Sock Knitting in the Civil War

Knitting history is fascinating, and the upcoming new issue of Knitting Traditions, from PieceWork magazine, is a wonderful source for the interesting bits of knitting lore that we love so much.

Engraving, "Six and Eighty-Six Knitting for the Soldiers." From The Tribute Book: A Record of the Munificence, Self-Sacrifice and Patriotism of the American People during the War for the Untion, 1865. (Courtesy of Lynne Zacek Bassett.)

What caught my eye this time was a story about knitting socks during the Civil War, and what an important role those handcrafted treasures played in both the knitters' and the soldiers' lives.

Historian and author Lynne Zacek Bassett wrote the article for Knitting Traditions, and I thought you'd enjoy a little excerpt.

Busy Fingers: Knitting Stockings in the Civil War

South Carolina resident Mary Chesnut commented in her diary late in the summer of 1861, "I do not know when I have seen a woman without knitting in her hand." In the North as well as in the South, knitting needles clicked incessantly during the Civil War years (1861-1865).

Although machine-knitted stockings were widely available, they were considered inferior to handknit stockings and wore out quickly from the rigors of long marches and insufficient washing.

The call for handknitted stockings went out throughout the country. Stories of soldiers going barefoot or suffering from blistered, swollen, and infected feet from wearing their boots without stockings spurred females young and old to take up their knitting needles.

Winslow Homer's engraving "Christmas Boxes in Camp—Christmas 1861," which appeared on the cover of the January 4, 1862, Harper's Weekly, depicts a group of soldiers joyfully receiving a crate of gifts, including new stockings. John L. Hayes, a wool lobbyist, called stockings" . . . the class of clothing the most indispensable for the health and comfort of our soldiers."

Women and girls often enclosed notes offering Christian instruction, encouragement, or even jokes along with their stockings to the military camps and hospitals. Teenage girls, finding the idea of corresponding with a soldier romantic, wrote notes such as this one published in Mary A. Livermore's My Story of the War:

"MY BRAVE FRIEND,—I have learned to knit on purpose to knit socks for the soldiers. This is my fourth pair. My name is—and I live in—. Write to me, and tell me how you like the foot-gear and what we can do for you. Keep up good courage, and by and by you will come home to us. Won't that be a grand time, though? And won't we turn out to meet you, with flowers and music, and cheers and embraces? 'There's a good time coming, boys!'"

Beyond the practical accomplishment of supplying seemingly endless quantities of stockings, knitting answered the emotional need of women and girls who were desperate to participate in the struggle for their country. Woman's Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, Patriotism, and Patience (1867), states, "Men did not take to the musket, more commonly than women took to the needle. . . ."—the sewing or the knitting needle.

—By Lynne Zacek Bassett, from Knitting Traditions, Spring 2012

For the rest of this article and so much more, I invite you to order your issue of Knitting Traditions today.


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Kathleen Cubley

About Kathleen Cubley

Hello daily knitters! I'm the editor of Knitting Daily. I've been obsessed with knitting for about ten years now and my favorite projects are sweaters. I like the occasional smaller project, but there's nothing like yards of stockinette with a well-placed cable or a subtle stitch pattern here and there. I crochet a bit now and then—especially when I need to produce a baby blanket in time for the baby shower. I've been in publishing for 20 years and I'm finally exactly where I want to be: at the crossroads of knitting and communication. I live in Spokane, Washington and when I'm not knitting I enjoy gardening, snuggling with my dogs, swimming, reading, and playing in the snow in the winter. But, really, I'm pretty much always knitting!

7 thoughts on “Sock Knitting in the Civil War

  1. I enjoyed this article. It has me wondering when pre-spun yarn became available for sale. Were all of these knitters also spinning their own wool? Thanks

  2. This reminded me of an article I found in a Zanesville, Ohio newspaper about my gr-gr-grandmother. I don’t know if she was knitting socks or other items that the soldiers could use but it is interesting that she was criticized for her efforts.

    While great praise is justly given to the ladies of Zanesville and other places, for their benevolent efforts in behalf of the sick and wounded soldiers of our gallant army, I desire to name Mrs. Noah Swank, of Washington Township, as deserving the greatest commendation for her efforts in their behalf. She has, by her own efforts, secured subscriptions to a large amount in Washington and Perry Townships, and with other patriotic ladies, is engaged in making many useful articles for the comfort of the unfortunate braves of our army. Her labors are all the more to be appreciated, from the fact, that in quite a number of instances, she has met with rebuffs and opposition from those who sympathize with the rebellion, and who would aid it with their money, if they dared. Some of these soulless traitors deserve, and will receive, that public expostiton of their declarations which befits them.

    Zanesville Daily Courier (Zanesville, Muskingum, Ohio) 1 May 1862

  3. I look forward to this story of sock knitting in the Civil War. I would love to see a history of knitted millinery sometime. Annie Modesitt along with yours truly would be a great resource on this topic (I’ve knit Annie’s millinery patterns plus I’ve taken numerous millinery classes).

  4. Remember the first chapter of _Little Women_?

    “‘I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy. And it’s worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with Papa. And I can only stay home and knit, like a poky old woman!’

    And Jo shook the blue army sock till the needles rattled like castanets, and her ball bounded across the room.”

  5. My brother is an avid Civil War re-enactor. There are era-authentic patterns for socks on several websites if anyone is interested in trying their hand it it!

  6. I read “Yankee Stranger” by Elswyth Thane and was intrigued by the image of the women in this book always having a sock on needles in their apron pocket. The main character said that only her grandmother was capable of making socks for her father, her socks went to her brothers. Right then and there, I started knitting socks.