Knitting in Wartime

Well, I’ve had another break from blogging. I’m OK; but overdoing it, stress at work and not sticking to my strict diet resulted in a bit of an energy drop. Fear not though, I’m nearly back to fighting fit, and haven’t been languishing on the sofa too long; in fact there is a new knitting pattern on the way, but more of that later.

I really wanted to tell you about The Kitchener Stitch: Knitting in Wartime event I attended at the end of March; this was organised by the excellent Knitting in the Round project people in Glasgow.

I was pleased to find my friend Catriona in the audience, who also attended the Sanquhar Workshop last year, and also vintage designer, Susan Crawford, and Glasgow based designer, Karie Westermann.


Jane Tynan (Central St Martins) kicked off the proceedings in her talk ‘Comforting Body and Soul: Knitting in First World War Britain’. She felt there was an unorthodox anti-mass production feel to the unsolicited knitting for the troops, from about 1941. This may have been a response to a perceived lack of uniform supplies. The government benevolently “allowed” this spontaneous knitting to continue until colours and styles of the knitting were undermining the uniform, and it was felt the knitting needed to be controlled. Standard patterns and wools were then produced to contain this “subversive” knitting.


Wendy Turner, (an ex-museum colleague of mine, and a knitter herself) told us about the vast collection of unsorted knitting patterns she discovered when she started working at the Glasgow Women’s Library. These can be viewed by visiting the library. She brought a selection of the wartime patterns to show us:

Service Necessities

Service Woolies


Joyce Meader (‘The Historic Knit’): practically showed us ‘Knitted Comforts from Crimea to the Modern Day’. She knits for battle re-enactors, film and TV; and a procession of long johns, balaclavas, WAF knickers, combinations, and even medical dressings were passed through the audience:


These socks were made for the American Civil War, so the soldiers walked on their opponents’ flag:

American socks

This hat is from the medieval period and is knitted and fulled (felted) to be worn under a helmet. The bobble bit at the top provides more of a buffer between the head and the helmet, and has a useful loop for hanging it up.

Early hat

Joyce is an enthusiast and entertainer, and regaled us with great stories about the items she knitted and their use.

Joyce Meander

She also brought along a vast collection of wartime pattern books and equipment:

Knitting pattern display

Knitting patterns and equipment

Old knitting books

Boer War knitting advert

Wartime Knitting patterns

I never knew there were music hall style wartime knitting songs!

Knitting songs

This one was popularised by the entertainer, Arthur Askey:

Knitting song

We had plenty of time to look at it all over lunch:

People looking at display


In the afternoon, Maggie Andrews (University of Worcester) talked on ‘”Men went to war and women knitted”: domesticity and crafts on the Home Front in Britain’. She focused on how women’s skills were commandeered for the war effort. The Women’s Institute was founded in 1915, with a focus on crafting; making items to sell, which brought needed money into rural areas. Toys were particularly popular, as it was no longer possible to get toys from Germany. There was a sewing pattern for Cuthbert Rabbit, an anti-hero based on a cartoon strip; and many versions of Cuthbert were made and spread all over the country. London exhibitions were held in 1917, selling items made by Women’s Institute members, which raised the value of women’s skills.

In World War II the idea of modernising craft pervaded: make do and mend was touted – no woollen garment was thrown out, clothes were re-fashioned. Knitting also enabled women to care for their family; having to knit was often resented as it was time consuming by the time-poor working classes. There was a class division, as people with money could buy refurbished clothing from department stores rather than having to make it themselves.


Barbara Smith (Knitting and Crochet Guild) highlighted the appeals and campaigns, often figureheaded by upper class women in ‘Useful Work for Anxious Fingers – Knitting & Crochet in the First World War’.

Barbara Smith

The Queen’s Appeal in 1914 was instigated by Lord Kitchener, and requested women of the Empire to supply 300,000 knitted belts and pairs of socks (see original newspaper request at the top of page 8: Lady French (wife of Sir John French, Commander of the British Home Forces) was asked by the War Office to instigate a similar appeal. In the end they got more knitted items than they needed. Lady Tullibardine enabled the Herring Girls, who followed the fishing fleet along the East coast, to earn money from their knitting during the war.


Aside from being an interesting event I really learned something about the lives of women in wartime and how women’s skills were commandeered or volunteered during the world wars.


Karie Westermann also wrote a blog post about this event.


If you are interested in the knitting songs, singer, Melanie Gall, is performing, long forgotten knitting songs from WWI and II at the Edinburgh Fringe through August – A Stitch in Time: a knitting cabaret.

I will be going along with some of my knitting friends.


Very, very soon, I will be publishing a new shawl pattern, here’s a taster:

Gujarati Diamond detail



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