Knit your bit!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

On the centenary of The Great War, Abi Cox considers the importance of knitting and stitching on the Home Front.

A hundred years ago this month, the first shots were fired of a war that changed the course of Europe’s history irrevocably. With the Red Cross, the BBC and the Imperial War Museum celebrating the brave souls who gave their lives for their country this year, the horror and heartbreak of the front line is widely documented and mourned. But how is the Great War centenary relevant to our world of craft? Many of the women left at home turned to sewing and knitting to show their patriotism and send their love to the front. They turned to this task with great fervor: sending bundle after bundle of 'cosies' to the soldiers abroad, organising sewing circles and endless yarn gathering! Mere hours after the official declaration of war, social and philanthropic organisations all across the land offered their help. Women simply responded to the crisis in any way they could, utilising the skills they had acquired during peacetime; be it raising money, running charities or knitting, sewing and cooking.

Sewingmachine (1)


In 1914, the London Needlework Guild was rechristened the Queen Mary's Needlework Guild, revealing the importance that was placed on these voluntary groups from the start. The Guild worked as part of the war hospital supply depot; over the course of the war they created over 15.5 million articles of clothing and surgical equipment. Contending with severe rationing and huge demand, this was the pinnacle of upcycling: for instance, they cut some 3 million eyepieces for gas masks out of cinema film when the German gas threat emerged. Another group of volunteers, for Lady Smith-Dorrien’s Hospital Bag Fund sewed nearly 60,000 colourful purses a month for patients’ valuables while they were in holding stations and field hospitals. The craze for civilian knitting was also born from this period. Just as now we have yarn bombing and guerrilla knitting, the British public left on the home front saw this as their moment to knit for a cause. The resulting garments (gloves, socks and balaclavas) were seen to fortify the soldiers against harsh weather conditions and a hostile enemy. Jane Tynan, Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at University of the Arts London says, “Handmade knits comforted the body and soul on the western front.” This was the driving force behind the mass-knitting project of WW1. This active concern for the soldiers abroad highlighted shortcomings in military planning; the home knitters contributions were immediately necessary to keep the men clothed, as the official outfitters were unable to keep up with the demand from the home front. “When the passion to knit comforts brimmed over, it threatened to become an anti-establishment protest” Jane explains; the sheer scale of this civilian enthusiasm gave wartime knitting ‘political potential’, not unlike many craft projects today.

Red Cross

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington

What started as a handful of individual’s response to clothing shortages turned into a frenzy; Jane explains that “wartime knitting was not timid. It made the government very nervous about the quirky, un-military garments reaching soldiers on the front.” There was such anxiety over these rogue knitters and over-production that knitting patterns were issued to regulate domestic production. Women were warned to use only khaki wools and stick to a prescribed set of garments, including a knitted or crochet balaclava helmet, bed socks, a sleeveless jersey and mittens. One pattern issued, in response to the lack of understanding shown by army and government alike, was The Kitchener Stitch. Lord Kitchener produced this pattern to combat sock seams, which had become a dire problem in the trenches as they rubbed the soldiers toes until they bled. This revised pattern finished off the sock smoothly, giving the soldiers a more comfortable boot lining. It wasn’t just the knitters who were given strict guidelines: in September 1915, the numerous voluntary organisations were drawn together under the office of the Director General of Voluntary Organisations (DGVO), which provided coordination and sewing rules. Specific patterns and instructions were given to the Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild, to ensure military standards, which brought an end to mismatched, non-regulation garments. Working parties, set up by the British Red Cross, worked tirelessly making essential hospital equipment including bandages and swabs, as well as the tonnes of clothes needed for soldiers, patients, refugees and prisoners. Some of these working parties may have been making pyjamas like the ones seen in BBC One’s VAD drama, The Crimson Field. Ros Little, the programme’s costume designer, used original sewing patterns from the Red Cross archives and basic flannel fabrics. During the war volunteers in the Central Work Rooms in London would have made these pyjamas, along with the patients’ dressing gowns, the surgeons’ gowns and hot water bottle covers. Lent to the Red Cross by The Royal Academy, these rooms were large enough to hold over 1,200 women, knitting, stitching and sewing for the hospital workers and patients, producing 705,500 bandages and over 75,000 garments. The fabrics used were greatly affected by rationing: they regularly worked with flannels and sheep’s wool, but often turned to dog’s wool made from long-haired breeds like Pomeranians and Pekinese.


British Red Cross Archives

Undoubtedly, the creative endeavours were a practical outpouring of love for the men on the front, giving the knitters and sewing a link to their menfolk. However, alongside this, Jane Tynan believes; “crafting such personal items also meant contemplating fear and loss,” something the authorities strived hard to replace with feelings of satisfaction and involvement. Thus, the grand scale crafting effort became a frequent motif in the propaganda of the time: Jane describes “images of women furiously knitting socks,” all of which suggested labours of love and duty. In order to generate feelings of patriotism throughout the civilian population, the Knit Your Bit movement was created. It was widely circulated that socks prevented Trench Foot, and thus amputation, so knitting socks was seen as a highly noble past time. So much so, that a young Canadian girl, Nora Pennington, won the district record for the number of socks, mufflers, mittens and balaclavas knitted by anyone under the age of 13. Her story was sent all over the British Colonies under the headline ‘Little Nora Does Her Bit’, whilst the American Red Cross produced poster after poster of motherly women with the words ‘Our Boys Need Sox!’ emblazoned across the bottom. Along with imagery, poetry and song was a popular tool in the propaganda machine, and many lyricists turned their hand to craft-inspired rhymes. Jessie Pope, famous for her patriotic poetry, penned this poem in 1915: 

Wonder if he’s fighting now

What he’s done an’ where he’s been

He’ll come out on top, somehow –

Slip 1, knit 2, purl 14.

Whilst the propaganda celebrated the traditional social structures of the home, the reality was far different as more and more women were called up to work in munitions factories or followed the men to France in stiffly starched nurses uniforms. However, the scale of involvement in the Knit Your Bit movement began to soothe some of the damage caused by mass recruitment.


Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington

Today, we see similar movements springing up in the face of crisis: back in 2011, Skeinz, a yarn store in New Zealand, put out a world-wide cry for little knits for penguins affected by the oil-spill, and Project Linus (named after the character from Snoopy who could not be without his blanket!), which collects home-made blankets, and organises sewing sessions in aid of terminally ill children. Although much is written about women’s changing roles throughout the war, little importance seems to be placed on these voluntary work groups and sewing circles. The sheer number of mothers and daughters, sisters and grandmothers who donated their time and devotion to the cause is staggering. As Jane points out, the first garments filtering through to the front preceded the military regulations, and “must have looked absurd on soldiers.” However, the vast range and amount of items “reflected the surge in volunteerism and constituted the most intimate bonds between home and battlefront.” The final product was not what mattered; it was the act of directly helping a loved one far from home. So, in the midst of the centenary, spare a thought for the brave women who stitched and knitted long into the nights, waiting for their boys to come home.


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