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Posted: March 12, 2017

Knitting for Victory in wartime

By Elinor Florence

Sweater and helmet pattern.

Knitting was more than a hobby in wartime – it was an act of patriotism. Literally millions of women, children and even men used their knitting needles as weapons of war. If you weren’t a knitter, you might as well have been a Nazi!

Countless knitted items were created and sent to the Allied forces in the Second World War. And they were put to good use, especially in the days before synthetic fabrics.

To prevent a ghastly condition called trench foot, which could cause amputation or even death, armies needed frequent changes of dry socks, and that required a LOT of socks. Not only socks but sweaters, vests, gloves, balaclavas and scarves were produced by the ton.

Service Woollies pattern.

Although it doesn’t say so on the cover, this book of patterns for Service Woollies contains everything from steel helmet caps to something called “Amputation Covers,” a chilling reminder of the hideous wounds being treated in hospitals overseas.

Our sailors in the North Atlantic were especially vulnerable, and they needed special sea boot stockings worn over the socks and inside their long leather sea boots. The cuff of the stocking was folded over the top of the boot.

To the right is an ad from my favourite wartime magazine, The Star Weekly, showing what items were especially appreciated by sailors.

Members of the air force, of course, needed extra layers for those long, cold bombing runs over Europe in aircraft where the temperatures dropped below freezing.

This airman in the photo at the top looks particularly dashing in a sweater with a built-in wool helmet. (My RCAF veteran father Douglas Florence told me that if you were allergic to wool, as he was, you suffered in silence. He spent his entire service career scratching!)

Servicewomen, too, liked to keep warm while they looked their best in natty fitted sweaters and cute caps. There’s even a one-piece woollen teddy!

In case you feel moved to imitate those dauntless knitters, here’s a pattern for Service Socks issued by a company in Listowel, Ontario.

So who were all these knitters? Practically everyone.

Those were stressful times for the folks on the home front, and knitting was a great way to relieve the anxiety of waiting for a letter from your loved one, the fear that – heaven forbid – the war might go on for another ten years, or even worse, the horrifying concept that our side would lose!

This patriotic American poster uses a play on words to remind people that knitting was one way to defeat the enemy!

Many groups offered classes for beginners. Below is a nurse showing some young matrons how to knit, while they huddled in a London bomb shelter – their babies carefully lined up on an overhead shelf!

Knitting in bomb shelter.

In Canada, all knitting was collected and distributed by the Canadian Red Cross. Groups such as the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire, Women’s Institutes, church committees, and countless numbers of smaller women’s organizations hosted knitting bees, knitting teas and knitting showers. And Canadians could also mail knitted items directly to their own sons and husbands.

My mother June Light in Battleford, Saskatchewan formed her own group of girls who knit socks. They wrote little notes of encouragement to tuck inside – “Good luck, boys!” and the like.

It wasn’t just women who learned how to knit. Prisoners in penitentiaries and patients in mental hospitals were taught to knit. And children were not exempt from the knitting craze.

Here’s a little ditty I found in a knitting magazine:

Canadian children can’t handle

Bayonet, musket or gun.

What can we do in this struggle

To conquer the savage Hun?

Those things are out of the question,

But each can be doing a bit;

And we are helping our soldiers

When a warm grey sock we knit.

The lead image above is a group of knitters called the “Little Happy Gang” in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. (Photo Credit: Victor Bull, National Film Board of Canada, 1940)

Even very young children learned to knit. Here’s a photo of two British boys who barely look old enough to handle needles without putting an eye out.

While their shattered bodies and broken limbs knit back together, wounded servicemen in hospitals were taught to knit. This was probably pretty therapeutic, too.

War workers knit while they waited – emergency workers, bus drivers and London cabbies like the one below, photographed for Life magazine in 1939 by Carl Mydans.

Even the royal family took up knitting. Well, I don’t know about King George, but certainly Queen Elizabeth and her two daughters Elizabeth and Margaret Rose knit for their troops (pictured below).

And now here is a great little “yarn” from my friend Lori Fontaine, formerly of Montreal but now living in Radium Hot Springs, British Columbia.

By Lori Fontaine

My mother’s family lived in a small town about seventy kilometres south of Montreal called Noyan, Quebec. My great-grandmother Lena’s brother Wyatt was killed in France during World War One, and his name was carried through the family in remembrance.

Whenever I visited my grandmother’s house, at bedtime, I not only said prayers for my family to be blessed, but it was customary in that house to lay a hand on one’s heart and bless “Our Queen.”

Below is a photo of the house where my mother was raised. (Note the dog in the yard, and the arrow on the telephone pole pointing to Montreal).

During World War Two the house was a hive of activity at all times. The garden wasn’t huge, but it fed everyone in the family along with anyone in need. Inez Blinn told me that my grandmother Mildred Derick kept her alive during the war. Inez was in her first teaching job, renting a room, and convinced that my grandmother was sent from heaven.

My grandmother cared for the house and garden and kept order among five of her own children, as well as local kids who seemed to be always at the house (probably to enjoy some of her wonderful food!) The house is located beside St. Thomas Anglican Church, where my grandfather Herman Derick was caretaker.

Now here is the knitting story. My mother Shirley knit during the war while delivering mail in a horse-drawn buggy! She told me that she would deliver the rural mail with her best friend Wanda, so they could enjoy private conversations away from the prying ears of her three brothers! One would have the reins while the other knit away at lightning speed. Here is my mother Shirley on the left, and her friend Wanda on the right.

One of the misconceptions of knitting is that it’s a quiet, relaxing pastime. It is now, but during the war, it was so important that a person ALWAYS carried a project and they worked until their fingers were exhausted.

The soldiers NEEDED what was being made, so every stitch meant you were working for a soldier – showing him he was a part of the family. Idle hands were stared at with disdain. In my grandmother’s house, Sunday was a day of reflection, devoted to God. No card games, no racing around the yard playing hide and seek, and no reading other than the Bible or Pilgrim’s Progress.

However, during the war years, knitting was permitted. My Mom’s three younger brothers – Bud, Lorne and Leslie – knit as well. Her sister Lucille was older and dating an airman, so you can imagine the significance every stitch had in that house!

I’m afraid the patterns she used are now lost to time, but she told me that even the youngest children in the one-room schoolhouse were given needles and started out by making garter stitch blocks that would be sewn together into lap blankets. Scarves were VERY important and the need for them during the damp winters in Europe was incredible.

My Mom had a habit (that I carry on to this day), of having an “easy” project such as a scarf that can be grabbed to work on as an example, during a conversation; then another more difficult project (such as socks) for quieter times when more concentration is needed.

Naturally, my Mother took immense pride in the fact that she could knit socks “in her sleep”!!!

Thank you, Lori Fontaine, for that great family memory!

– Career journalist Elinor Florence, who now lives in Invermere, has written for daily newspapers and magazines including Reader’s Digest. She writes a regular blog called Wartime Wednesdays, in which she tells true stories of Canadians during World War Two. Married with three grown daughters, her passions are village life, Canadian history, antiques, and old houses. You may read more about Elinor on her website at www.elinorflorence.com.

Elinor’s first historical novel was recently published by Dundurn Press in Toronto. Bird’s Eye View is the only novel ever written in which the protagonist is a Canadian woman in uniform during World War Two. The heroine Rose Jolliffe is an idealistic Saskatchewan farm girl who joins the Royal Canadian Air Force and becomes an interpreter of aerial photographs. She spies on the enemy from the sky and makes several crucial discoveries. Lonely and homesick, she maintains contact with Canada through letters from the home front. The book is available through any bookstore including Lotus Books in Cranbrook, and also as an ebook from any digital book provider including Amazon, Kindle and Kobo. You can read more about the book by visiting Elinor’s website at www.elinorflorence.com/birdseyeview

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