Have you ever knitted a jumper, a scarf, a pair of socks for your loved one?
How about a balaclava? A pair of rifle-gloves? An infirmary-jacket? Perhaps not…
Knitting for soldiers off at war became a hugely popular pastime at the outbreak of World War I. Women who had to watch their brothers, husbands, sons, and friends ship out to face unknown dangers and a horrible death felt helpless and afraid. Sit at home, they were told, do your womanly duty, keep the home fires burning. But sitting at home while your loved ones are far away and risking their lives is not an easy matter.
Almost as soon as men were sent off to war, women began to knit for them. The cold nights in the trenches, the filthy mud, the long marches and long waits, they all brought on chills, colds, and loneliness. Letters home asked for warm things, and the newspapers and women’s magazines picked up the cry. ‘Knit for our soldiers!’ they declared. ‘Warm clothes for our men!’
And so women, girls, mothers, grandmothers, spinsters, and children all picked up their needles, dusted them off, and began to knit.
I knitted a balaclava from the book Knitting for Tommy, from a pattern that was published only a month after the outbreak of war in 1914. It was a simple knit, given in old-fashioned instructions that were flexible and easy to adjust. The magazine states that the ‘recipe’ (what they often called their knitting patterns) was adapted from an old fisherman’s knitting book, which just goes to show how there really is nothing new in the world.
As I knit, I thought about what I would do if this was going overseas, to my loved ones who were living in fear and filth, never knowing if their time was up. I wondered if, perhaps, the thousands upon thousands of women who knitted warm things for the men in their lives found the patterns as repetitive and dull as I did. How did they feel, knitting row after row of garter stitch in the round, knowing that all the time their husband, father, son, might be dead or dying? Did they feel useless, helpless, alone? Or did the constant, unchanging rhythm soothe them, give them a sense of usefulness in a time of chaos?
I have to hope it did.
Here are some shots of the balaclava in action. How do you think I went?
Another great place to look for old knitting patterns is the Australian digitised newspapers archive, Trove. Have a browse through the entire run of Australian Women’s Weeklies up until the 1980s, or search for soldier knitting pattern and try your luck!
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