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Knitting Throughout The Great War

2014 marks 100 years since the start of the First World War. So, to commemorate this event, we thought we’d have a look back and see how knitting heavily affected the war effort during this difficult time.

In what started as a response to small gaps in uniform supply, knitting played a hugely important role throughout The Great War. Considering the legacy of mass-produced knitting projects over this time period, outfitters and clothiers were massively overwhelmed by demand that they had to enlist relatives of the British soldiers to help them. These hand-knitted garments, or ‘comforts’ as they are known were to fortify soldiers against harsh winters as they fought on the western front. These included items such as mufflers, afghans, socks, wristlets, sweaters and balaclava helmets.

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Due to the Government’s anxiety of soldiers receiving un-military garments and trying not to draw attention to their army failures, they soon began to issue knitting patterns, approved by the armed forces and distributed through The Red Cross. This also includes approved yarn too, which involved almost entirely of khaki.

The Red Cross affiliated groups soon started to spread around the globe; from schools to colleges.

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Boys from Cooperstown High School, NY in 1918 // Canadian children’s knitting club

Another response to the war effort was a knitting pattern issued by Lord Kitchener. Sock seams were a problem for soldiers and often left them with sore or bloodied feet. The Kitchener stitch allowed socks to be finished off smoothly, which made soldiers who were serving more comfortable.

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Horatio Herbert Kitchener in 1910

WWI was a step into the unknown and much of it had to be improvised, however, the mobility of knitting made it the perfect symbol of civilian enthusiasm for the war effort. Knitting became a force for good that forged bonds between home and battlefront.

Many knits from home were mentioned in letters and diaries from soldiers in the depths of war. Tom Thorpe, an NCO with the 2nd/9th Battalion Hampshire Regiment, wrote to his family:

“Tell Nellie not to despair as the mittens are quite all right and as well as doing for cycling can be used while on guard when we are not allowed to wear proper gloves.” – Christmas, 1914

“Thank you very much indeed for knitting me that helmet, it is very nice indeed and exactly what I wanted.” – October, 1916

Knitting was a frequent motif in propaganda, songs and other aspects of popular culture. Trench warfare meant that soldiers spent weeks, or months in wet and freezing conditions.

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Knitting had a symbolic impact during the war and crafting took on a patriotic role while offering a way for those as home to feel they were closer to those on the front. In 1914, the London Needlework Guild was christened ‘Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild’, when it gained the patronage of the Queen.

“I appeal to the Presidents of all the needlework guilds throughout the British Isles to organise a large collection of articles for those who suffer on account of the war” – Her Majesty’s Appeal published in The Times, 10 Aug 1914

Most men and women knew how to knit when the war began and those who didn’t quickly learnt. Some knitters even specialised in reworking others work before the garments were given to The Red Cross. Non-knitters were encouraged to purchase yarn for those who could.

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A huge effort undertaken by Australian school children knitting socks during WWI

Many children learnt to knit during the through The Red Cross programs, commonly starting with washcloths. These were sent to soldiers and citizens of war-torn countries. Not only did The Red Cross distribute armed forces approved patterns and yarn, they also collected goods and sent them over to Europe.

Military commanders were required by the War Council to account for the donated Red Cross garments “as though they were government property regularly supplied by the Quartermaster Corps … This action on the part of the War Department will assure thousands of American women who have knitted sweaters and other articles for soldiers for winter use that the articles they have made will receive the same careful attention as clothing or any other article furnished by the government” - The Seattle Times, March 24, 1917

In September 1918, all American yarn retailers were ordered by the War Industries board to turn over their service yarn to The Red Cross; this included all shades of khaki, grey, heather, natural or white. During the following six weeks, all yarn for war effort knitting was only available through The Red Cross. This was done to ease the yarn shortage and allow them to continue knitting uninterrupted.

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Knitting was occupational therapy in 1918 // Actress Mary Pickford knitting for disabled veterans on the set of Sparrows in 1926

Once the war was declared over, this didn’t mean the end of knitting; the need for warm garments continued, however, knitters were now free to work on personal projects.

Knitting wasn’t just for practical purposes, it also offered a boost of much needed morale and that is why many of these knitters were the first to pick up their needles in September 1939, to once again ‘Knit for Victory’.

Sources: judyweightman.blogspot.com, shorpy.com, awm.gov.au, historylink.org, ghostsof1914.blogspot.com, centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk


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