Knitting in WWII: A Photoessay
January brings the snow, makes our feet and fingers glow.
Poets make cold weather sound so nice, don’t they? Cozy — if you have warm clothes and a hot fire waiting.
But what if you don’t?
Men in wartime suffer constantly, and never do they suffer more than in the winter cold. And those left at home to tend the hearth have longed to do something, anything to help ease the burdens of their loved ones. Knitting was a way to reach out across the miles and wrap your beloved soldier in warmth from home, like a hug from far away.
Above: Illustration from The Tribute Book, A Record of the Munificence, Self-Sacrifice, and Patriotism of The American People During the War for the Union, Frank Goodrich, 1864
Knitting dates back at least to the Middle Ages and probably much farther. Knitting was a popular pastime of women because it was possible to do it young or old, sick or healthy, in the dark when the oil in the lamps ran out, while tending flocks and rocking cradles and even stirring the pot. We know for a fact that women knitted for soldiers during the Civil War, because it’s included in the pages of the beloved book Little Women. Says heroine Jo,“…I’m dying to go and fight with Papa! And I can only stay home and knit like a poky old woman!” And Jo shook the blue army sock till the needles rattled like castanets and her ball bounded across the floor.
Above: WWI knitting propaganda posters
As World War II began, the world was in the midst of a leap from the old ways to the new. Modernity was definitely on the horizon, but it hadn’t dawned yet. Nowadays we have the technology to quickly machine-knit reams of fabric for socks and hats and undergarments, but as the war began, that infrastructure had not yet been put into place. Men were sent off to fight in Northern Europe without hats, without gloves, and worst of all, without warm stockings. As true now as it was back then, cold, wet feet are as great an enemy as the enemy actually is. During WWI, 20,000 men were killed from trench foot. Even in the 1940’s, providing fighting men these lifesaving, if humble necessities fell onto women back home, armed with their knitting needles and balls of wool.
Above: Knitting Sheet Music was one of the popular forms of pro-knitting propaganda
The writer Alison Lurie reminisced (in the pages of Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting) that during high school in wartime, she and her friends were issued balls of heavy, oily, khaki-colored wool and mimeographed sheets of knitting patterns and sent off to do their part for the war effort, producing socks, hats, scarves, and face masks. Her experience was in no way unique. Women from coast to coast picked up their needles and wool, making knitted goods to be shipped off overseas in “Bundles for Britain” to aid the Londoners being brutalized by the Blitz.
Even before Pearl Harbor, Life Magazine answered the question “What can I do to help the war effort?” with a single word: “Knit.” The volunteer organization Citizens for the Army and Navy set a goal of a million standard Army sweaters knitted by Christmas of 1941, a project well underway by the time the Japanese attacked.
Above: Americans were already starting to knit for the war effort before Pearl Harbor, but the bombing encouraged millions to join the effort
By January of 1942, the Red Cross was designated as the clearinghouse for all coordinated national knitting programs. As wool was being strictly rationed and was incredibly difficult to ship from faraway places like Australia with the war on, yarn was hard to come by. The Red Cross was given priority for wool supplies, but with so many uses for wool, it wasn’t long before yarn for knitting was in short supply. Some branches of the Red Cross even set up programs to card and spin their own yarn from raw wool. And when the war effort made steel for needles impossible to attain, newcomers to the project learned to knit on bone and celluloid needles instead and kept right on knitting.
Above: Even youngsters were expected to knit their bit, even though they’d rather be playing with these knitted dolls!
The Red Cross handed out millions of patterns for socks, scarves, sweaters, gloves, fingerless mitts to be used when shooting, hats and helmets. Companies like Red Heart Yarn printed booklets of military-approved patterns like Knit for Defense and Knit for Victory for garments that could be knit in either olive drab or navy blue, useful for any branch of the service.
Above: A few of the many knitting instruction booklets created for the war effort
The Red Cross knitters — perhaps unsurprisingly given their overall mission — even created medical supplies. They knitted stretchy bandages from cotton yarn that were sterilized and used in the field. They knitted covers for stumps in both arm and leg size. They knitted toe covers to fit over the ends of casts. Soldiers were even given knitting needles themselves as they laid in hospitals recovering from wounds or illness, both to aid the war effort and for a kind of occupational therapy, to give them something constructive to focus their energies upon.
Above: The use of knitting as occupational therapy dates to WWI.
The knitting groups turned out a prodigious amount of clothing and other items for the war effort. One group alone, called the Three Tree Point Knitters — only 30 women strong — within the span of 3 months turned out 244 knitted garments representing 4290 work hours. Imagine that kind of effort, nationwide, for the span of years. Many women became “specialists”, memorizing a single pattern and making it again and again so they could turn out as many items as quickly as possible.
Above: More knitting booklets for the women left behind who wanted their men to be “one of the lucky ones”.
The entertainment industry got into the act, producing huge amounts of pro-knitting propaganda, including a surprising amount of knitting-themed sheet music, comic books, and even a movie called Mr. Lucky, which came out in 1943 and featured Cary Grant trying to learn to knit!
Above: A movie poster and still shot from Mr. Lucky, featuring Cary Grant and knitting
The nationwide knitting effort went all the way to the top. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, called Knitter-in-Chief, was a prodigious knitter, and was rarely seen sitting idle without some sort of handiwork in her lap to work on while she went about her business. She was known to produce war work, mentioning her wartime efforts in her autobiography. There are several pictures that survive of Mrs. Roosevelt knitting on planes, in meetings, even at the beach. Her knitting patterns, most of which were handwritten, still survive in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, NY.
Above: Two of many photos of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt knitting.
Knitting even helped Allied spies pass messages along. British spy Phyllis Latour Doyle parachuted into occupied Normandy to gather intellegence ahead of D-Day, and her weapon of choice was a pair of knitting needles. Using a piece of silk that contained her codes (easily hidden by wrapping it around a knitting needle, as if it was an innocent ribbon meant to adorn a future sweater) and knitting to hide her activities, she passed along 135 messages to the Allies about Nazi troop positions used to plan the assault on Normandy and later aiding in the subsequent liberation of France. Other women used knitting more directly, passing along messages in the pattern of the stitches. The Belgian resistance frequently used courageous older women as spies, tracking the passing of trains and recording them in their knitting.
Above: Knitting helped to disguise espionage behind enemy lines, even aiding in the invasion of Normandy.
The Germans were likely aware of this possibility, as evidenced from the line in the song The Pretty Little Mitt That Kitty Knit: “The Nazi agents sent it to Der Fuhrer, and he threw a fit, for he thought there was a trap or a secret code or a map in the Pretty Little Mitt That Kitty Knit”.
When we think of war, we think of battlefields, of self-sacrifice, of big sweeping acts of heroism…as well we should. But wars are fought and won by the actions of many -- those on the front lines, certainly, but also those millions of nameless, faceless individuals who simply did their bit to help support those in the trenches.
Let’s remember those humble folks at home who picked up their needles and balls of wool and helped keep heroes warm and dry in places that were cold and snowy. They may not have served in the same way, but they helped win the war in their own small way by knitting their bit.
Above: This cartoon by Bill Mauldin illustrates perfectly why it was so important for those on the homefront to keep their fellas supplied with socks.
This piece was originally published in The Star, the newsletter of the American WWII Orphans Network