For more than a decade now, there is one knitting project that has haunted me. I tried it once, in the spring of 2010, which in retrospect was remarkably bad timing. I was about to graduate law school and start studying for the bar, and then my first year of practicing law more or less ate me alive. I didn’t have much time for knitting, and I certainly didn’t have the spare brain power for this particular project.
I’m trying again this year. I’m gonna do it this year.
Let me back up a bit, though, and explain what’s going on. Here’s the story of how I fell in love with some knit stockings that are over 400 years old.
Eleanor of Toledo’s Stockings
Eleanor of Toledo was a Spanish noblewoman who married Cosimo I de Medici. She died in 1562 at the age of 40 and was buried in a magnificent pair of knit stockings. They were knit from red silk, according to records at the time, and featured some of the earliest examples of eyelets and purls used for decoration. Even a cursory glance at them shows they were made by a master knitter with immense skill.
The stockings survived 400 years of decomposition, grave robbers, and relocation, until archaeologists opened the tomb in the 20th century and photographed some of what they found inside. I won’t include photos of the stockings here because I know some people are sensitive to them for various reasons, but you can see a zoomed out picture and a close-up of the cuff detail here. Suffice it to say that they are remarkably well-preserved and the detail is still highly visible. I thought the second picture was a modern recreation on first glance.
For decades, now, knitters have been puzzling over those stockings in an attempt to recreate them. There are a few different patterns out there, none of which are exactly right, though some are closer than others. I’ve done a lot of poking around in an attempt to figure out which pattern I should use. People disagree on some things, like how exactly they’re supposed to be worn (cuff folded down or rolled up? garters or no?) and whether they were knit flat or in the round, but I’ve made my peace with not quite knowing and going for a close approximation. I’m just a stubborn knitter, not a historian or reenactor.
I don’t know how I first learned about Eleanor of Toledo’s stockings. It might have been from one of the historical costume bloggers I followed at the time. It might have been from going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole in the middle of the night. It might have been just from browsing Ravelry when I should have been studying. However it happened, though, I fell in love.
My First Attempt at Eleanor of Toledo’s Stockings
The first time I tried knitting these stockings, I had intended to submit them for the Harry Potter Knit/Crochet House Cup on Ravelry. That… did not go according to plan. In fact, I never finished them.
I only got as far as the ankle on the first sock.
I’m slightly comforted by browsing the projects for these stockings on Ravelry and finding a veritable graveyard of abandoned projects. I’m certainly not the only one who seems to have gotten overwhelmed or distracted over the years. It’s also comforting to know that I’m not the only knitter who’s been fixated on these stockings (check out this excellent blog post from a knitter who has made at least six versions over the years).
But I’ve been thinking about these dang stockings ever since. I frogged them eventually and made two pairs of other socks from the yarn I had originally purchased from them, and every time I wear those socks, I feel a slight twinge of guilt and frustration and longing.
These stockings won’t let me go. They are my white whale, and I am Captain Ahab (I really hope these stockings don’t drag me down to the bottom of the ocean).
Trying Eleanor of Toledo’s Stockings a Second Time
So what’s changed in the last decade? Three key factors:
I’m a much more technically proficient knitter. I can read my stitches better and my tension is more even.
I don’t have the stress of my first year of practice looming over my head.
In the intervening years, the tiny circular needle became a thing, and that has really improved my sock knitting life. I don’t particularly like wrangling DPNs, but I can handle a tiny circ, no problem.
All of these things make it easier to attempt an otherwise daunting knit project. I’ve decided to go with the pattern I tried the first time, even though it uses eyelets for the zigzags instead of a combination of knit and purl stitches like the original stockings do. It’s wholly irrational, but I feel a stubborn commitment to finishing the original project somehow. Moby Dick, I’m coming for you.
Now, let’s be clear about what this project is and what it isn’t. It’s the fulfillment of a mild obsession and an undertaking driven by stubbornness and spite. If I’m honest, it’s also something that I want to try because I’m still building my skills, even after all these years. Last year, I learned brioche knitting. This year, I’m tackling teeny tiny stitches in massive projects. It’s about teaching myself patience and discipline, about refusing to give up when I get tired or bored.
However. It’s important to note that this is not an attempt to perfectly recreate the original stockings, nor is it an academic undertaking to learn more about historic needlecraft. I have the utmost respect for people devoted to recreating historic garments using period-appropriate tools, materials, and techniques, but that is not who I am and not what I like to do. I’m perfectly content with a reasonable approximation (and you can pry my 9” circs out of my cold, dead hands).