Monday, 28 March 2011

The Spreull Family and their knitted stockings

Every time I go to the Hunterian Art Gallery I am drawn to a painting by David Allan of The Spreull Family.
David Allan - The Spreull Family, 1793
Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow
Not because of the size (though at 117cm x 154cm it is huge), nor the detailing of the landscape, nor the expressions on the sitters faces, nor the little girl sitting on the floor staring into the distance, not even the gun dog on the right. I am drawn to this painting because the older lady has in her lap on double pointed knitting needles the start of some socks! Actually they are probably stockings, as apparently socks were rarely worn in the 18th century.

The artist David Allan (1744 - 1796) studied at the Foulis academy in Glasgow. Allan spent ten years living and painting in Italy, before returning, firstly to London and then back to Scotland. He became renowned for his genre paintings or conversation pieces, usually of families in informal settings (such as this painting). The family were the Spreull family, the father is James, graduate of Glasgow University, City Chamberlain and Superintendent of the Clyde. With his bright red hunting jacket, the vast landscape and size of the painting, this is all about James showing off his wealth and power. His wife Margaret (McCall) sits with their three eldest children (records show that they went on to have ten children in total). And to the very left of the picture, looking rather sternly, with knitting in her lap is Hannah (Park), James's mother.

Stockings were worn by everyone and without the advent of lyrca or nylon, they were made to fit the leg, narrower at the knee and ankle, and wider at the calf and thigh. Very poor people may have had stockings cut from woven cloth, rather than knitted. These would not have stretched very well, and may have been uncomfortable, so knitted stockings were preferable. Stockings could be machine knitted, as a stocking frame had been invented in 1589 by William Lee. The story is that Lee invented it to get revenge on his girlfriend who preferred to spend her time knitting rather than attending to him! By the mid-18th century machine knitted stockings were commonplace. So much so that hand knitters of stockings would, despite knitting in the round, imitate a seam by adding a line of purl stitches. Usual stitches for stockings were stockinette stitch (I assume this is were it gets its name from) or 1x or 2x rib. Fancy 'clocks' (patterns or motifs) were knitted by use of purl stitches or embroidered on to the finished stockings. I wonder what Hannah's finished stockings were like? And was she just desperate to get back to her knitting rather than posing for a painting? Note: for an 18th century stocking pattern see here.

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