Knitting for Victory -- World War I

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 8/17/2004
  • Essay 5721
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During World War I Americans of all ages were asked by the United States government to knit wool socks, sweaters, and other garments to warm American soldiers at home and abroad. Most of this knitting was produced by volunteers working under the auspices of the American Red Cross. During the course of the war more than 6,000 Seattle-area knitters as well as knitters from other parts of the state produced hundreds of thousands of knitted items for the war effort. The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. Germany surrendered and the war was over on November 11, 1918.

Wristlets, Mufflers, Sweaters, Socks

In the summer of 1917 the American Red Cross put out an urgent call for knitted goods and hospital supplies to help fight the war. Their immediate need was for one and a half million each of knitted wristlets, mufflers, sweaters, and pairs of socks. 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.

Knit For Sammie

“Knit for Sammie!” became the rallying cry of American Red Cross knitters. American soldiers were called Sammies, short for Uncle Sam, or doughboys. The term doughboy dates to the Civil War, and refers to the large brass buttons on the coats of Union infantrymen. The buttons resembled boiled dumplings called doughboys.

Sammie needed wool helmets and vests, chest covers and fingerless mitts to allow trigger access. Knitters also produced so-called stump socks to cover amputated limbs. The Red Cross issued patterns and yarn, collected finished goods, and shipped them to Europe.

Knit One, Purl Two

The quality of the finished products varied widely according to the knitter’s skill level but even garments with a few dropped stitches kept soldiers warm. Most women and many men already knew how to knit when the war began. Those who didn’t quickly learned. Some ace war-effort knitters specialized in reworking others’ shoddy work before the garments were turned over to the Red Cross.

Military commanders were required by the War Council to account for the donated Red Cross garments “as though they were government property regularly supplied by the Quartermaster Corps … This action on the part of the War Department will assure thousands of American women who have knitted sweaters and other articles for soldiers for winter use that the articles they have made will receive the same careful attention as clothing or any other article furnished by the government” (The Seattle Times, March 24, 1917)

Everybody Knitting Everywhere

In Washington state, as elsewhere in the country, knitters worked both at home and in social groups. Any church, any women’s group, any auxiliary, any school, any neighborhood and many workplaces spent 1917-1918 together knitting for the Red Cross war relief effort. Knitting was acceptable at work, at school, at home, on public transportation, at social events, in theaters, and even in church. Some daring knitters even took up a complicated method suggested by the popular home magazine The Delineator: knitting two socks at once, one inside of the other.

Non-knitters were urged to purchase yarn for those who knit. “One of the funds at the Seattle Red Cross headquarters which has been slowly but steadily growing is the Old Ladies’ Knitting Fund. This was first established because there were many dear little old ladies who were anxious to knit for the Red Cross, but who could not afford the 75 cents to pay for the initial allotment of the yarn. So the fund was started and now they are able to take their wool home, knit it into socks or sweaters and bring it back again” (The Seattle Times, December 16, 1917). The longshoremen of the Great Northern docks made the first contribution to this fund.

In December 1917, Madame Naokichi Matsunaga, wife of the imperial Japanese consul in Seattle, formed a Japanese Ladies Auxiliary of the Red Cross. Members met several times each week to knit in the Japanese Commercial Club at Maynard Avenue and Jackson Street. It was Seattle’s first civic organization for Japanese women. “Since the entry of the United States into the war the fair maidens of the Orient have aligned themselves with patriotic movements in Seattle in which they considered their services would carry the most weight. They have demonstrated their loyalty to the land of their residence in subscriptions to the two issues of the Liberty Loan, to the various patriotic funds and in Red Cross work” (The Seattle Times, December 23, 1917).

The Self-Improvement Club, an African American women’s organization, formed in Seattle during World War I for the express purpose of knitting for African American soldiers. They also wrote the soldiers encouraging letters and prepared comfort packages for them. Priscilla Maunder Kirk (1898-1992) remembered the members as “a very very dedicated group of women. They corresponded with the boys and sent packs to them, cigarettes, those [African American] boys over in World War One weren’t treated like the boys maybe in World War Two. They were discriminated against. This I know to be a fact” (Priscilla Maunder Kirk oral history).

Johnnie Get Your Yarn

The Junior Red Cross, launched in September 1917, was open to all American school children and was organized through the schools. In Seattle many children learned to knit through Red Cross programs, most commonly starting with simple knitted washcloths. These washcloths were sent to American soldiers and to the citizens of war-torn countries. Longtime Seattleite Blanche Caffiere knit these washcloths as a Fairview School student. The children, Caffiere remembered, carried their knitting around constantly and knit between lessons and while at play. By the time the small squares were completed they were usually black with playground grime. Caffiere’s teacher washed the children’s handiwork before forwarding it on to the Red Cross.

In May 1918 the Seattle School Bulletin printed this patriotic knitting song:

Johnnie, get your yarn, get your yarn, get your yarn;
Knitting has a charm, has a charm, has a charm,
See us knitting two by two,
Boys in Seattle like it too.
Hurry every day, don’t delay, make it pay.
Our laddies must be warm, not forlorn mid the storm.
Hear them call from o’re the sea,
‘Make a sweater, please for me.’
Over here everywhere,
We are knitting for the boys over there,
It’s a sock or a sweater, or even better
To do your bit and knit a square.

Besides knitting, the children were encouraged to enable others (especially skilled knitters) to knit for the war effort. A 1918 list of 82 suggestions titled “How Can I Help Win The War” places as Number 1, “Do mother’s work so she can knit." Along with suggestions to eat sorghum instead of sugar, sing patriotic songs, and plant trees for gun stocks, the list advises (Number 20), “Be careful of my clothes so my mother will not have to patch, and can knit.” Number 35 suggests, “Hold yarn for mother while she winds it into a ball,” and Number 76, “Help grandma so she will find time to teach mama to knit” (“Little Citizens”).

Knitting on Campus -- Our Boys Are Cold

As male University of Washington students began leaving school in droves to volunteer for military service, female students took up their knitting needles. An October 24, 1917, editorial in the University of Washington Daily entitled “Our Boys Are Cold” warned, “With the approach of winter has come the very urgent need for knitted sweaters, scarves and socks to keep our soldiers warm and courageous for the bitter fight.” Women were reminded that Puget Sound soldiers were unused to very cold conditions and needed sweaters desperately. Many University of Washington soldiers underwent basic training in Montana before shipping out to France.

At the University of Washington in Seattle, a war work room was established in room 205 of the Home Economics Hall. Gray or drab yarn and needles, as well as knitting lessons, were provided free of charge. (Students were asked for a 75-cent deposit to ensure they would return the finished sweater.) “Everyone realizes that the abnormal conditions have made increased demands on the girls,” the editorial continued, “but there are many spare moments during the day that can be used to the best advantage.” The women knit every afternoon from 1 to 4. They were not an official auxiliary to any specific group, but knit for the Red Cross, the Navy League, and any other war relief organization. The Campfire League also formed 10 units on the University of Washington campus. Students active in these units helped younger girls in elementary and high school knit and do other war work.

The University of Washington Daily continued to exhort female students to knit via almost daily editorials on the subject. “She carries (her knitting bag) with her on the campus, on the streetcar, and on her shopping tours. In every spare moment she whisks out a partially completed garment of khaki colored wool and her fingers move quickly in and out, her needles click busily” (“Her Knitting Bag”). Or again, “Verily, a change has come over the women folk of this college world; they’re knitting now, those who never knitted before … our college women are learning to sacrifice minutes of recreation; they are learning to find more pleasure in the service of their knitting needles than in idle moments of conversation to no end, or a trip to the confectioners” (“Busy Fingers”). Editorials debated the relative merits of knitting during lectures, and students discussed which professors supported the practice.

Personal knitting was highly frowned-upon: “When news comes that American soldiers have died merely from exposure in walking the icy decks on their watches, every stitch on a pink sweater will seem selfish. Besides this, University men in Montana have asked to have sixty sweaters sent to them before Christmas” (“Women Frown Upon Pink Knitted Wear”). University women doing war work (“the women behind the men behind the guns”) were known as Sammie’s Sisters (“University Women Join the Sister Army”).

In mid-November 1917 the Faculty Wives formed their own on-campus Red Cross auxiliary chapter and took over supervising the war work room. In addition to knitting, students were taught to roll bandages and to prepare sphagnum moss pads. These pads absorbed blood much better than gauze and were a crucial part of the Red Cross war relief effort. Moss was abundant in the Pacific Northwest, and students regularly organized moss-gathering expeditions. The moss was dried, then sewn into sterile cloth to form pads. All freshman and sophomore girls at the University of Washington were required to devote two hours per week to sphagnum moss work.

By February 1918 a plan was in place to get University-knit sweaters directly to soldiers who had attended the University of Washington. The sweaters and socks were issued to UW students as they enlisted, as well as being sent to former students already serving in France. “Every girl is not only encouraged, but expected to knit.” (“Women May Now Knit For Washington Men”) The knowledge that the soldiers, friends their own age, were truly Our Boys fueled campus knitters to labor on.

So prevalent was war-relief knitting on the University of Washington campus that the 1918 student yearbook Tyee devoted eight full pages to the subject.

Socks and More Socks

Some knitters failed to act upon their initial good intentions. “Officers of the Seattle Red Cross are asking that every woman who has taken out yarn to be knit into garments and has had the yarn in her home beyond a reasonable length of time, either return the yarn or the knitted garment immediately. Officers believe that twenty-one days is an entirely reasonable time to knit a pair of socks … if the yarn is held out longer, relief is being kept from the men at the front” (The Seattle Times, February 18, 1918).

In February 1918, 10,000 sweaters were sent to Camp Lewis, 2,190 in the week of February 20, 1918 alone. “Many of the sweaters contain notes from the makers and cheery words of encouragement are offered the men. Five hundred wristlets and 500 mufflers knitted by the folks at home have been distributed this week and the demand for them is keen.” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 20, 1918)

Wristlets were in high demand: “(Wristlets are) more like mittens than anything else, for there is a thumb hole and the knitted palm comes down as far as the web of the fingers…without wristlets it is difficult for the soldiers to keep the hands and wrists from becoming stiffened, which makes it very difficult for them to handle a gun or bayonet with precision ... Women of Seattle are urged to make the wristlets, which will keep the soldiers warm.” (The Seattle Times, February 24, 1918) Fort Lewis soldiers also received 2,488 mufflers and 43,547 pairs of socks from the Red Cross during February 1918. It is difficult to imagine how the region's knitters could have achieved these numbers.

A. J. Ahola, secretary of the Klickitat chapter of the American Red Cross, appealed to Klickitat County knitters in a letter printed in the Goldendale Sentinel on (fittingly) July 4, 1918:

"Klickitat Chapter of the American Red Cross has received a new allotment of knitted goods to be made up from July 20 to September 1, 1918, as follows: 705 pairs of socks, 100 sweaters. The yarn from this allotment is in transit from Seattle, and notice will be give of its arrival. Everybody that can knit is urged to get a supply of yarn. Those that can't knit should learn to do so; you know there are nearly a million boys in France, and more going over there every day. We must do our part to keep the boys comfortable. The Division officers do not think this is a big allotment for Klickitat county, and it is not, if all get busy. You know the boys are busy -- no doubt about that ("Red Cross Makes Urgent Appeal").

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.

Final Stitches

Even as the war drew to a close the Red Cross continued to broadcast the need for knitters: “Four times as many women could keep busy at the Seattle Red Cross headquarters, as are reporting there every day. More women are urgently needed.” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 17, 1918) Amongst those who came to work, good natured one-upsmanship was prevalent. Here is an account in The Seattle Times:

“ ‘I’ve knit fifty pairs of socks. Has anyone knit more?’ is a favorite question at the knitting department at Red Cross headquarters. The number may vary, but the question never. But Mrs. G. S. Dudley has a record which any one of the 6000 individual knitters will have to try hard to beat, because she has knit 108 pairs of socks for the Columbia Auxiliary to the Red Cross, besides numerous personal articles for the soldiers” (October 18, 1918).

Seattle women would knit, declared Seattle Red Cross vice-chairman Dr. J.E. Crichton, “until all the wool in the hands of individual knitters and in the possession of auxiliaries is entirely manufactured into socks and sweaters” (The Seattle Times, January 6, 1919).

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. Seattle knitters were finally free to take up personal knitting again. Many 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."


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); The 1918 Tyee, Vol. 19, War Edition (Seattle: University of Washington, 1918); Paula Becker interview with Blanche Caffiere, May 13, 2004, Seattle; University of Washington Daily, October 15, 1917; Ibid.,October 19, 1917; “Our Boys Are Cold,” Ibid.,October 24, 1917; “Knitting Classes Help Patriotic league Sale, Ibid., October 29, 1917; “Keep The Soldiers Warm,” University of Washington Daily, October 30, 1917; “Her Knitting Bag,” Ibid., November 1, 1917; “Busy Fingers,” Ibid., November 5, 1917; “Should Women Knit?” Ibid., November 7, 1917; “Knitting Art Taught Daily,” Ibid., November 19, 1917; “Women Frown Upon Pink Knitted Wear,” Ibid., November 22, 1917; “University Women Join Sister Army,” Ibid., December 16, 1917; “Every War Worker Recognized In Tyee,” Ibid., December 17, 1917; “Miss Rausch Finds That Soldiers Welcome Socks,” Ibid., January 9, 1918; “Women May Now Knit For Washington Men,” Ibid., February 7, 1918; “Hello Girls,” Ibid., February 18, 1918; “University Soldiers to Receive Sweaters,” Ibid., February 22, 1918; “Little Tanks, The Development of the American Field Show (Boot) During the World War,” Doughboy Center Website, ( accessed May 13, 2004; “NLUS Remains a Reliable Partner From Knitting to Knot-Tying,” Navy League of the United States Website accessed May 13, 2004 ( apr_03_93.php); American Red Cross Website accessed April 14, 2004(; “Priscilla Maunder Kirk: An Oral History," HistoryLink Metropedia Library (; “A Knitting Song,” Seattle School Bulletin, May 1918; Scrapbook, “American Red Cross War Fund June 18-25, 1917,” Seattle Red Cross Archives, Seattle; Folder: “Seattle-King County Chapter -- Board of Directors -- Meeting Minutes 1917,” Seattle Red Cross Archives; Clippings folders, “1917,” “1918 January to June, 1918,” “June to December, 1918,” Seattle Red Cross Archives; “Knitting and Sewing for the Red Cross,” The New York Times, September 15, 1915; “Red Cross Appeals for Knitted Goods,” Ibid., December 2, 1917; “How To Knit For Soldiers,” Ibid., August 19, 1917; “Red Cross Offers Work For Knitters,” Ibid., August 5, 1917; “New Knitting Program,” Ibid., August 18, 1918; “Knitting Supplies More Active,” Ibid., September 20, 1918; “All Women Urged To Knit,” Ibid., December 1, 1917; “Women at the Beaches Only Knit, Knit, Knit,” Ibid., August 5, 1917; “Red Cross Will Knit On,” Ibid., August 14, 1918; “Rules of War Board Will Stop All Knitting,” Ibid., August 13, 1918; “To Lessen The Horrors of War,” Ibid., January 11, 1917; “To Check Red Cross Sweaters, U.S. to Care For Knitted Goods,” The Seattle Times, March 24, 1917; “Machines and hands Fairly Fly," Ibid., December 2, 1917; “Japanese Women Work for Uncle Sam," Ibid., December 23, 1917; “Knitting Fund for Old Ladies At Red Cross Steadily Grows,” Ibid., December 16, 1917; “Red Cross Rooms for Workers Enlarged,” Ibid., January 4, 1918; “Knitted Sweaters and Socks Useful, Says Canada,” Ibid., January 22, 1918; “Monthly Output of 1,250 Sweaters Red Cross Aim,” Ibid., February 10, 1918; “Seven Thousand Pieces Made for Red Cross by One Auxiliary,” Ibid., February 17, 1918; “Red Cross Gives 20,000 Sweaters To Men at Camp,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 20, 1918; “Soldiers Need Wristlets as Badly as They Need Sweaters,” The Seattle Times, February 24. 1918; "Nearly 10,000 Given Sweaters," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 6, 1918; “Juggles Needles Two Socks At Once,” The Seattle Times, March ? 1918; “Red Cross Gets Service Yarn From Retailers,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 2, 1918; “Keep On Knitting," The Seattle Times, January 6, 1919; “Down With Sammie!” The Stars and Stripes, May 3, 1918; “Junior Red Cross Open To All School Children,” The Red Cross Bulletin, September 3, 1917; “Little Citizens,” American Red Cross Magazine, 1918; "Red Cross Makes Urgent Appeal," Goldendale Sentinel, July 4, 1918, p. 1.
Note: This essay was expanded on June 29, 2006.

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