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Knits of Yore

Dec 23, 2011

World War I-era knitters, as shown in Knits of Yore
I love the word "yore." It conjures up all kinds of images for me, including an episode of Friends when Phoebe asked Rachel what era an apothecary table (from Pottery Barn) was from and Rachel said, "It's from yore." Phoebe said,"Oooooh," with wonder. I loved that show.

Aaaaanyway. . . We have a new DVD called Knits of Yore with Susan Strawn. Susan is a knitting scholar (don't you love that?) with a Ph.D. in Clothing and Textiles. She was taught to knit by her Danish grandmother, and she passes on her knowledge to her students at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.

In Knits of Yore, Susan covers a ton of material, but one of the things that really caught my interest was a segment about knitting in wartime.

There was an extraordinary quantity of knitting that went on during both World Wars. In fact, knitting was synonymous with patriotism during that time. Knitters appeared in all kinds of advertising, from cigarettes to groceries to war bonds.

One thing that really tickled me was that the larger the knitting bag, the more patriotic the knitter was considered. If that opinion were still in place today, I'd be thought of as a super patriot!

War poster asking people to knit "sox" for the troops
Everyone was knitting during wartime: men, women, and children. There was a sentiment that if you didn't have knitting with you, you were wasting your time. The Susan Bates Co. even made red, white, and blue needles!

Susan tells a story about a Mrs. Kahlil of Palm Beach, Florida, who was a prolific knitter during WWII. Mrs. Kahlil was the oldest child with three younger brothers. Two of her brothers died in battle and she requested that the third one be brought home on compassionate leave, which he was, and he lived a long life.

Mrs. Kahlil was knitting a sweater when the war ended and she simply put it down and left it unfinished. We don't know if she did it as a symbol of the ending of the war, but it's a really nice thought, isn't it? Mrs. Kahlil's family donated their wartime memorabilia to the National World War II museum in New Orleans, where the unfinished sweater can be seen today.

Interestingly, wartime was a prolific time for female inventors. Patents related to knitting approached 50 percent by women, compared to 1 percent of women for all patents during that time. One interesting invention was Henrietta Hensley's glow-in-the-dark knitting needles. The tips of the needles were coated with radium paint, which created the glow. Henrietta didn't know at the time that she's created radioactive knitting needles!

Susan is an absolute wealth of knitting knowledge. She's passionate about knitting and its history, which comes across wonderfully in Knits of Yore. I was riveted and I think you will be, too.

Knits of Yore is available on DVD or as a download. Get your Yore today!


P.S. Have an interesting wartime knitting story? Share it in the comments!

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Knits of Yore (Video Download)

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Join Susan Strawn in a close look at some curious, perplexing, and estimable historical knitted objects from the past 200 years.


Knits of Yore DVD

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Join Susan Strawn in a close look at some curious, perplexing, and estimable historical knitted objects from the past 200 years.


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rileydaisy wrote
on Apr 30, 2012 3:56 PM

I too have a set of 7" single tip Susan Bates #2  needles red,white,blue strip that was my Grandmother's. I am afraid to knit with them in case something happens because I want to pass them along to my granddaughters. She said she knit lots of socks for our soldiers. Thank you for sharing information about these needles. I love it.

kvasey wrote
on Jan 21, 2012 9:34 AM

I'm knitting with a pair of striped red, white and blue knitting needles made by the Susan Bates company right now....and judging by the way they look, I'm guessing they're the patriotic War effort needles you mentioned! How neat! I had no idea.....

on Jan 8, 2012 12:14 PM

Knits of yore:  In public school we were taught to knit squares for the Red Cross to make afghans for European refugees right after WWII.  Boys and girls all learned to knit in the sixth grade.

Lagato wrote
on Dec 29, 2011 4:44 PM

You are more than likely aware First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt always knit when entertaining women guests at informal functions.  It was therefore not unusual to see the First Lady knitting in the presence of guests.

Harriettey wrote
on Dec 26, 2011 9:57 AM

I was born in the North East of England in the mid 1950s and our Christmas stockings were my grandfather's First World War army socks.  So they were about 40 years old. He'd been gassed in the war and went on to write a book about gas warfare.  He couldn't stand having blankets or sheets on his bed so made himself a polystyrene shell to keep himself insulated without having any covers actually on his skin.  He was active in the Home Guard during WWII and when I was very little I remember him still testing and keeping the barrage balloons working.

on Dec 24, 2011 11:34 AM

1940-41 Horace Mann grade school Virginia Mn. Our second grade teacher Ada Johnston had us all,  boys & girls learn to knit squares to make an afghan for the soldiers. We made front page with  our group photo in the daily newspaper.  

cactuscathy wrote
on Dec 24, 2011 9:58 AM

I have an interesting really old knitting mag that has patterns for items to knit for wounded the sweater with only half a back because the soldier was bed ridden.  


UPannie wrote
on Dec 24, 2011 8:06 AM

Reading through the comments is fascinating!  I never knew about the red, white, and blue needles.  I loved the comments about learning to put knots in strategic places for the German soldiers.

Priceless!  I was a small child during  WW2, but I just remember my mom writing letters every night.  Both of her brothers, my dad and his brothers were away in the war effort and she was a faithful letter writer.

susan newell wrote
on Dec 23, 2011 6:36 PM

Mine is a more recent wartime story. I picked up my needles after nearly 30 years away after my son deployed to Afghanistan early this year. And I made wool hats. Lots of them. Sent them to his unit over there for the cold Afghan winter. There are a lot of patriotic knitters still out there. Operation Gratitude collects hats & scarves to include in their holiday care packages every year. And some military moms I met in a Ravelry group knit helmet liners. Knitting has kept me sane during deployment.

agiltweed wrote
on Dec 23, 2011 6:17 PM

My aunt's father-in-law was born in the late 1800's. He was one of 16 children. He told that before any of the children were allowed to go to bed, they each had to knit 10 rows on a sock. They didnt have wooden needles but instead used broom corn straws. Their mother was pretty smart to keep them all in socks this way. I remember asking him what she was doing while they all knitted and he said, "Sometimes she was spinning!"

Paula@2 wrote
on Dec 23, 2011 2:32 PM

I am another who has a set of the red,white, and blue dpns.  And a pair of about #7 straights in same colors.  They were my mom's, possibly even my great-aunt's from wwII.  Aunt Kate taught Mom and her sisters to knit. Even taught me when I was about 6 yo.  Great tradition!

jdeputy wrote
on Dec 23, 2011 2:02 PM

During World War II, my mother, aunt and some of their friends got  together for cocktails and knitting on Friday nights.  They would read letters from their husbands who were away in Europe or the Pacific, until  one husband became a prisoner of war.  They did continue to share cocktails, conversation and knitting...but Mom said more often than not, they spent a good part of Saturday, undoing what they knit while enjoying the cocktails.

on Dec 23, 2011 12:01 PM

I still have a set of red, white, and blue needles that belonged to my grandmother.

Sewroute wrote
on Dec 23, 2011 11:49 AM

Hi, I feel very old at this moment as I remember knitting for the men in the civil spanish war.  I was probably around 8 or 10 yrs. old. so would be approx: 1937.  Time goes very quickly from my end of life.  I still knit everything. and still enjoy every moment of it.

hillmp wrote
on Dec 23, 2011 11:19 AM

I inherited a sock pattern from a great aunt that was distributed during WWII by the American Red Cross. I have the pattern in a safe place, but my aunt used the pattern that was for more of a knee-high, fitted sock and she turned the pattern into a crew sock that she made for everyone.  All the kids would wear those wool socks as slippers that you wore until they wore out!  They were great for skating across wood and tile floors! :-)  Now I make the socks and I reinforce the bottoms so they don't wear out as fast! :-)

MP Hill

on Dec 23, 2011 11:16 AM

My parents sent packages to a family in Germany after WWII.  I was a very young child, being born in 1947.  As a gift of gratitude, the wife knitted a wool dress for me, very cute and well made.  Too bad we lived in south Texas and the wool was fairly coarse.  Other than a picture that I have, I doubted I ever wore the dress.  But my mother took care of it, kept the moths out, and I have it today.

L.R.Cote wrote
on Dec 23, 2011 9:19 AM

Many of these patterns are available fee on the Red Cross's website;

d-jgalbraith wrote
on Dec 23, 2011 9:04 AM

Now I know the origin of the red white and blue DPNs I inherited from my mom; she knit for my father during WW II.

My grandmother's cousin told me of all the Quaker women knitting miles of bandages during WW I.

RKHageman wrote
on Dec 23, 2011 8:49 AM

My mother, Beverly DeWitt, was a schoolgirl during WWII, and the local doctor's wife there in Colby, Kansas came to the schools and taught the girls to knit 8-inch squares.  According to Mom, people could always tell when they went to a movie if Mrs. Jensen (?) was in the theater because her steel needles clicked as she knitted -- the more exciting the movie, the faster the needles clicked.

Some years ago I got my hands on some wartime-era steel double-pointed needles in a secondhand shop; I know they're not my mom's because she never learned to knit socks, but I keep them anyway as if they were hers.

Jane Hebert wrote
on Dec 23, 2011 8:42 AM

I was 12 years old when Pearl Harbor occured soon to enter high school.  The local Red Cross offered kn itting lessons and we could get out of class, so naturally boys and girls alike joined in to learn!  My first project after learning the stitching was to make rifle mittens on 4 needles, which sounds harder than it was.  We also rolled bnadages for the soldiers.

Benid wrote
on Dec 23, 2011 7:49 AM

During WWII, my 5th grade class, girls and boys, too, made khaki squares that were supposed to be sent away to be sewn  into afghans for The Boys Over There.  We learned to knit, I already knew how so was a helper, and we all worked diligently during recess, some squares a little squarer than others.  I wonder if they ever were put together?


DawnF@9 wrote
on Dec 23, 2011 7:29 AM

I have a set of the red, white & blue dpn's.  I got them at a tag sale, donated to the local library, for a fund-raiser.  I never knew the history behind them.  I love them because they're bendy and the perfect size for socks.  Now I know why!

KimW@2 wrote
on Dec 23, 2011 7:23 AM

I've read about WWII knitting before, although from a slightly different perspective:  that of a Dutch woman imprisoned in a labor camp for her part in aiding Jews during the war.  The female prisoners were given needles & yarn and told to knit socks for the German soldiers, so this woman did as she was told.  Another prisoner noticed the speed with which she knitted, and advised her to slow down, keeping in mind the recipients of the socks, and showed her a new "technique":  that of putting uncomfortable knots in various pressure points in the socks!

dvschaaf wrote
on Dec 23, 2011 6:51 AM

Knitting for the war effort also took place in Germany during WWII.  My Mom was in grade school in Germany during the war.  One of their "assignments" was to knit a pair of socks per week for the soldiers on the front.  She told me her mother used to try to help by finishing up her socks, but of course everyone knew because the tension was different.  My mom is gone now, but thats what she told me as she taught me how to knit-great memory!

lizmel wrote
on Dec 23, 2011 6:32 AM

Recently while editing family memories of life as a Presbyterian missionary  family in China 1920-1950, several of the children mentioned their mother

knitting sweaters.   Then they wrote about the fact that after they outgrew the

sweaters, their mother unraveled the wool yarn, steamed it  and knit larger sweaters or other clothing for them to wear.  Does anyone do this now?

I learned to knit in a Red Cross club as a 6th grader in WWII,  hoping that the

scarf I knit complete with mistakes would keep some soldier in Europe warm.


JoyceM@5 wrote
on Dec 23, 2011 5:12 AM

I designed and knit a patriotic sweater for myself during the first Iraq War (when the 1st Pres. Bush was in office). I started it the night the war began (I recall the extraordinary sight of the explosions over Baghdad) and somehow I completed it when the war was over (so I didn't have to leave it on the needles). It was an American flag design with a wraparound effect on one sleeve. It really was rather neat. There was a strong patriotic fervor then, too. One thing I could do during my wartime knitting that didn't happen during the World Wars was that I watched the war on television while I knitted at night. I think that is how I was able to pace myself and complete it "on time". I did wear it afterwards so it must have turned out OK. I also came across just last week some leftover red, white and blue skeins of  wool worsted weight yarn and a pattern for a flag design child hat from the same time that I knit for my grandsons.


dreadmama wrote
on Dec 23, 2011 4:05 AM

Hello from Denmark :-)

I just wanted to tell you about something I came across at the City Museum here in Elsinore recently. As you may know, Denmark was occupied by the *** during WW2. One of the subtle ways in which people demonstrated resistance to the occupying force was through knitted garments in the colours of the British and American flags. At the museum I saw examples of striped hats in red, blue and white. Wearing them wasn't without risk, of course.

I love how knitting may be used like this, to lift the spirits of people living in hard times.

Warm holiday wishes for all,