Old patterns, new socks: A DIY story

It’s a little tough to find a Civil War sock . . . that a few hundred people can touch each year. The museum does a lot of hands-on activities for visitors and teachers. Of course, being a museum with objects that we’re trying to preserve, the “hands-on” part often involves turning to our teaching collection.

To obtain these objects, we find ourselves at flea markets, scouring eBay, or slogging through our relatives’ attics, but sometimes the objects we need are just a little too expensive or hard to find. So we find ourselves making our own replicas.

My latest adventure in this vein was making a sock for my colleague’s Civil War activity cart, not unlike this one. She found a great poster requesting that knitters create socks for the soldiers on the front-line to contribute to the Sanitary Commission. But the appropriate sock was elusive—either the stripes weren’t as prescribed on the poster’s instructions or the socks included elastic (not available until after the Civil War). So as one of the office’s resident knitters, I learned a few new knitting skills and made a red-white-and-blue striped sock of pure wool.

I started off with a web search for “Civil War sock knitting pattern.” That didn’t turn up any free patterns that made sense to me, so I moved up a little in history, and found a great WWII pattern from the Red Cross. I checked with the educator on the Civil War cart, and none of the features of the WWII sock made it inappropriate for our context.

My sock! Knitted using a WWII pattern from the Red Cross. A bit anachronistic, but it was the earliest pattern with instructions that made sense to my 21st-century brain.

Unlike the artifacts in the museum’s collection of military history uniforms, this new sock can be handled by visitors, can get a little grubby, and will someday be thrown out after it has fulfilled its usefulness. But it will give visitors a sensory connection to this bit of history. Cart facilitators can talk about the stripe pattern (used to distinguish socks from that region of the country) or about how many hours a knitter might have spent contributing to the war effort from the comfort of their hearths (it took me about 15 hours).

I’ve known plenty of teachers who have DIY’ed their way to a more robust teaching collection. Some teachers have tea-stained copies of the Declaration of Independence, or home-baked hardtack. What homemade creations have you brought into your classroom to bring history to life? Or what hobby could you turn into a teaching collection item for your child’s classroom?

Jenny Wei is an Education Specialist with the Department of Education and Interpretation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.