I’ve been knitting for over ten years, and I’ve also been the director of our local historical museum for the past four years. But, until recently, I hadn’t thought about putting my two loves together and looking into the history of knitting. As a product of today’s world, I suppose I just thought knitting was a fun hobby to keep my fidgety hands busy, and I admit that I do love telling people that I’ve made my own sweaters!
That’s not how knitting has always been viewed, though. In fact, knitting was a very important skill up until the end of World War II. Knitting was clearly around before the American Revolution, but for the purposes of today’s blog post, I’m going to just focus on how knitting has evolved in the United States.
Because most clothing before the American Revolution was handmade, crafts like knitting and sewing were important from a practical viewpoint. But, it also provided women, who were extremely limited socially at the time, the means to make their own political statements. While the Boston Tea Party is the most famous example of Americans protesting British taxation, women in the colonies were also avoiding taxation on British textiles by creating their own homespun cloth. Families, churches, and organizations like the Daughters of Liberty would even hold competitions called “spinning bees” to see who could make the most yarn.
An antique spinning wheel at the Hubbard County Historical Museum in Park Rapids, MN. Photo taken by Megan & Pearls.
My favorite story about yarn during the Revolution, though, is about a woman named Molly “Mom” Rinker, who was a spy. The legend is that she would hide information about British troop movements in balls of yarn, and would drop them from a rock overlooking Wissahickon valley, which is now known as Mom Rinker’s Rock.
Before the Civil War broke out, knitting was gradually becoming a hobby for wealthy women who would knit for charity, as machine-knit items were gaining popularity. Once the war broke out, however, there was a resurgence. Soldiers were issued machine-knit stockings, but they were seen as inferior to their hand knit counterparts. The machine-knit socks would wear out quickly, forcing soldiers to go barefoot, which would result in blistered, swollen, and infected feet. As a result, many women began knitting socks for the soldiers, sending them to military camps and hospitals with notes of encouragement, jokes, or letters.
World War I
The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, and just over a year and a half later, the war was over when Germany surrendered on November 11, 1918. While the United States was not involved in the war for very long, the need for knit items was still great. The Red Cross put out an urgent call for one and a half million each of wristlets, mufflers, sweaters, and pairs of socks. Just as in the Civil War, the need for socks was especially important. Because of the trench war conditions, soldiers would spend weeks or months in wet, freezing conditions, and would need to change their socks often to avoid contracting trench foot.
Because there was such a great need for hand knit items, personal knitting during this time was highly frowned upon, as was hoarding yarn. Knitters were called to either return completed items or return the yarn within twenty-one days (a sufficient amount of time to complete a pair of socks according to officers) to continue providing relief to the men at the front.
World War II
Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, American knitters were already picking up their needles for the war effort. They were preparing care packages of food and knit items for Britain, France, Finland, Poland, Belgium, etc. Then, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, they turned their attention to American soldiers. At this time, machine-knit items were becoming much better, and there was a question as to why garments should be hand knit. As we learned from the Civil War and World War I, hand knit socks outlasted machine knit socks, but that wasn’t the only benefit. Donated hand knits also cost the military nothing, they didn’t cause machine wear and tear, and there was a considerable propaganda effect: women who were knitting for different military branches would raise interest in those branches for anyone who saw her, and the woman doing the knitting would feel as though she could directly help the war effort.
This was also when the “First Lady of Knitting” brought attention to knitting for the war effort. Eleanor Roosevelt was often photographed knitting for the war effort, or at least with her knitting bag. She was the one who essentially began the World War II knitting effort during a Knit for Defense tea that was held at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City on September 31, 1941.
Today Nowadays, knitting is seen as mostly just a hobby, and personal knitting is prevalent. However, there is still a need for hand knit items. KnitCrate has partnered with Butterfly Boxes to help donate hand knit items to refugees that have arrived in Oregon. Each KnitCrate box includes a card asking for specific items, but washcloths, dolls, stuffed animals, baby blankets, and hats are always appreciated. Make sure to check out http://www.butterflyboxespdx.org/ to get involved.