Knit Your Bit: Arm Yourselves With Knitting Needles, Friends of Rutherford House!


The Rutherford House is commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the First World War through programming relating to the Home Front. To that end, just as women and children at home were urged to knit their bit for the war effort, their costumed historical interpreters are beginning to knit projects from wartime patterns. They’re also encouraging the public to do the same! I’m told that your work will actually be displayed at the historic site come November. So pick up your knitting needles and start knitting!

As an avid sock knitter (not a phrase you hear everyday, I know), I decided to use a sock pattern from this British Red Cross book of sewing and knitting patterns needed for hospitals (see also below). I intend to create a “normal” pair of socks and a mismatched pair of amputation sleeves – in essence, socks without heels for stumps.

Needlework and Knitting Instructions for First World War volunteers, page 17.
Needlework and Knitting Instructions for First World War Volunteers, page 17.

While sock patterns may look intimidating to some people now – especially if you knit with four or five double-pointed needles – they were in fact considered a beginner’s project over a century ago. Everyone needs socks – not everyone needs scarves – and even if the project ends up being fairly ugly or misshapen, you can generally find someone that they’ll fit, and they’re hidden in one’s shoes and are still a functioning garment. (Not so with scarves, which are on display.) They are also small, manageable projects with a clear beginning, middle, and end – not endurance runs like scarves. Socks are also incredibly useful to the war effort; clean socks helped to prevent trench foot.

Here is a small gallery of images showing the step-by-step process of knitting the first of the pair. Having a visual sense of how socks are supposed to be made may help you decipher the pattern above:

The patterns are very standardized. They occasionally offer larger or smaller options while urging knitters and seamstresses to make more of the items that would fit the most people. These instructions were meant to be simple and quick to follow; there wasn’t any time for complicated patterns if you’re trying to churn out as many pieces as possible for the war effort. (Sorry, no lace edging for these socks, or cables on the sweaters!) In the words of the introduction to the pattern book above: “A committee of the British Red Cross Society beg to inform the Public that all the patterns illustrated and described in this book have been designed to combine accuracy of fit with the least possible amount of work.” (Emphasis added.)

If you’re a beginner knitter, I’m sure that there are plenty of patterns you could try to push your effort. Already a sock knitter? Why not try gloves – or fingerless gloves? Just learned how to do decreases and increases and looking to try them out? There’s a simple pattern for a knitted cummerbund! Like knitting baby caps? There’s a toq pattern in there! (Okay, they call it a “knitted cap” but it’s probably about the same.) Advanced enough to be a sweater knitter already? Why not try their cardigan! Scarf knitter? Why not try this scarf… hat… thing…? Just for the novelty? Go forth and knit your bit!

Hey, it might have saved a life! Stranger things have happened. From the Needlework and Knitting Instructions for First World War Volunteers. page 23.

Post-script: this isn’t the first time I have blogged about knitting and the Great War: click here for a photograph of a knitting nurse (and more rambling on the subject)!


5 thoughts on “Knit Your Bit: Arm Yourselves With Knitting Needles, Friends of Rutherford House!

  1. I wonder… knitting machines were invented decades before the war, and they were available in Canada, including on the prairies. I’ve seen a couple in the Smoky Lake museum. It must have been much faster to churn out socks in a factory than to have novices do them one at a time by hand. So, how valuable do you think volunteer knitters were to the war effort?

    I suspect that there’s some psychological benefit to having high participation in a national effort – victory gardens, scrap drives, aircraft spotting guides, and “loose lips” campaigns make people feel like they’re part of the war, which might bolster morale and make people more accepting of larger contributions, like rationing, war bonds and enlistment. Soldiers might also like to know that the people back home care about them, and they’re not just getting their socks from the lowest bidder.

    Great post, as usual.

    1. I think that you have a point regarding the psychology effects of wartime knitting – the sense of actually being able to do something.

      Then again, you have to wonder (and I’m speculating here) – would companies that machine knit socks create the product that the knitters would have (i.e., thick, wooly socks and not thinner everyday socks)? And would the owners of those machines be willing to donate such items en-masse to the war effort? If volunteers are willing to send these products in for free… I think that the sewing patterns in the booklet I cited, too, may not have items that were mass-produced, like the operation smocks. You can mass-produce fabric, but the piece-work sewing them together still needs to be done.

      It’s all very interesting to think about!

      Also, thank you so very much for passing that link along! Those machines look fascinating!

    2. Christine

      I actually just read about that in a book from the library recently. (I think it was Knitalong : celebrating the tradition of knitting together / Larissa Brown and Martin John Brown ; photography by Michael Crouser.) It says that there were complaints from manufacturers that the hand knitters were getting the yarn that they could have more quickly turned into better items.

      As a general thing, I find it fascinating to see how little sock patterns have changed. I’m used to vintage patterns being a bit tricky to figure out, but this is almost like a modern one (barring the lack of tension of course).

      1. Thank you for passing along that book title! I’ll have to check it out. I would love to learn more about the history of knitting beyond the First World War – particularly a social history that takes into account its socio-cultural role. :)

  2. Pingback: Knitting History | knitthestash2014

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