How did Argyle socks and knitwear get their name?

blue, green, black argyle sock

Argyle sock (Photo by S.Diddy - CC-BY)

Argyle socks have centuries of history, and yet that particular name wasn't used until nearly 1940. Socks with the typical “Argyle” diamond design used to be called tartan hose or plaid stockings. They were knee-length, and made from wool, sometimes rather scratchy wool. The pattern of lozenges in two or more colours, criss-crossed by narrow lines, is the knitted equivalent of a woven plaid or tartan. But does it have anything to do with Argyll in Scotland? (The Argyle spelling is an old alternative to Argyll. Nowadays Argyll usually means the place, and Argyle the multi-colour knitting.)

In the 1920s the Prince of Wales gave the design a boost in England by choosing it for his golfing knitwear, but it wasn't called “Argyle” at the time. Then in 1940s America there was a wave of enthusiasm for Argyle socks, which had an upmarket sporty student image. Now they were actually called Argyle socks. Esquire magazine in 1947 said “Snap brim hats, Argyle socks, brown brogues, wool sweaters are still lettermen's choice.”  That same year an ad in Life suggested an outfit of  tweed jacket, gray flannels, a green tie with green, yellow and orange “Argyle plaid socks”, to attract a “girl's gaze” at a sporting event.

Tartan or plaid socks were originally Scottish, and they had been known in America from colonial times. In 1753 Colonel John Sime ordered 9 dozen “plaid stockings” for his Virginia household: a common choice for servants' clothing. A century later Abraham Lincoln's wife asked him to buy plaid stockings for their son.

The Chicago World Fair of 1893 had tartan hose from Argyll on display.

The women of Scotland did not intend to be eclipsed by their sisters in England and Ireland in making an exhibit of work at the World's Fair. … The women of Argyle send tartan hose

H.D.Northrop, The World's Fair as seen in One Hundred Days

Often I turn to the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary to throw light on questions like this, but their entry is rather disappointing. Their first example with Argyle meaning what it means today is from 1959. (Try google books and google news for the 1940s.) They say the name comes from the Campbell of Argyll tartan, and quote the 1890 Ladies' Home Journal praising “Gordon and Stuart, Fife and Argyle plaids” in “silky-looking material”. It's plausible enough to think that led towards their next quotation about a 1959 “green and beige Argyle sock”, but I'm still left wondering why Argyle, not Gordon or Fife.

The earliest use of the phrase “Argyle socks” I've found is from late 1930s Canada, while “Argyle plaid hose” or “Argyle plaid socks” were advertised in the US. Please tell us in the comments section below if you know more.

Very Special
15 dozen
Argyle Plaid Hose
Gommy Mens Wear of Distinction
Ad in the Daily Princetonian, 1937

And a few more things:

  • The further back you go, the more likely that the hose were not knit, but tailored from woven tartan cloth, without full feet.
  • The Prince of Wales, later the Duke of Windsor, liked other Scottish patterned clothing too, from dressy kilts to fairisle sweaters.
  • There are modern distinctions between Argyle socks, tartan socks, and diced socks, laid out by the “Tartans Authority” established by manufacturers and retailers. Definitions have become stricter over time.
  • Most Argyle knits use an intarsia method, but hand-made ones may use stranded knitting .

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  • larry says:

    My mother used the expression “Argyle socks” in the late 1940s. My speculation is that it could have come into use as a result of the 1893 Chicago World Fair, perhaps with substitution of “socks” for “hose”, to use the common US term.
    “Argyle” is certainly now the term used in Scotland (lots of websites).
    Mom was an immigrant from Scandinavia, but one of her earliest friends in the States, my godmother, was from the Shetland Islands.

  • leli says:

    I like that line of speculation! But I’ve got to admit there are some missing links. If only we could hire a uclue researcher to spend a few weeks in a library…

  • larry says:

    Yes, missing links, and one was in the back of my mind, but I didn’t find it till now – related to something I know more about.
    In the 19th c. and well into the 20th c., Persian, Turkish and other carpets were named after the market town in which they were found by western dealers; alternatively, by the name of artists, who had painted carpets of recognizable design, e.g., Lotto, Holbein.
    It would have been likely that the tartan hose shown in Chicago were similarly identified as “Argyle socks,” for lack of better knowledge that women in other clans also made such “hose”/socks.

  • leli says:

    It’s a tempting theory. Placenames have been used for so many fabrics too.
    I guess we need to know more about what happened between 1893 and the 1930s/40s.
    Here’s the latest quote I’ve found, from the NYT 1930:
    “The popular designs this season are in both large and small patterns, such as checks, blocks and argyles.”

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