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Knitting for Victory -- World War II
HistoryLink.org Essay 5722
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On the home front during World War II (1941-1945), knitting to help the war effort and to keep American soldiers warm was a major preoccupation of Americans, particularly women. The November 24, 1941, cover story of the popular weekly magazine Life explained “How To Knit.” Along with basic instructions and a pattern for a simple knitted vest, the article advised, “To the great American question ‘What can I do to help the war effort?’ the commonest answer yet found is ‘Knit.’" The article pointed out that hand-knitters were turning out garments for soldiers despite the fact that machine-knitting was more efficient. Knitting gave people at home a way to help. The article noted that a volunteer group, Citizens for the Army and Navy, were campaigning to get one million standard-Army sweaters by Christmas. Two weeks later, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and America entered World War II. At home, more and more Americans picked up their needles to knit socks, mufflers, and sweaters to keep American soldiers warm.
Before Pearl Harbor, Americans had already been knitting and preparing care packages of food and clothes called “Bundles for Britain” to help besieged Londoners. Other efforts and committees -- American-French War Relief, Finnish Relief, Polish Women’s Relief Committee, and A Bit For Belgium -- soon followed. And American troops had been steadily increasing in number since Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939.
Grab Your Yarn
Many of the earliest knitters for World War II had knit for Victory as children or young adults during World War I. Knitting was for them a natural and immediate response to war. “The men hardly have time to grab their guns before their wives and sweethearts grab their needles and yarn,” claimed Time on July 21, 1940. Knitting provided warmth and comfort for the soldier and therapeutic distraction for the knitter.
Although knitting was only one of many, many ways civilians participated in the Home Front, it was pervasive and emblematic of what General Dwight Eisenhower would later call “the friendly hand of this nation, reaching across the sea to sustain its fighting men” (Eisenhower address to Congress, June 18, 1945). Factory work, childcare, nursing the sick: all had stretches of down time. On the bus going to work the assembly line at the Boeing Co. or at the Pacific Car factory, in the mid-day hours between all-night nursing shifts, in the evening listening to war news on the radio, idle hands were turned to service as Americans once again knit for victory.
First Lady of Knitting
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was often photographed knitting for the war effort or at least carrying her voluminous knitting bag. She effectively launched the World War II knitting effort at a Knit for Defense tea held at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City on September 31, 1941. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s daughter Anna Roosevelt Boettiger, who wrote for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and was married to its publisher John Boettiger, lived in Seattle from 1936 to 1943. The so-called First Knitter of the Land was a frequent visitor.
The question of why garments should be knit by hand sometimes arose during the early months of the war. Knitters countered with the fact that donated hand-knits cost the military nothing, were produced without expense and machine wear and tear, and that hand-knit socks outlasted machine-knit socks. Most importantly, “The propaganda effect of hand knitting cannot be estimated in terms of hard cash, but it is considerable. A sweater for a bluejacket. A helmet for a flying cadet, made by some devoted woman in a small town far from the war, is sure to arouse interest in the navy or Air Force among the friends of the woman doing the knitting. And she herself feels that she has an active part in this vast conflict; she is not useless, although she can do nothing else to help win the war” (The New York Times, January 22, 1942).
The American Red Cross
World War II war-effort knitting took place almost entirely under the auspices of the American Red Cross. In January 1942 the War Production Board designated the Red Cross as the single clearing agency for all knitting, and the War Production Board granted them priority status for receiving wool. Knitting was one of the services of the Production Corps, the largest of the Volunteer Special Services. Many women also knit for Victory in one of the many auxiliary units to the Red Cross. For example, Seattle’s chapter of the American Red Cross had formed in 1898 to provide war relief during the Spanish American War, and had remained active. Seattle-area residents had produced hundreds of thousands of knitted garments for the World War I war effort.
Like meat, fats, sugar, and gasoline, wool was in very short supply during World War II. The war interrupted wool production worldwide. Wool produced was difficult to ship. The War Production Board set strict quotas on how the available wool could be sold and on what could be made from it.
The Seattle Red Cross responded to the yarn shortage ingeniously: “Red Cross leaders are being trained at Lowell School in the old-fashioned arts of carding and spinning yarn from wool … enabling the workers to produce articles for the fighting forces at a savings of more than $3.00 a pound in original cost of wool. Arts and Crafts leaders from the Works Projects Administration at the school are teaching the Red Cross workers the technique of spinning” (The Seattle Times, June 3, 1942).
The Red Cross supplied patterns for sweaters, socks, mufflers, fingerless mitts (which allowed soldiers to keep their hands warm while shooting), toe covers (for use with a cast), stump covers, and other garments. These were to be knitted in olive drab or navy blue wool yarn. A label indicating which chapter of the Red Cross had provided the garment was sewn into each piece. Surviving patterns show that these knitting patterns were typed and retyped with carbon-paper copies and shared among the knitters. Many knitters chose to knit the same item in the same size again and again so that they could memorize the pattern and produce pieces more quickly. The knitted garments were “for American soldiers and sailors assigned to posts where General Winter is an added enemy” (The New York Times, January 30, 1942).
Knitters also produced 15-20 foot stretch bandages. The bandages were knit with 100 percent cotton yarn in garter stitch. Garter stitch (all stitches knit, none purled) produces a stretchy fabric that lies flat on the edges. The finished bandages were sterilized and shipped to medical units worldwide.
Unlike many other metal items, steel knitting needles were too immediately useful to be melted down for scrap for the war effort. Wood, celluloid (an early plastic), and (less commonly) bone and ivory needles were also used during World War II.
Mary Barclay Broderick served as Seattle Red Cross knitting chairman for the area.
In the Puget Sound region the call was out: “CAN YOU KNIT? There are two thousand knitted helmets that are waiting to be made to cover the heads and ears of the many gallant soldiers who are guarding Seattle these cold nights from enemy planes and sabotage, WHILE YOU AND YOU are sleeping in warm beds … they are needed NOW not tomorrow. If these soldiers put off the task of guarding Seattle, how long would we last?” (Seattle Northwest Veteran, January 3, 1942).
These wool helmets were intended for the soldiers who manned the anti-aircraft guns being installed at high points throughout the Puget Sound region in January 1942. The guns were installed on sandbagged platforms ringed with powerful listening devices. They were maintained around the clock throughout the war. The knitted helmets fit under the Army-issue hard-shelled helmet. “Yarn can be purchased at Rhodes Department Store, the Bon-Marche, Sears-Roebuck, Frederick and Nelson, McDougall’s and Penney’s. Approximate cost per four-ounce skein is seventy-five cents. Ask for khaki yarn for soldier helmets ... Average knitting time for one helmet is four hours” (Seattle Northwest Veteran, January 3, 1942) The prospect of cold-eared soldiers dropping their anti-aircraft guns for want of wool helmets may have been exaggerated, but Seattle’s vulnerable coastal position created palpable fear of imminent attack among local residents.
Seattle-area knitters jumped to action. By early January 1942, less than a month after Pearl Harbor, the Ravenna/Greenlake/Roosevelt area alone had 15 different groups churning out knitwear. Numbers were similar across the city. Civic pride increased exponentially as various auxiliary groups vied with each other to prove who could knit the most, the fastest. The Naval Officers Wives’ Club knit in a Victory Work Center at the Washington Athletic Club. “The Navy needs men, but it also needs knitters” (Northwest Veteran, January 3, 1942). Church basements, school lunchrooms, and members-only societies all had knitters busily clicking their needles. “Red Cross sewing and knitting should be part of every woman’s life” (Bellevue American, January 8, 1942).
These groups produced a prodigious output of knitted goods. In Enumclaw a group of knitters met from 1 o'clock to 4 o'clock each Tuesday afternoon. After fortifying themselves with light refreshments they picked up their needles. Between January 1, 1943, and March 9, 1944, this group knitted 65 sleeveless army vests, 19 women’s service sweaters, 25 army helmets, 3 navy helmets, 1 navy vest, 4 army scarves, 10 heavy coat sweaters, 4 afghans, 56 children’s sweaters, 8 turtleneck sweaters, 5 pairs navy gloves and 1 navy scarf. The children’s garments and afghans were for citizens in war torn countries.
The Burien City Press reported that Three Tree Point Knitters (Three Tree Point, Gregory Heights, Seahurst, and Burien) had “thirty knitters knitting all the time” (March 23, 1944). In three months this group made 244 knitted garments, representing 4,290 work hours. In Renton, Kirkland, Snoqualmie, and beyond, knitters followed the advice to “Remember Pearl Harbor -- Purl Harder” (Works Projects Administration poster, 1942). Knit and purl are the two basic stitches used to produce knitwear.
Anyone who took home Red Cross yarn and then procrastinated was quickly brought into line. “Red Cross Knitting Must Be Turned In Now,” trumpeted the Vashon News-Record (March 2, 1944).
Local newspapers carried advertisements with the legend “The Red Cross is at his side, and the Red Cross is you” (Harold’s Jewelers advertisement, March 9, 1944). The Red Cross supplied the war effort with knitting but also with blood, surgical supplies, medical personnel, and comfort bags for soldiers. The organization also raised money for the Red Cross War Fund.
As during World War I, the need for socks was paramount. Cold, wet, sore feet were the enemy as surely as German or Japanese troops. Socks wore out much faster than sweaters, and needed changing many times more frequently. The need for socks was so great that captured American soldiers held prisoner in Germany sometimes unraveled their American Red Cross-provided sweaters and re-knit the yarn into socks themselves, using straightened pointed barbed wire as improvised needles.
Few at home thought to knit for the women who served as WAVES (Women Accepted For Volunteer Emergency Service), WACS (Women’s Army Corps), and WASPS (Women Airforce Service Pilots). They were not actively fighting and they were women, so it was assumed by many knitters that if they needed knitwear they could knit it themselves. The push was knitting for “The Boys,” the men on active duty.
The Seattle Times interviewed Mrs. Ella V. Martin, an 87-year old Seattle knitter, “one of the champion knitters in the University Presbyterian Church Red Cross group, having completed 64 sweaters and 17 pairs of socks since the beginning of the Second World War. ... She is knitting because she has a nephew in the Seebees, and because of ‘all the boys out there fighting’ ” (March 22, 1944).
In addition to hand-knits, the Army and Navy relied heavily on machine-knit wool socks. For much of the War the machines that produced these socks were commandeered and used strictly for military use. Civilian socks became scarce. Seattleites who knit for the soldiers may have done so wearing their own holey socks.
Unlike the World War I period in which many Seattle schoolchildren knit for the war effort, during World War II children were more occupied with growing Victory Gardens, collecting scrap metal, and collecting funds for the Red Cross. Many of these children also shouldered more self-care as their mothers took on war-effort work on local assembly lines.
WAVES, WACS, and LARCS
University of Washington co-eds had knit for Sammy (the soldiers) during World War I. By World War II, University women were taking on factory work, shouldering a wide variety of jobs suddenly vacant when men went to war, or joining up themselves as WACS, WAVES, or nurses. By the spring of 1944 more than 2,000 University of Washington faculty and students were serving in the military. University of Washington women did knit for World War II, but only as part of a wide variety of war effort work. Most held full-time or part-time jobs in addition to their classes, and the need to fill those jobs increased steadily as the war dragged on.
Within one month of Pearl Harbor, University students had organized a Red Cross Auxiliary unit on campus. Called the LARCS (Ladies’ Auxiliary for Red Cross Service) they wore white pinafores and navy blouses. “No matter what your talents are, we have a job for you,” Mrs. Eric Barr told the University of Washington Daily on January 7, 1941. One week later they opened a workroom dedicated to knitting, sewing, and bandage making in the basement of Condon Hall.
Madigan Medical Center, formerly the Fort Lewis Station Hospital, treated hundreds of thousands of wounded soldiers. It was the largest army hospital in the United States, with beds to accommodate 3,806 patients. Thirty-six thousand wounded soldiers a month were being shipped back from overseas, many destined for Madigan. The Red Cross supplied knitted comfort items for these soldiers, who were also encouraged to knit as occupational therapy.
With Wool and Needles
Red Cross knitting continued unabated throughout the war, a homespun production line that stretched from house to house, and from Seattle to the soldiers fighting overseas. With wool and needles, Washington knitters did what they could, knitting their bit for Victory. Their handiwork was destined to warm and protect, and fated to suffer with the soldiers. Knitters held the knowledge that their carefully crafted socks and sweaters might be part of a soldier’s final garments and end with him, bloodstained and far from home.
Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 7, 1945, and Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945. On September 2, 1945, Japan signed formal surrender papers. The war was over. Washington service personnel streamed home, troop ships docking in Seattle.
After the war ended, some knitters dropped their needles for good. Others joined the rage for knitting complicated argyle patterns in a wide variety of colors -- anything, many swore, but Army-issued khaki or navy blue.
Anne L. MacDonald, No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988); James R. Warren, The War Years: A Chronicle of Washington State in World War II (Seattle: History Ink, 2000); Mildred Tanner Andrews, A Woman’s Place: A Guide To Seattle and King County History (Seattle: Gemil Press, 1994); Associated Students of the University of Washington, 1943 Tyee (Seattle: University of Washington, 1943); Associated Students of the University of Washington, 1944 Tyee (Seattle: University of Washington, 1944); “Campus Groups Pledge Total War Aid,” University of Washington Daily, December 8, 1941; Ibid., January 7, 1942; “Knitting project Begun,” New York Times, January 30, 1942; “WPB Officials Clarify Statement on Knitting,” Ibid., January 29, 1942; “WPB Acts To Raise Work Sock Output,” Ibid., June 20, 1945; “Home Knitting Defended,” Ibid., January 17, 1942; “Civilian Knitting Curtailed,” Ibid., March 4, 1942; (pamphlet) Knit for Defense, (n/a: The Spool Cotton Company, 1941); “87 -- But She’s Top Knitter In Red Cross Unit,” The Seattle Times, March 22, 1944; “A Sailor’s Sewing Day Reminds Him Keenly of Home and Mother -- Life on Board a Battleship,” Department of the Navy -- Navy Historical Center Website accessed May 13, 2004 (http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/ images/h852921.htm); “Anna Eleanor Roosevelt Boettiger Halsted,” Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site Website accessed May 13, 2004(http://www.nps.gov/elro/glossary/halstead-anna.htm); “NLUS Remains a Reliable Partner From Knitting to Knot-Tying,” Navy League of the United States website accessed May 13, 2004 (http://www.navyleague.org/sea_power/apr_03_93.php); Eisenhower address to Congress, June 18, 1945, quoted on American Red Cross Website accessed April 14, 2004 (http://www.redcross.org/museum); Jane Cobb, “Knitters -- Plain and Fancy and Otherwise,” New York Times Magazine, July 21, 1940, p. 8; “How To Knit: A Million Sweaters Wanted By Christmas,” Life, November 24, 1941, p. 110; Scrapbook, “Schools and War, December 1942-March 25, 1943,” Seattle Public Schools Archives, Seattle; Scrapbook, “All Papers December 1941-December 1942, School and War,” Seattle Public Schools Archives; “Roosevelt High Girls Sew For Red Cross,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 15, 1943; Scrapbook, “Red Cross Publicity February and March 1944,” Seattle Red Cross Archives; “Red Cross Knitting Must Be Turned In Now,” Vashon News-Record, March 2, 1944; “Red Cross Unit Making Supplies,” Enumclaw Courier-Herald, March 9, 1944; “Red Cross Knitting Unit Presents Interesting Figures,” Burien City Press, March 23, 1944; Scrapbooks, "1942," “April 1942 to March 1943," "March to August 1943,” “October 1943 to January 1944,” Seattle Red Cross Archives; “Women Sewing and Knitting to Help Red Cross,” Seattle Greenlake Reporter, January 1, 1942; “Mrs. Roosevelt Urges All Women To Knit for Soldiers and Sailors,” New York Times, October 1, 1941; “87 – But She’s Top Knitter In Red Cross Unit,” The Seattle Times, March 22, 1944; “Knitters Wanted Immediately At Red Cross Room At Club,” Northwest Veteran, January 3, 1942; “Sweaters Needed For Navy Men,” Ibid., January 3, 1942; “Women Sewing and Knitting to Help Red Cross,” Greenlake Reporter, January 1, 1942; “Red Cross Work Vital In Local and National Relief," The Seattle Times, January 4, 1942; “Knitters For Red Cross To Spin Own Wool,” Ibid., June 3, 1942; “Red Cross Gets Leary Home,” Ibid., July 26, 1942; Christine Barrett, A History of Laurelhurst Revised Edition (Seattle: Laurelhurst Community Club, 1989).
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Life cover on knitting, November 24, 1941
Sheet music for "Knit One, Purl Two, ca. 1944
Courtesy No Idle Hands
University of Washington Kappa Delta members knitting for soldiers, 1944
World War II knitting patterns, ca. 1943
Courtesy Paula Becker