', 'Cuban heel' and 'Havana heel' are perhaps the most popular stocking heel types, followed by the 'Manhattan heel'.
Beautifully sheer nylon stockings
Regular flat knit: This was the original knit made on all stockings until the early 1970’s. Using 100% pure non-stretch glossy nylon it is a smooth stitch that is silky and soft to the touch. It has a wonderful shine and was the premier knitting technique of the era. These are the highly sought-after true nylon stockings of yesteryear.
Kant run: This knit was developed to help prevent runs in the stockings. It is a lock-stitch and has a slightly rougher texture.
Micromesh: This stitch was developed to create a matte finish on the stocking that was very popular during the 1960’s. It is soft and smooth, but not as silky as regular flat knit.
Pebble mesh: A very rough knit to prevent runs used in teen and utilitarian stockings.
Textures: Patterned stockings – diamond, herringbone, and wave designs were the most popular during the 1960’s. Hosiery companies began to buy modern knitting machines which had infinite knitting possibilities allowing for numerous variations in design.
In truth, modern stockings don't match up to genuine vintage stockings simply because modern production techniques produce shapeless 'tubes' of stretchy fabric, whereas true vintage fully fashioned nylon stockings were painstakingly made to the shape of the leg.
As modern knitting techniques improved stockings evolved through several phases. To improve fit, the yarn companies came up with several refinements that would define the future of classic hosiery.
The first of these was the stretch stocking – a crimped yarn that was knitted and packaged unboarded (shapeless and wrinkled appearance until stretched) in a limited size range that conformed to the leg when worn. Popular brands were Cling-Along, Agilon and Cantrece. The ultimate fit solution that defines the stockings of today is the incorporation of Lycra, another Dupont invention, to create an elasticised stretch stocking that clings to the leg. Lycra is now used in almost all modern stockings and pantyhose to create a support stocking effect which is not as sheer as the pure nylon flat knit vintage version of these stockings.
In the 1960’s when skirts were worn very short, many women began to wear tights (pantyhose) instead of stockings. To show, “a bit of stocking”, was no longer accepted and while stockings fought for market share by becoming extremely long, they became nearly extinct as pantyhose gained in popularity. 15 denier tights became accepted as easier to wear as stockings and equally sheer. Thankfully stockings have since become fashionable again and the genuine article is now highly sought after.
Stockings and suspenders are perfectly comfortable provided that you always make sure your nylon stockings and suspender belt are the right size for you. It is also vitally important that you adjust your suspenders and stockings properly for the perfect fit for all-day comfort. In order to be comfortable wearing nylon stockings it is so important to follow one or two easy steps first.
During the 1940's and 1950's women in stockings and suspenders knew exactly how to wear them properly, but these days that has been largely forgotten. I cover the subject of adjusting your stockings for perfect comfort in this article, which will give you all the help you need.
The Denier scale is a very important factor when choosing stockings. Denier is a French term which refers to a calculation of the thickness of the thread. Stockings and pantyhose come in various fabrics such as pure nylon, nylon/lycra blends, polyester, viscose, wool mix, lace and in order to establish their level of transparency, denier count is important. A single denier is the measured thickness of the nylon fibre based on the benchmark standard of 1 gram for every 9000 metres of fibre. A stocking with a 10-20 denier has transparency aspects while a stocking knitted with a higher denier i.e. 20 or more, will be less sheer and usually more durable. Stockings 40 denier and above are opaque. The sheerest practical stockings or tights on the denier scale are 7 denier, which is so wispy sheer that it literally disappears on the leg while the most popular denier is still 15 denier which gives a nice compromise between sheerness and durability. When thrown in the air, a 7 denier stocking will gently glide down to earth like a feather.
"If you want sheer nylons in the fifteen-denier fifty-four gauge variety, you can't expect them to stand up to hard wear" - 1953 quote from a nylon stocking manufacturer.
The two most common gauges in fully-fashioned knitting were 51g and 60g. 60 gauge stockings have a smoother, denser look and feel and were highly prized! 51 gauge stockings were easier to knit as the machines had fewer needles and ran more efficiently than the 60 gauge. These stockings were still highly desirable but slightly less expensive.
BOAC hostesses were issued with a generous allowance of nylon stockings made by Vayle Scottish Nylons.
They produced 'surprisingly strong' yet beautifully sheer 60 gauge, 15 denier fully fashioned stockings for the high-flying girls.
Two common causes of 'snagging' your precious and delicate nylon stockings are your own fingernails and - worse - draping them over furniture that may have a tiny 'nick' on the surface and 'snag' the delicate fabric. Better to keep your stockings in a separate bag before handwashing and to hang them by their toes (be careful doing this!) and let them dry naturally in the air. This will inevitably take a bit longer than draping them over a radiator but takes away the risk of snagging.
Storage in an organised way is actually easy - carefully roll them up and put them in a drawer. Here's a great tip though - put each pair into a glass or glass jam jar and then put them in the drawer. The jar is the perfect size for a pair of stockings and being perfectly smooth inside and out will protect your nylon hosiery for years to come.
Prevention is better than cure...
Finally, you need to look after your beautiful vintage stockings to avoid snagging. A lovely instruction card from a pair of English Rose stockings says it all really:
"REMOVE all rings, wrist watches or other jewellery, to avoid snags".
"Wear a pair of soft fabric gloves, as the slightest rough skin or torn nails on the hands OR FEET will snag them".
"REMEMBER cane chairs, or indeed any sharp object as well as HOT CIGARETTE ASH will snag or ladder them in wear".
"WASH after wearing, squeezing gently in warm soapy water. Rinse thoroughly in cold water. Dry over clean towel, or hang by toes away from heat. On no account should these stockings be put through a wringing machine".
Although the history of hosiery dates back to ancient times, knitted stockings first came into fashion in Tudor England. The world’s first knitting machine was invented in 1589 by William Lee, for the purpose of making stockings. Over the centuries, successive inventors manufactured improved versions of the knitting machine and in 1864 William Cotton patented a flat machine in Loughborough, Leicestershire, England that was able to automatically drop and add stitches. This meant that the knitted fabric could now be shaped and tailored to follow the contours of the leg.
Until the early 20th century stockings were manufactured from wool, cotton or silk prior to the introduction of rayon in the 1920’s as a cheaper alternative to silk.
The next major development in the hosiery industry was the birth of the nylon market which resulted from Du Pont’s introduction of Nylon at the World Fair in New York in 1939. This new Nylon stocking fabric was a revelation – just as sheer and glossy as silk and rayon but much harder wearing and without the sensitivity to getting wet. The first non stretch fully fashioned stockings appeared in New York stores on May 15, 1940, and over 72,000 pairs were sold on the first day alone. Unfortunately these extremely popular seamed nylon stockings were only available for a relatively short period due as the US entered World War 2 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour at the end of 1941 after which the War Production Board immediately announced that Du Pont’s nylon manufacturing would be used exclusively for war materials production. The scarcity of nylon stocking fabric led many women to brown their legs and to apply an imaginary seam with an eyebrow pencil to emulate the look. Some cosmetic companies such as Helena Rubinstein even marketed “liquid stockings” for that very purpose.
Article written by Emma Benitez. BA (Hons) in Fashion and Dress History, incurable vintage aficionado and owner of Nylon Nostalgia.
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We stock authentic 1950's and 60's vintage nylon seamed stockings up to size 11. As well as fully fashioned (FF) we also have beautifully sheer seam-free stockings too. These delightfully diaphanous delicacies are often still in their original mid-century packaging and offer true vintage glamour. Click here to see our current listed stock.