Knitting in WWII: A Photoessay

Kristin Devine

Kristin has humbly retired as Ordinary Times' friendly neighborhood political whipping girl to focus on culture and gender issues. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of

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8 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    I find myself idly wishing that I knew how to make surgical masks.

    Not for The Effort… I’m not sure that I’d ask someone else to protect themselves using my mask. But I think I’d feel safer going out to get groceries if I had one.

    The next milestone is probably something like “moving from idly wishing to researching”.Report

    • Anne in reply to Jaybird says:

      I haven’t made a mask yet but will soon. I’ve done ton of research and can send it to you if you like.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Anne says:

        I’m not there *QUITE* yet.

        I saw a picture that was, purportedly, of Floridians who were wearing maxi pads as surgical masks and the caption of the picture was, of course, mocking it.

        But I thought about it and that’s kind of brilliant. Absorbent part towards the face so that any sneezes or coughs are caught, plastic side toward the outside so that it acts as a shield.

        Now, I wouldn’t necessarily wear such a thing myself but a surgical mask that opened/closed and allowed you to insert/replace the maxipads inside? That strikes me as having marginally more utility than mere cloth, you can wash the cloth casing and swap out the shields inside, and it protects you from people taking pictures and saying “Florida gonna Florida.”Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

          Here’s the relevant section from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

          I thought I would wait until something went wrong with his machine and then I would help him fix it and that way get him into it, but I goofed that one myself because I didn’t understand this difference in the way he looked at things.

          His handlebars had started slipping. Not badly, he said, just a little when you shoved hard on them. I warned him not to use his adjustable wrench on the tightening nuts. It was likely to damage the chrome and start small rust spots. He agreed to use my metric sockets and box-ends. When he brought his motorcycle over I got my wrenches out but then noticed that no amount of tightening would stop the slippage, because the ends of the collars were pinched shut.

          “You’re going to have to shim those out,” I said.

          “What’s shim?”

          “It’s a thin, flat strip of metal. You just slip it around the handlebar under the collar there and it will open up the collar to where you can tighten it again. You use shims like that to make adjustments in all kinds of machines.”

          “Oh,” he said. He was getting interested. “Good. Where do you buy them?”

          “I’ve got some right here,” I said gleefully, holding up a can of beer in my hand.

          He didn’t understand for a moment. Then he said, “What, the can?”

          “Sure,” I said, “best shim stock in the world.”

          I thought this was pretty clever myself. Save him a trip to God knows where to get shim stock. Save him time. Save him money.

          But to my surprise he didn’t see the cleverness of this at all. In fact he got noticeably haughty about the whole thing. Pretty soon he was dodging and filling with all kinds of excuses and, before I realized what his real attitude was, we had decided not to fix the handlebars after all.

          As far as I know those handlebars are still loose. And I believe now that he was actually offended at the time. I had had the nerve to propose repair of his new eighteen-hundred dollar BMW, the pride of a half-century of German mechanical finesse, with a piece of old beer can!

          Ach, du lieber!

          Since then we have had very few conversations about motorcycle maintenance. None, now that I think of it. You push it any further and suddenly you are angry, without knowing why.

          I should say, to explain this, that beer-can aluminum is soft and sticky, as metals go. Perfect for the application. Aluminum doesn’t oxidize in wet weather…or, more precisely, it always has a thin layer of oxide that prevents any further oxidation. Also perfect.

          In other words, any true German mechanic, with a half-century of mechanical finesse behind him, would have concluded that this particular solution to this particular technical problem was perfect.

          For a while I thought what I should have done was sneak over to the workbench, cut a shim from the beer can, remove the printing and then come back and tell him we were in luck, it was the last one I had, specially imported from Germany. That would have done it. A special shim from the private stock of Baron Alfred Krupp, who had to sell it at a great sacrifice. Then he would have gone gaga over it.

          That Krupp’s-private-shim fantasy gratified me for a while, but then it wore off and I saw it was just being vindictive. In its place grew that old feeling I’ve talked about before, a feeling that there’s something bigger involved than is apparent on the surface. You follow these little discrepancies long enough and they sometimes open up into huge revelations. There was just a feeling on my part that this was something a little bigger than I wanted to take on without thinking about it, and I turned instead to my usual habit of trying to extract causes and effects to see what was involved that could possibly lead to such an impasse between John’s view of that lovely shim and my own. This comes up all the time in mechanical work. A hang-up. You just sit and stare and think, and search randomly for new information, and go away and come back again, and after a while the unseen factors start to emerge.

          What emerged in vague form at first and then in sharper outline was the explanation that I had been seeing that shim in a kind of intellectual, rational, cerebral way in which the scientific properties of the metal were all that counted. John was going at it immediately and intuitively, grooving on it. I was going at it in terms of underlying form. He was going at it in terms of immediate appearance. I was seeing what the shim meant. He was seeing what the shim was. That’s how I arrived at that distinction. And when you see what the shim is,in this case, it’s depressing. Who likes to think of a beautiful precision machine fixed with an old hunk of

          I guess I forgot to mention John is a musician, a drummer, who works with groups all over town and makes a pretty fair income from it. I suppose he just thinks about everything the way he thinks about drumming…which is to say he doesn’t really think about it at all. He just does it. Is with it. He just responded to fixing his motorcycle with a beer can the way he would respond to someone dragging the beat while he was playing. It just did a big thud with him and that was it. He didn’t want any part of it.

          At first this difference seemed fairly minor, but then it grew—and grew—and grew—until I began to see why I missed it. Some things you miss because they’re so tiny you overlook them. But some things you don’t see because they’re so huge. We were both looking at the same thing, seeing the same thing, talking about the same thing, thinking about the same thing, except he was looking, seeing, talking and thinking from a completely different dimension.

          He really does care about technology. It’s just that in this other dimension he gets all screwed up and is rebuffed by it. It just won’t swing for him. He tries to swing it without any rational premeditation and botches it and botches it and botches it and after so many botches gives up and just kind of puts a blanket curse on that whole nuts-and-bolts scene. He will not or cannot believe there is anything in this world for which grooving is not the way to go.

          That’s the dimension he’s in. The groovy dimension. I’m being awfully square talking about all this mechanical stuff all the time. It’s all just parts and relationships and analyses and syntheses and figuring things out and it isn’t really here. It’s somewhere else, which thinks it’s here, but’s a million miles away. This is what it’s all about. He’s on this dimensional difference which underlay much of the cultural changes of the sixties, I think, and is still in the process of reshaping our whole national outlook on things. The “generation gap” has been a result of it. The names “beat” and “hip” grew out of it. Now it’s become apparent that this dimension isn’t a fad that’s going to go away next year or the year after. It’s here to stay because it’s a very serious and important way of looking at things that looks incompatible with reason and order and responsibility but actually is not. Now we are down to the root of things.


        • George Turner in reply to Jaybird says:

          In WW-II my dad used maxi-pads to soften rifle recoil. In Asia and in Michigan some DIY innovators are using air conditioning filters to make mask inserts. They come with different ratings, but 13 MERV and above, or 1600 to 2800 MPR, should do better than most other materials. However, I’m also looking at HEPA or ULPA filters, which is what you’d use for hospital or semiconductor clean rooms. Replacement filters are pretty cheap and widely available.

          However, I have a beard, so what I need is something like a backpack mounted HEPA filter with hoses going to a Star Wars helmet.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

          Just like that.


  2. DensityDuck says:

    The issue is that people equate complexity with effectiveness. A fancy sewn-together mask with a built-in pocket for a repurposed vacuum-cleaner filter has lots of features, it looks interesting, people figure that it must be super great at doing mask-y things. But if it doesn’t meet the N95 standard then it’s not a whole lot better, when it comes to viruses, than tying a T-shirt over your face. And if you try to make something that meets the N95 standard you pretty much end up with something that looks like (and is built like) the N95 masks you buy in the store.

    But if you have that fancy mask with the filter pocket, you think that it’s really great, you think that it’s keeping you safe from contamination, you think that you just slap this thing on and you can do whatever without worrying about how many feet you are away from everyone else. See, that is where the whole “don’t wear a mask” guidance comes from; because they don’t want people thinking that any old makeshift mask will be just-as-good as something that meets the N95 standard.

    It’s like the story about accident rates going up after they made seatbelts mandatory; people figured they were safe, so they took more chances, and they got in worse trouble. Or the story about the town in Europe somewhere that got rid of all its stop signs and traffic lights, and the number of accidents went down because people understood how vulnerable they were and went out of their way to avoid risk.

    That being said, “face covering” is better than “no face covering”, just don’t think that a 3d-printed plastic frame for your desktop HEPA filter is going to be any better than a T-shirt tied across your face.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to DensityDuck says:

      I admit: if I had a handful of N95 masks, I’d use one this weekend to go to Costco and get stuff instead of not doing that.

      Heck, if I had a workable version of what I talk about above, I’d use one this weekend to go to Costco and get stuff instead of not doing that.

      But, eventually, I am going to have to go back to Costco. And I’d rather use a mask than not. Even if I do stay inside this weekend and next weekend.Report