THE BLOG

Knitting For Soldiers in the First World War

17/07/2014 11:12 BST | Updated 15/09/2014 10:59 BST

The Knitting and Crochet Guild collection is housed in a warehouse in Yorkshire. Most people wouldn't even know it was there, but to the die hard this is a mecca of inspiration and history, and I was lucky enough to visit it recently. Among the actual garments, patterns and equipment one of the most poignant items I see is a tablecloth with the words welcome home crocheted on it. Made in 1915 by a young girl called Ethel Booth as she waited for her father to come home from the First World War. Ethel and many families in Britain could not possibly have imagined that they would have another anxious three years to wait before some of their loved ones would return - no one at that time believed the war could go on for so long.

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© Barbara Smith

With World War I and its horrors so much in the public mind I wanted to share the impact that this war to end all wars had on the day-to-day life of women and children in this country through the most normal of items - a knitted sock. The formidable Queen Mary led the movement to keep our troops warm during winter in the trenches, when Lord Kitchener asked her to undertake the huge task of providing 30,000 pairs of socks for our brave lads. Unfortunately with all the nice middle class ladies knitting away, many working class women lost out on a valuable revenue stream. After a meeting with the Queen it was suggested that ladies from the upper echelons might buy the wool and pay the lower classes to knit the socks, keeping everyone happy.

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©Juliet Bernard

Every magazine and yarn manufacturer at the time mobilised to produce patterns for what became known as soldiers and sailors comforts. Not only were these items of practical use but they had an important part to play in keeping our brave boys motivated, knowing that mothers, sisters and sweethearts were thinking of them and sending them love in each and every stitch. Wool became scarce so back home outgrown jumpers were carefully unpicked and fashioned into new more practical items. Of course there were socks lots of them but also more unusual items such as balaclavas with a flap on the ears which could be lifted so soldiers could listen out for the enemy. There were knitting patterns for gloves that had a separate forefinger and thumb to make firing a gun easier. Large knitted belts were popular to keep the internal organs warm in the trenches. It's hard to imagine how difficult it must have been to knit bandages in garter stitch because it was good an stretchy, as well as knitted eye patches to hold dressings in place. I simply didn't realise these patterns existed.

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While the archive holds many of these patterns there are few actual examples of knitted items. Some undoubtedly wore out (too precious to throw away), while some would have been unpicked and re-knitted. Tragically many would have been buried with the men who fell in France and Belgium and lie in one of the war graves - a testament to the army of women, who determined not to let a single soldier go without a simple knitted item such as a sock, imbued every stitch with a desperate hope that for many remain unfulfilled.