Knitting For Victory

My 1917 “Knit Sweater of Angorina” is finally complete! But, you’ll have to wait until my official HSF post to see it. In the meantime, I want to share a little bit of history that relates to knitting in WWI and, by extension, my new sweater.

World War I Red Cross poster encouraging knitting, ca. 1917

World War I started on July 28, 1914 and ended on November 11, 1918. The US entered the war on April 6, 1917. After the US joined the war, it didn’t take long before conditions in the trenches prompted the Red Cross to put out an urgent call for knitted goods for soldiers in the summer of 1917. Their immediate need was for one and a half million each of knitted wristlets, mufflers, sweaters, and pairs of socks. That’s a lot of knitting!

This section is quoted directly from essay 5721:

The need for the socks was paramount: The trench warfare conditions under which the war was fought meant that soldiers spent weeks or months entrenched in wet and in winter freezing conditions.

For American soldiers in the trenches or on the march in France, warm socks made all the difference. The boots these soldiers wore (the 1917 Trench Boot) were made of heavy retanned cowhide with thick soles. Although in theory water-repellant, the boots ripped out at the seams fairly quickly. They had iron heels and five rows of hobnails (to prevent slipping) hammered into the soles. These hobnails conducted the cold from the frozen ground directly to the soldiers’ feet.

An improved version (1918) called the Pershing Boot added an extra sole and thus extra warmth, but a soldier could not bend his foot in the rigid boot and his feet remained cold, sore, and often wet. These boots were not insulated in any way, and soldiers took to wearing two pairs of thick wool sock. This required them to wear boots two sizes larger than their regular size. Allowing for wear and tear and the prudent practice of changing socks often in order to avoid contracting trench foot (a fungus), the need for a continuous supply of warm wool socks was endless.

As you would expect, not everyone could knit very well, so the quality of knitted goods being sent overseas varied, but a sock is a sock, even with dropped stitches and other mistakes, and it will still keep a foot warm! In support of the war effort, people began knitting everywhere: work, school, while on public transportation, at church… People who couldn’t knit were encouraged to buy yarn for those who could, and children were encouraged to do whatever they could to help their family members have time to knit. Personal knitting was looked down upon for being selfish, because it didn’t support the war effort or the soldiers.

This section is quoted directly from essay 5721:

By mid-1918 the need for socks was so severe that the Red Cross begged knitters, “Don’t make sweaters … every pound of yarn that can be secured should be used for knitting socks” (quoted in MacDonald, 218). Some knitters conserved wool by using cotton yarn for the legs and wool for the feet. Wool was the best fiber for moisture absorption. Other knitters, stymied by the somewhat complicated mystique of turning the heel (i.e. knitting a heel flap and then picking up stitches along its sides to knit a gusset, forming the heel-shaped portion of the sock) began knitting heel-less tube socks. These drew praise from soldiers because they were more comfortable than socks with lumpy, poorly made heels.

The Seattle Red Cross operated a knitting machine that produced long knitted tubes. The tubes were cut into 27-inch lengths and the toes purled together by hand. “When the knitting machine is once ‘set up’ with gray yarn, it knits and knits and knits.” (The Seattle Times, December 2, 1917)

In September 1918, all American yarn retailers were ordered by the War Industries Board to turn over their stock of service yarn (any yarn in khaki, gray, heather, natural or white) to the Red Cross. For the next six weeks all yarn for war-effort knitting was available only through the Red Cross. This was done to ease the yarn shortage and to allow Red Cross knitting to continue uninterrupted. 

…The so-called War To End All Wars ended on November 11, 1918, when Germany surrendered. In the war’s final months, the American Red Cross turned its attention to the devastating 1918 influenza pandemic… Many [knitters] foreswore gray and khaki yarn for good, or so they thought. These same knitters would be the first to pick up their needles in December 1941, to once more “knit for victory.”

Quite an interesting bit of history, I think. Given this information, I can confidently say that my sweater would have been knit early in 1917, before the US joined the war. I encourage you to click through to to read the entire article I’ve quoted here. It focuses on knitters in the Seattle, Washington area, but I’m sure reflects what other areas would have been like as well.

4 thoughts on “Knitting For Victory

  1. Hello Quinn!

    What a great amount of fun information you have collected here! I love reading about “real life” things like this! I so cannot wait to see your creation!! Hurry HSF!!!



  2. This is interesting. My grandmother just told me last week that her and her sister knit socks during World War II. Apparently everyone did it. Now I want to learn to knit socks. I must say, that tube sock sounds promising… and easy…


    1. Neat! I’m glad you picked up on the tube sock. I thought it was a funny bit of information, especially that the soldiers preferred those socks to badly made heeled ones! I imagine a tube would be easy.

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