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Knit One, Purl Two

July/August 2023

Netherlands Texel StockingIn addition to the silver and red dresses, inside one trunk recovered from the Palmwood Wreck was an extraordinary pair of patterned silk stockings. These garments afforded researchers an unprecedented look at the skill of seventeenth-century knitters and a chance for an unusual experimental archaeology project that curator Alec Ewing of the Museum Kaap Skil says was much more fruitful than he expected. One of the scholars working on the artifacts from the wreck asked volunteers from across the Netherlands to try to re-create the stockings. “The stockings look brand new,” says Emmy de Groot, textile conservator and lecturer in textile conservation at the University of Amsterdam. “By re-creating them, you can discover how they were made—and the kinds of difficulties encountered in doing so.” For example, the researchers learned that it was simple enough to knit a similar pair of stockings using wool that would have been suitable for everyday wear. However, once the volunteers started to use the type of very fine silk yarn that would have been imported from the Far East in the seventeenth-century, it became clear that it would have taken hundreds of hours to make the single pair. The researchers also had to figure out whether it was necessary to degum the silk—a process used to remove the gelatinous protein sericin to improve the material’s color, texture, and sheen—before or after knitting the stockings. This step requires submerging the yarn or the finished product in very hot water, thus shrinking it. Would the stockings still fit?


Despite their enthusiastic attempts, almost all the volunteers were unable to make a stocking matching the quality of those retrieved from the shipwreck. A few of the volunteers did, however, produce whole stockings that Ewing says would not look out of place next to the originals, although they found it an exhausting and highly complex operation. “We wear socks every day and think nothing of it,” he says. “But these stockings are so fancy. It defies imagination to think that you could have something on your feet worth thousands of dollars in labor hours—who does that

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Netherlands Texel Dress Portrait

An Elegant Enigma