Knitting for the War Effort

Knitted slippers from wool I spun from our sheep.

Knitted slippers from wool I spun from our sheep.

It’s that time of year, cold and snowy, a great time to get my hands into wool. Spinning, felting, crocheting, knitting – I love them all. Lately, I’ve been knitting slippers using my friend’s (Tamra Higgins) handspun yarn from her own sheep. Cool! I also dug out yarn I spun years ago from our own sheep and knitted the pair of slippers shown in the photo. There’s nothing like thick wool for keeping your feet warm.

And speaking of warm feet… During WWI, millions of women around the globe knitted socks and other woolen garments for the soldiers. Stiff leather army boots were neither waterproof nor insulated, so cold feet were common for men in the trenches. Trench foot was the term given to the condition that resulted when the feet were exposed to prolonged cold wet conditions. It could lead to painful sores, infections, and even gangrene in advanced cases. Unlike frostbite, freezing temperatures weren’t necessary for the onset of trench foot. Keeping the feet warm and dry was essential for prevention, hence the need for socks. And supposedly the need for all those women to knit the socks and not even get paid for it.

Hmm. Unpaid women’s labor rears its ugly head, and unpaid child labor, too, as plenty of school kids (girls and boys) were encouraged to knit. Propaganda posters from America to New Zealand appealed to women’s compassionate sides claiming it was their patriotic duty to help out in the war effort and knit socks for the soldiers. An American Red Cross poster showed a basket of yarn and knitting needles with the saying, “Our boys need sox, knit your bit.”

Of course, on the surface it seems innocent enough, getting all those women to knit in their spare time (if they had any), but when I think about what was going on in the US, Britain and elsewhere during the early 1900s, I start to wonder if all this propaganda aimed at women to knit, can, start victory gardens… (all unpaid labor mind you) wasn’t also a way to keep all the suffragettes and suffragette wannabes out of the political arena and back in the home “where they belonged.”

It seems my great uncle Harry didn’t want for socks. In a letter dated, Dec. 1, 1918, while in St. Catherine, Belgium he wrote home and specifically mentioned socks. “Esther said she was knitting me a pair of socks,” he wrote. “Well don’t send them as I have plenty.” And from what I can tell, I’m pretty sure his plenty of socks were army issue. Not homemade.

I don’t mean to imply that knitting socks for the war was just an insidious plot to keep women from getting the right to vote. Keeping morale up on the home front was an important reason for all of the government propaganda aimed at the folks at home. When a war is going on, the government wants civilians upbeat and supportive.

And for the women knitters, most of them surely enjoyed knitting. Making something for someone in need gave them even more pleasure. I’m sure Esther’s socks found another family member’s feet to warm even if they weren’t Harry’s.

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