Showing support for the Great War with knitting needles

Today, I spend spare time between classes working at my college's library or hanging out with friends. Had I been an American college student 100 years ago, my free moments might have been consumed by an altogether different task—knitting socks, sweaters, hats, and gloves for American soldiers preparing to spend their first winter in European trenches during World War I.

Poster with "You can help" and "American Red Cross." Imagine in pencil line drawing of a woman knitting. She sits in a chair, looking at her work.

When the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, the military scrambled to secure the materials and industrial capacity necessary to outfit the soldiers heading off to Europe. While enlistees were issued the basics required for survival, including stockings and a heavy overcoat, this uniform included no sweaters, hats, or gloves necessary to keep them comfortable.

To fill this gap, the American Red Cross began a national knitting campaign. Red Cross branches distributed yarn, advertised the need for knitwear, and distributed standard patterns for the most needed items. Women from all over the country, from college students to grandmothers, promised to knit for "Sammy." Over 19 months of U.S. involvement in the war, they donated 24 million pieces of clothing for soldiers, according to Anne L. Macdonald's 1988 book No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting.

Yarn manufacturers responded by diverting their wool supplies to yarn marketed for military use. In order to display and advertise their yarns, companies such as the Philadelphia-based S.B & B.W. Fleisher Inc. distributed sample garments knit from the Red Cross patterns. A set containing sweater vests, scarves, wristlets, socks, helmets—similar to balaclavas—and a mitten with separate trigger finger, all knit in army khaki and navy gray, was sent to the Smithsonian in 1918.

Photo of an Army green sock (with prominent ankle) and yarn knot.

Knitted item in army green with space for your face to stick out

Three knitted items in Army green and grey. One is mitten-shaped. Two are tube-shaped.

One of the pleasures of working with objects like these during my internship has been reviewing the wealth of archival information available to accompany them, including the original patterns. Armed with instructions from a 1917 issue of The Delineator, a popular fashion magazine, I set about trying to knit my own pair of World War I winter wristlets.

Page of knitting instructions with black and white images/illustrations. Title "Knitted articles for the American Red Cross." Shows men in vests, mittens, socks.

Surprisingly, gathering materials was the hardest part of the project. In the wonderland of multicolored synthetics and novelty yarn that was my craft store, simple worsted wool was nearly impossible to find. Finally, I did find gray worsted weight wool yarn after much searching. It's almost exactly the same as the original stuff, though the dye is probably very different. Next came deciding what needles to use. The original pattern calls for "Red Cross No. 2" needles, but as a novice knitter, I settled for modern size nines, the standard for the type of yarn I used, made of wood.

After that, however, the actual knitting went incredibly smoothly. Although I'm a fairly mediocre knitter, the first wristlet was finished in about four hours. A knitter in 1917, who likely had more experience, could have been even faster.

Photo of a person's hand knitting a gray wristlet

Photo of an arm and hand wearing a wristlet. It's like a long mitten but fingers and thumb emerge.

The wristlet was the simplest pattern of the knitted items in our collection, but all the Delineator patterns are no-frills, and could be accomplished by a knitter who knew only the very basics. The exception here might be socks—Macdonald notes that the relative difficulty of turning the heel was a common source of anxiety for novice knitters. This simplicity both ensured that items could be made quickly and efficiently, and made them accessible to those with different levels of experience and time to commit to volunteering.

While volunteer knitters' free labor supplemented a garment industry struggling to meet demand, the knitting campaign also had deep emotional impact on the American people. Hand-knit clothes—whether from loved ones or strangers—may have reminded soldiers of the support they had from the home front, and knitting gave those unable to fight a critical sense of involvement in the war effort.

If you want to make your very own World War I knitware, you can find the pattern online.

Miranda Johnson completed a curatorial internship in the Division of Home and Community Life in summer 2017.

Join us on Instagram and Twitter on Thursday, November 9, 2017, for #WW1Stories Social Media Day. We'll share objects and stories from the Great War.