Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  September 3, 2015

The Kitchener Stitch: Knitting in Wartime

Earlier this year, Costume Society Ambassador Lucie Whitmore attended a study day run by the University of Glasgow research group Knitting in the Round. Through a series of events combining practice and theory, the network aims to interrogate the meaning of knit in the present and the past.

‘Men went to war and women knitted’ was the title of one of the talks at this engaging study day, and a phrase often used in reference to women’s experiences of the First World War. This statement is not of course entirely true, but the extent of women’s knitting activities during WW1 came as a surprise even to me, as someone who is studying women’s fashion from the period for my PhD, and has been for the past year.

The study day, throughout which the click of needles could be heard from members of the audience, featured talks from five specialists, as well as an exhibition area where collections from The Historic Knit and the Glasgow Women’s Library could be viewed and handled. The GWL have an extensive archive of knitting and dressmaking patterns dating from the 1930s, which are available for public use.

Jane Tynan from Central St Martins started of the day by discussing the wider implications, both socially and economically, for women knitters during WW1. Jane outlined the unofficial ‘industry’ of knitting comforts for the soldiers –socks, mittens and balaclavas amongst others – in contrast to the official uniform supplied by the government, with which there were often delays and shortages. ‘Women knitted for love,’ she determined, but we must beware distortion of gender roles when looking back to the period, particularly regarding the perceived domesticity of women at that time. The government sought to maintain the view that knitting was a cheerful, hopeful and distracting activity, quashing any rumours that women knit out of necessity, to fill the gaps left by dwindling government supplies of uniforms.

Joyce Meader from The Historic Knit describes herself as a hobbyist, not an academic, yet her knowledge of historic and military knitting is vast and impressive. Joyce’s talk, to the delight of the audience, was illustrated with a bag of knitted goodies, which she passed around, leading to much trying-on of balaclavas, socks and vests. Joyce discussed the knitted items made by women and used by soldiers, from the Crimean War (1853) right up to the present day. It was amazing to see how styles changed over time by handling the replicas knitted by Joyce from real historic patterns. Personal favourites included a WW1 Scottish soldier’s tam-o’shanter, knitted WW1 medical equipment including a sling, dressing and eye-patch and pieces of women’s uniforms from the Second World War.

Maggie Andrews from the University of Worcester went on to discuss knitting and the Women’s Institute – also celebrating their centenary this year – and the role of women and craft during WW2.  Barbara Smith from the Knitting and Crochet Guild told some fascinating stories about knitting endeavours in WW1, referencing patterns from the Guild’s collections as well as adverts for wool manufacturers and charitable campaigns. While some items shown by Barbara seemed particularly frivolous within the context of war, such as the pattern for a crochet cushion cover featuring a battleship, some were very poignant, such as the ‘Welcome Home’ crochet tablecloth, the emotional significance of which need not be explained.

The event brought together students, researchers, lecturers, curators, costume designers and many knitting enthusiasts, and the discussion between speakers was just as diverse and interesting as the talks themselves.

Lucie Whitmore, Costume Society Ambassador 2015

  • The ‘Man in Khaki’ sock measuring device, C. 1914-1918. Image credit: Lucie Whitmore, © The Historic Knit / Joyce Meader.
  • Leach’s Home Needlework Series – No.4, C. 1914-1918. Image credit: Lucie Whitmore, © The Historic Knit / Joyce Meader.
  • Scotia Wools sample, C. 1914-1918. Image credit: Lucie Whitmore, © The Historic Knit / Joyce Meader.
  • Knitted WW1 theatre swab, reproduction by Joyce Meader. Image credit: Lucie Whitmore, © The Historic Knit / Joyce Meader.