Shooting stars for stocking trade - The Field Magazine - Oct 2017
The once humble shooting sock is enjoying something of a renaissance, thanks to a certain breed of sporting gentleman
There are few areas in a chap’s life in which he’s permitted to be properly flamboyant. Cufflinks and waistcoats top the list but these do not materially improve your comfort like those other great collectables: shooting stockings.
For who has not had their day marred by too-short stockings from which your breeks escape infuriatingly every time you flex a knee? This is the chief complaint to emerge in my entirely unscientific preparatory poll of stocking connoisseurs, closely followed by “razor sharp heels or toes fatally holing them after one or two outings”; and sons “pinching my socks when they can’t find theirs”.
The solution to many of these problems is either: a) copy George Vestey and “stop at House of Bruar every trip North and buy inexpensive ones for about £15, knowing they will last about a year”; or, b) (and more stylishly) commission a bespoke pair, lovingly knitted on four needles “in the round” by one of a shrinking number of exponents of the art. They can be made to your dimensions, in whatever colours you choose (helping to resolve ownership disputes) and with reinforced toes and heels.
As Josephine Blake of Antidrift puts it: “Handmade stockings look and fit so much better, with much more interesting colours and patterns. It’s like comparing a Savile Row suit with an off-the-peg one.”
The downside is that they typically cost upwards of £90 a pair. This, explains Wendy Keith, is because it takes up to three weeks to produce them: “It’s hard on the eyes and the wrists, and knitters are generally of a certain age — I have several in their nineties.”
Hand-knitting socks with four needles (to avoid a seam) dates back to the 14th century, explains Keith, though she has only been involved for the past 35. Having commissioned one such knitter to make a pair “with a crazy design for my husband”, King Juan Carlos of Spain saw them one day and ordered a dozen pairs. In due course, Holland & Holland approached with an order for 500 more, and the hunt was on to find more knitters. Keith is now the undisputed queen of hand-knitted shooting stockings, selling in a discrete way direct to the public as well as creating seasonal designs for leading fashion houses, such as Purdey and William Evans.
“I find a lot of my knitters in Wales – the mining communities were great knitters – but I have them from Land’s End to John O’Groats. They are fantastic but they work to their own timescales,” she points out.
Recruiting and retaining these deft-fingered craftsmen is key to any superior sock company. Lucy Blackmore of Almost Unwearoutable socks makes a 200-mile round trip around Durham and Northumberland every fortnight visiting hers to collect finished socks and deliver measurements and yarns. Most of hers are hand-knitted not with four needles but “a Victorian sock loom; a person-operated crank handle machine”, of which she owns half a dozen. These socks therefore cost around £55, with her Argyle Kilt Hose (also good for shooting), the ones made on four needles, £145.
Wendy Keith’s knitting tribe generally works to 16 different designs using 25 yarns; the gorgeous colours and textiles of the stockings and their cuffs can be enjoyed online. There are all kinds of interlocking colours, stripes and patterns with names like “classic chessboard” and “hot stripes” but my favourites are the “double barrelled cuffed”, the colours and texture of which remind me of stone walls mottled with protruding heathers. With local yarns in decline, Antidrift’s Blake, whose handknitted socks start from £77, misses the mottled tweedy four-plies she used to find and from which her knitters made finer, well-tailored socks.
Premier stocking makers aim for perfection: the yarns and time invested are too costly for mistakes. The fit is vital and all sorts of measurements are required.
“It’s impossible to find machine-made stockings to cover really wide calves and it’s amazing how many people have that problem,” says Blake; Wendy Keith supplies one 6ft 9in gun “who has very thin legs and likes to look the part”. Almost Unwearoutable also specialises in serving those with very slim or well-developed calves (there is a small surcharge for extra wide or long ones). And they’re all mindful of the real length a stocking needs to be: “I’ve always made mine long so there’s no nasty gap,” says Antidrift’s Josephine Blake.
A sock’s durability hinges on the yarn it’s made from, the way it’s knitted round the heel and toe, and even the boots you wear them with. Blackmore declares that “Neoprene boots are a killer for going through feet — they are slightly sticky on the inside and grab hold of the fibres.” Usually it is barbed wire or moths that inflict most damage, however. Happily she offers a darning service or can even “re-foot” your socks.
THE JOY OF SOCKS
Though pure wool sounds appealing on paper it’s important to mix it roughly 75/25 with a manmade fibre if the socks are to last – such as polyamide. Some makers will put double-thickness toes and heels into their socks but Almost Unwearoutable and Antidrift’s trick is to weave reinforcing thread into the wool when it comes to these pressure points.
Everyone agrees that cashmere socks are really for those with more money than sense. They may feel orgasmic – “out of this world”, says Sandra Morton of Perilla – but they will wear through quickly, even if made with the heavy-based cashmere Wendy Keith has spun especially for her in Scotland (from £145). “But Purdey sells them for almost £400 a pair — and they walk out of the shop,” she points out.
Alpaca is perhaps a sensible halfway house for those craving a super-soft sock. Morton’s firm, Perilla, specialises in it – “we’re the biggest dyers of Alpaca yarn in the country”. Her 100% baby Alpaca hand-knitted stockings (£185) she says are “just pure art”. Alpaca is reputed to beat cashmere for warmth and durability, and there are other benefits, too, she explains. “Like merino, it’s more like hair than a wool and the way these fibres rub against each other removes gathering bacteria – they don’t absorb odour, so become self-cleaning,” she attests. “You can wear them for a month without washing them. Perfect for blokes with smelly feet.”
Another option is Almost Unwearoutable’s wool and silk mix, a blend it also uses for bed socks. “The result is much softer and thinner – they’re not quite as hard-wearing but they’re good for shooting in August and some people find wool itchy,” says Blackmore. A silk and merino mix is in the pipeline, too. Colour combination is up to you. One shoot puts all its keepers in striking purple socks: “We call it ultraviolet,” says Blackmore. The colour and pattern may come entirely from the yarn rather than the knitting pattern. Almost Unwearoutable’s Fair Isle patterned wool socks are popular, too, with a plain top. Socks are often ordered in corporate, school, regimental or racing colours, and Blackmore believes flamboyance is on the rise. “We introduced two neon colours last year and it’s amazing how many I sell. I’ve just done some socks for a man that were raspberry pink with lime green around the top.”
While guns logically steer towards muted browns, golds and greens for walked-up or stalking, elsewhere you may show off your finer feathers. “Really it’s only the stocking, tie and a waistcoat that you can ever show off on a grouse moor,” reflects Keith. “It is a unique, treasured item to have.”
Purists will be alarmed to hear that stocking-top slogans are regaining favour, according to Blackmore at least. Her list of popular options – “Hot shot” and “Air shot”; “Champagne” and “Sloe gin”; “Bang bang” and “Bugger” – do little to persuade me that guns are growing any wittier. More stylish to my mind are the hand-embroidered motifs Wendy Keith offers, though she warns that they are time-consuming. Some sport a Welsh dragon and “we did warthogs for one shooting club”. A particularly big project was embroidering the Arms of every royal family in Europe on socks for the Danish Royal family, who planned to make gifts of them. Keith’s firm also has the Prince of Wales’s Royal Warrant for shooting stockings and works with organic Duchy of Cornwall wool.
Despite a bank of “regular” patterns and yarns, hand-knitting specialists all relish special requests and chat about them readily. Many have also adapted their product to new markets and I’m struck by Almost Unwearoutable’s snazzy “festival stocking”. Thigh-high socks were originally worn under waders but now they’re more often found paired “with tiny shorts and wellies at festivals”, explains Blackmore. Those with daughters won’t be a bit surprised to hear that one client is extremely specific about length, “to show a certain amount of leg”.
Blackmore also makes socks for beaglers and has one sock loom capable of producing small socks for younger children: “We made some for pageboys at one country wedding to wear with plus fours and sleeveless tops.”
If you do decide to buy splendid socks, have a care how you wash them. Wool/manmade blends generally do well in a machine but hand washing or special “wool wash” cycles are recommended for finer yarns such as cashmere, merino and alpaca. “It’s not heat but agitation that ruins the fibres,” points out Perilla’s Morton. “Rub them together and you get felt.” And if you leave them to your wife to clean and they come back doll-sized, sporting agent Mark Firth has a word of advice: “You’re probably shooting too much: take the hint.”
Alpaca is perhaps a sensible halfway house for those craving a super-soft sock