Sew What?

"Pick up your knitting whenever you’re sitting": Knitting for Victory in WWI and WWII

October 15, 2020 Isabella Rosner
Sew What?
"Pick up your knitting whenever you’re sitting": Knitting for Victory in WWI and WWII
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, Isabella discusses knitting for victory in the US during WWI and WWII. This episode has everything from sock trivia to knitting propaganda songs.

Whatsup stitches!! Welcome to episode 23, another GREAT prime number. I hope that, if you’re listening to this episode around the time it comes out, you’re having a great spooky season. And I hope if you’re coming to this episode a few months or even years later, then you’re having a really nice whatever season it is for you. This episode is about Americans knitting for victory in World War I and II. Knitting!! In the 20th century!! An exciting tale of needlework awaits!! As always, images of what I discuss today are on the Sew What social media pages. I think you’re probably saying those words with me at this point. A fun thing is that images this week are a mix of extant objects and images and advertising from the period. So fun!! Anyhoo, onto the episode!  

So, knitting for victory. It happened all over, in many different countries, during the two world wars, but I’m focusing on the knitting that happened in the US because 1. I am an American and 2. It’s the knitting situation I know most about. I know most about it thanks to good ol’ Paula Becker who wrote two fabulous articles about knitting during the world wars on like 16 years ago so shout out to her!! 

So basically, during World War I the US government asked Americans of all ages to knit things for soldiers at home and abroad. Americans were asked to stitch wool socks, jumpers, gloves, and other warm garments. That volunteer effort was organised by the American Red Cross and in the one year and 7 months the US was actually involved in the war, Americans produced millions of knitted items for the war effort. In the summer of 1917 the Red Cross announced the soldiers immediately needed 1.5 million knitted wristlets, mufflers, jumpers, and pairs of socks. That’s 1.5 million each. 1.5 million wristlets!! 3 million socks!! That’s a lot of knitted stuff. Now, I’m gonna come at you with more numbers right now. According to Rebecca Keyel, who did a PhD on American women’s volunteer work during the First and Second World Wars, the Red Cross gathered 23,328,831 finished knit items for servicemen by American Red Cross Volunteers. That is so many knit things!! The Red Cross determined that the cost of yarn for a “full kit of knitted goods” for ONE sailor was $3, which is so much considering that it was estimated that one hour of hand knitting equalled 15 cents. The estimated value of the Red Cross knitted donations calculated using the estimated hourly wage and cost of materials is $41,858,274.72. That’s in Edwardian money!! That 1917 money in 2020 money is…wait for it… $849,978,050.68. And this is not me making these numbers up!! Rebecca Keyel did all the math on this for her PhD! Oh my gosh. Okay, now back to the objects.

 The millions and millions of socks were the most important things. The soldiers’ boots were fairly water-repellent but they ripped at the seams like nobody’s business so there were millions upon millions of cold, wet feet and toesies that needed to be kept warm. And that was just the 1917 boot edition. In 1918, boots had an extra sole but no insulation so once more, freezing feet!! So yes, socks!! So many pairs. Infinite pairs. 

But not just socks!! Soldiers also needed wool hats and vests and chest covers and fingerless gloves. And things called stump socks to cover amputated limbs. The Red Cross published patterns and sold yarn as well as collecting finished goods and shipping them to Europe.  

Weirdly enough, the motto for all the knitting for victory stuff was “Knit for Sammie!” which sounds very cute, right? So it turns out that American soldiers were called Sammies, which was short for Uncle Sam, hence knit for sammie. Low key out here wishing the motto was knit for doughboy because doughboy was a nickname for an American soldier which dates to the Civil War. Union soldiers wore brass buttons on the coats of their uniforms and they resembled boiled dumplings called doughboys. That is so delightful to me I will be tickled by that forever.  

Knitting for victory was a very social activity. Men and women of all ages stitched in school, in religious groups, at work, on public transportation, and just about everywhere. There are images of tiny lil boys knitting while standing in the halls of schools, all dressed up in their tiny ties and the cutest knickerbockers. So charming!! So wholesome!! People got INTO knitting, clearly, and some daring knitters followed what The Delineator magazine suggested – knitting two socks at once, one inside of the other. 

 Also, also, a brief note about the actual appearance of these WWI socks. They were, as you can imagine, pretty plain. They were made of plain coloured wool in like grey and black and forest green and other similar not thrilling colours because why would the socks need to be exciting colours anyway? They were purely practical and it was cheapest and easiest to produce boring wool colours. So yes, not an aesthetic thrill. There were occasionally some striped examples, which is pretty cool! 

The people who couldn’t knit were encouraged to purchase yarn for those who could. One of my favourite funds I’ve read about was the Old Ladies’ Knitting Fund in Seattle, Washington. That name does NOT beat around the bush. The fund was first established because there were lil old ladies who were anxious to knit for the Red Cross, but couldn’t afford to pay 75 cents for the initial allotment of the yarn. So the fund was started and now those elderly cuties were able to pick up yarn for free and then knit up a storm. Also ALSO the longshoremen of the Great Northern docks were the first group to donate to the Old Ladies’ Knitting Fund and I am obsessed because old women and longshoremen are the duo I didn’t know I so desperately needed.

There were so many different groups of knitters who got together to stitch, which I love to see! School children, men and women from all different racial and ethnic and religious backgrounds, etc etc. Across the country, African American women created organisations to knit exclusively for Black soldiers and to provide them with encouraging letters and care packages. Black soldiers were, sadly unsurprisingly, really discriminated against, so these care packages full of knit goods and encouraging words were really important in the face of straight up racism. Not that the goodness of knit goods make up for the badness of racism and discrimination. They don’t, obviously. But the knit stuff of WWI was a good time and was indeed very useful.

 There are some really good WWI-era knitting songs and poems and they are such a wholesome delight so I’m going to read you two. Here goes:

 Johnnie, get your yarn, get your yarn, get your yarn;
 Knitting has a charm, has a charm, has a charm,
 See us knitting two by two,
 Boys in Seattle like it too.
 Hurry every day, don’t delay, make it pay.
 Our laddies must be warm, not forlorn mid the storm.
 Hear them call from o’re the sea,
 ‘Make a sweater, please for me.’
 Over here everywhere,
 We are knitting for the boys over there,
 It’s a sock or a sweater, or even better
 To do your bit and knit a square.


 Do you belong to the wool brigade?
 If not, then come along.
 Mothers, wives and maidens
 Make this Army strong.

Gray Wool is our ammunition;
 Some make it into balls
 Pass them to the knitting squad;
 They will soon use them all.

For this is no time to be idle
 And sit with folded hands
 Pick up your knitting whenever you’re sitting.
 A sock soon grows under your hand.

Hark! I hear the bugle call.
 Somebody wants another ball.

I really wanted to put these to a beat and I did try to lightly rap them to my boyfriend but that did not work out AT ALL so you’ll just have to envision your own rhythm. But yes, so cute right?? Extremely wholesome and encouraging and fun and flirty and only occasionally arrhythmic. 

 Less wholesome but deeply unsurprising was the very intense propaganda part of the whole patriotic knitting situation. It’s inevitable, of course. The American Red Cross published a booklet called 100 Lies of the Hun, all about lies told by Germans, and which contained 11 “lies” about knitting. These included tales of the American Red Cross selling donated knitted items and throwing away socks after being only slightly worn. All of this propaganda was SUPER effective and it was partially because of this that knitting in public, which I mentioned earlier, became so popular. Karen C. K. Ballard wrote about knitting for victory in a blog post for the Center for Knit and Crochet and she wrote this: “Knitting in public became not only acceptable, but expected... It was a patriotic obsession.  So much so, that towards the end of the war, wool reserves were running low, however at that time the need for socks had grown critical.  Clean, dry, hole-less socks were imperative to prevent trench-foot, frost-bite, and blisters.  Knitters were told to discontinue knitting all other items and to devote all their spare time to knitting socks using any appropriately-colored wool they could muster.  Magazines published articles about Italian women who had been employed to darn worn socks to help meet the need.” So not only did knitting help those fighting overseas, but also those at home. Helping good. Propaganda less good but also necessary for keeping up morale I guess? I don’t know, this isn’t a podcast that deals with the nuances of the use of propaganda. 

 What this podcast DOES deal with is needlework, though, so let me go over some of the knitting stitches used to make these WWI knitted goods. This information is thanks to, which is literally like the perfect accompaniment to this podcast episode. I’m gonna focus just a few items, because if I looked at all of them I’d be here all day. The Red Cross scarves used the basic garter stitch but you could make it fancier if you wanted to, using diagonal, single brioche, cardigan, double brioche, or triangle stitches. Fancy!! The knitted socks were pretty basic with a heel and ribbed top and all that good stuff and sometimes they were ribbed all over. But then there were also hospital bed socks. They were made without a heel and were designed to be worn by convalescing soldiers. Then there are the puttee stockings which are like leg warmers. Cute! Fun! There are also socks…but longer. Those included seaman’s stockings and trench stockings. Trench stockings were often worn under rubber boots and are HECKIN lengthy. And finally, there are mufflers which fold into caps. And SO many knit helmet hat things. So many!!! Along with all that, there were knit vests and sweaters and caps and gloves and wristlets and body belts and pillow covers and washcloths and basically everything else you could think of. Most of them were made with just simple knitting stitches so anyone who knew that one stitch could make stuff. No purl knowledge necessary. 

 So yes, that’s knitting for victory in WWI! It’s basically a tale of socks and poems that just about rhyme. The war ends on 11 November 1918 and knitting for victory ends, right? Wrong. Because there another big ol’ war just over two decades later. That’s right, it’s time to shift from knitting for victory in WWI to knitting for victory in WWII. Knitting for victory, the sequel.

 So here we are, back again knitting for American soldiers abroad. Many of the people who were knitting for victory in WWII did the same thing as children or younger adults in WWI. America entered WWII after Pearl Harbor was bombed on 7 December 1941 so the knitting started in earnest then, but before that, Americans were knitting and preparing care packages for those in allied countries in Europe. Those included “Bundles for Britain” to help besieged Londoners and the care packages made by groups like the American-French War Relief, Finnish Relief, Polish Women’s Relief Committee, and A Bit for Belgium. Cross continental friendship and comradery via knit goods! Wholesome. 

 So yeah, everyone was getting in on knitting AGAIN. A quote from Time magazine on 21 July 1940 reads, “The men hardly have time to grab their guns before their wives and sweethearts grab their needles and yarn.” It was knitting time, friends and fam. Enthusiasm for patriotic knitting was furthered by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was often photographed knitting or with her knitting bag in tow. In this war, people were like, “Why should these supplies be knit by hand?” Don’t we have machines for that??” and the answer was yes BUT hand knitting cost the military nothing and didn’t wear down machines and often lasted longer than machine-knit stuff. But also morale!! Knitting let people who were on the home front feel like they had an active part in the war effort. 

 And like in the previous war, the American Red Cross oversaw the knitting for victory efforts during WWII. The Red Cross was designated the single clearing agency for all knitting and had priority status for receiving wool. Wool monopoly!! In some areas, the Red Cross trained people to spin yarn from wool because it was cheaper than buying wool. The Red Cross supplied patterns for sweaters, socks, mufflers, fingerless mittens, toe covers (for those wearing casts), stump covers, and other knitted goodies. The items were to be made from olive or navy blue yarn and each piece had to be completed with a label indicating which chapter of the Red Cross it was from. As you can see, the system was a bit more formalised in WWII than it was in WWI. An item that was made a lot in WWII that wasn’t made in the previous war was the 15-30 foot stretch bandage. They were made with cotton yarn instead of wool and were made in entirely garter stitch. The finished bandages were sterilised and shipped to medical units all over the place. 

 And like last time, the number one knitting project was socks. Socks wore out quickly and needed to be changed often. The need for socks was so intense that American prisoners of war unravelled their Red Cross sweaters and reknit the yarn into socks, using pointed barbed wire as needles. Which like ouch and yikes!! The sock need was clearly so, so real. But this time around, machine-knit wool socks supplemented the hand made ones. 

 Karen C.K. Ballard of the Center for Knit and Crochet also wrote about knitting for victory in WWII and the information she shares is really interesting, so I’m going to read it to you all. Here it is: “During, WWII posters, sheet music, comics, and booklet/magazine images depicting and lauding knitters remained popular although postcards, poetry and plays became less popular.  At least one movie featured wartime knitters, most notably: “Mr. Lucky” 1943 with Cary Grant attempting to learn to knit…Additionally there were sewing patterns produced by all major pattern companies not only for knitting bags and knitting needle holders; but for ARC uniforms, victory dresses, and victory aprons that one could proudly wear to knitting parties.  And there were crochet patterns for brooches featuring miniature Navy hats complete with miniature knitting needles which were sold by Susan Bates through McCall Needlework magazine, specifically for the purpose of making patriotic brooches.” 

 So yeah, the knitting propaganda we saw in the first world war carried on through the second world war, too. As did the knitting-themed propaganda songs. There one Canadian song called “The Pretty Little Mitt that Kitty Knit.” I’m gonna read it all because it is WILD and hilarious. Here goes: 

 “We've been hearing quite a lot of propaganda. And it is such a funny war you must admit.
 Tho' there's lots you can't believe, I've the story up my sleeve, of the Pretty Little Mitt that Kitty knit.
 With her needles keeping time to Tipperary. She determined she would do her little bit.
 Some may fight their way to fame, Kitty made it just the same with the Pretty Little Mitt that Kitty knit.
 She started on a sock but she kind a lost her nerve, Shock followed sock, for she couldn't make the curve,
 all tangled up in the Red and White and Blue, She tried to knit on the back of it a cheery 'How are you?'
 Then she wrapped it up and sent it to the soldiers, But they found that they had nothing it would fit,
 Stuff'd it down a blink-in gun, shot it over to the Hun, Oh! the Pretty Little Mitt that Kitty knit.
 Then the Nazi Agents sent it to Der Fuehrer. When he looked at it he nearly threw a fit,
 For he tho't there was a trap or a secret code or map in the Pretty Little Mitt that Kitty knit.
 So Der Fuehrer summon'd all his mighty war lords, but they didn't like the look of it a bit.
 For they couldn't find the clue to the Red and White and Blue, In the Pretty Little Mitt that Kitty knit.
 And then Der Fuehrer cried 'Never saw the like before, I'd let it ride, but it's such a funny war.
 Move after move I've been happy to predict. Now I confess that I've miss'd a guess, I'm absolutely licked.'
 Then he packed it with a letter off to Blighty, Stating briefly he was quite prepared to quit.
 Now revered by one and all, on the Foreign Office Wall, hangs the Pretty Little Mitt that Kitty knit.”

 I’m putting a link to the actual song across the Sew What social media pages because it is…very 1940s. It’s very jaunty, if nothing else. And it REALLY shows how present knitting propaganda was. 

 So what were the WWII knit goods actually like? I again refer to, which owns my life and soul at this point. We’ve got caps and ear muffs and cosy balaclavas which I shouldn’t find funny but absolutely do because they make the WWII soldier models look a bit like medieval knights in chain mail. Putting the knit in knight, right? Heh. Okay, onwards. We’ve got basic WWII sweater vests and V neck sweater vests and full on sweaters (or jumpers, if you want). There are so many different kinds of sweaters one could make – v neck! Turtle neck! Round neck! Pullover! Heavy cardigan! The list goes on and on. And we’ve got fingerless gloves and mittens and full on gloves and mittens. And scarves! In garter or brioche stitch. Such fun! When it comes to socks, it looks like the heelless hospital bed socks are out. Heeled socks are in. And they are as drab yet cosy looking as ever. And here’s something the WWI knits never had – patterns for women! People could stitch sweaters and other bits and bobs for gals in the women’s land army, in the US or Britain or wherever else, really. Festive!!

 After WWII ended, people didn’t necessarily put down their knitting needles. They just, very understandably, moved toward brighter colours and bolder prints. Drab olive and navy blue were replaced by argyles in really zany colours. Yay argyles, yay zany colours. 

 So that was a whistle stop tour of knitting for victory in the first and second world wars. It’s something I didn’t really think about or know a lot about before this podcast, so shout out to the pod for broadening my textile horizons as well as yours, hopefully! I find the connection between needlework and patriotism really interesting. The soldiers needed stuff so it made sense for those at home to knit for them, but I think patriotic knitting is part of a much larger trend of stitching as a way to show patriotism. The first example that comes to mind when I say that is really obvious – it’s Betsy Ross stitching what became the American flag after the Revolutionary War. The second example is less obvious and also not American. It’s British flag bunting and it’s popularity in Britain and beyond. I say that because my embarrassing teenage self had plastic British flag bunting hung in her room for years. But real bunting is made of stitched fabric. And that’s the stuff I think is the “typical” British flag bunting. It’s just interesting that this stitched object has come to represent quintessential “Britishness.” Like when it’s summertime and you go into Marks and Spencer’s and they’re selling British strawberries in their own display area and that area has a bunch of British flag bunting. I literally remember where I was when I first saw that exact thing – 2013 in Ealing, London. See? That kind of thing sticks with you. It’s just so fascinating that this needleworked thing has become deeply, intimately associated with “Britishness.” So that connection between patriotism and needlework is not just present in knitting and not just in the US and not just during wartime. That desire to like support your country or represent pride in it using your hands is universal, it seems. And that’s so interesting!! And something I’m really excited to think more about – I hope you are too. 

 So thanks for joining me on this journey today! Today’s episode is the last one of the season where it’s just me speaking about something – the last two are interviews. So get excited about that! I am very enthused. Like always, thanks for listening!! Be sure to rate and review Sew What if you haven’t already and if you wanna. I’d SO (ha, get it?) appreciate your support. 

 Also, before I go, my podcast tone is light but obviously war is very very bad and this is not me making light of it. War is bad!! Knitting is often good!! Now go out and stitch some stories and go donate to the Red Cross or any organisation of your choosing. Bye!!