The Red Cross and Knitting for the War Effort

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

In May, our Registrar, Kes, wrote about a donation of materials from the Red Cross Society, Durham Branch. Along with the artefacts she highlighted in her blog post, the donation also contained several booklets produced by the Red Cross containing knitting patterns. As many might know, I am an avid knitter and love any mention of historic knitting (I’ll leave links at the end of other blogs I’ve written). I was very excited when Kes let me know that the booklets were scanned and digitized, eager to look at the patterns from decades ago. 

Four booklets were included in this donation: 

  • The Canadian Red Cross Society Selected Civilian Knitting Instructions for Women and Children (Compliments of The Yellow Pages of your Telephone Directory) (A022.23.10)
  • The Canadian Red Cross Society Knitting Instructions for the Armed Forces (Compliments of The Yellow Pages of your Telephone Directory) (A022.23.11)
  • Red Cross Knitting Instructions for War Work, Number 1 For the Services, Issued by The Canadian Red Cross Society, Revised Edition, November 1940 (A022.23.12)
  • Red Cross Knitting Instructions for War Work, Number 2 Knitted Comforts for Women, Issued by The Canadian Red Cross Society, November 1940 (A022.23.13)

These booklets were made available by the Red Cross, free of charge, to those who wanted copies. 

For those on the Homefront during the two world wars, there were many ways they contributed to the war effort. Knitting was one such way to contribute. During World War I, patterns from the Red Cross or other sources appeared in local newspapers; a pattern from the Red Cross, for example, was published in the Port Perry Star, while the pattern which appeared in the Ontario Reformer did not list a particular source. The pamphlets in our collection, which included directions for women and children – civilians – reflected a change in the nature of World War II. As stated by the Red Cross, “By the time of the Second World War… warfare had changed: battlefront and Homefront blurred, and civilian lives were routinely endangered.”1 These booklets for civilians reflect the change in the Red Cross’s mandate, expanding beyond attending to the needs of soldiers and military personnel exclusively.

The quality of the knitted goods had to reach high standards, and pieces might have been rejected or, more often, fixed by other Red Cross volunteers had it not been up to the standards. This might sound harsh, but think about it. When you have a pebble in your shoe, or maybe the seam of your sock isn’t sitting where you want it to, it can be irritating. Imagine wearing knit socks, and there were knots along the sock’s sole, or the toes haven’t been seamed correctly. Soldiers foot health was of great importance, which is why the Red Cross set out such high standards. Novice knitters, fear not. As the Globe and Mail reported in 1941, “The weaving (grafting) of the tip of the toe is a pitfall into which so many kindhearted, anxious-to-do-their bit, loyal knitters stumble; but the Red Cross workers have told me to tell you that if, when you come to the place which invariably trips you up, you will slip the twenty stitches remaining you’re your two needles onto a strand of wool, take the socks to the Red Cross – they will be delighted to finish them for you.”2 

Knitters would send their finished pieces to the Red Cross’s offices on Jarvis Street in Toronto. Here, volunteers would inspect the pieces, such as socks, mittens, scarfs, and sweaters, before sending them to the soldiers overseas. If pieces didn’t reach the high quality standard the Red Cross needed, volunteers could set about fixing the items. One volunteer, Mrs. Gibbett, was interviewed about the work of re-knitting items, and about socks, she commented “I hate to think of the poor boy’s feet after wearing a pair of those [socks with knots along the bottom under the heel and toes]. I rip them back and knit it up again.” Her job was described as ‘Unexciting,’ and even Mrs. Gibbett herself said “It’s not a very attractive job, but it’s got to be done. We can’t let all that wool go to waste, you know.”3

The Whitby Gazette & Chronicle reported in 1940 that the Whitby Red Cross branch was well into their knitting initiatives, and that between October 1939 and March 1940, they had knitted over 1000 pairs of socks for the active services.4 Whitby also boasted an instructions committee, headed by Mrs. E Bowman “who gave daily instructions in the making of all knitted garments and correct any mistakes which will not pass instruction.”

For the Oshawa Museum’s Stories from the Homefront project, many shared memories of life in Oshawa during WWII and how they contributed, including participating in salvaging drives, growing their own food in Victory Gardens, donating blood at Red Cross blood donor clinics, and knitting for the forces. Murray McKay remembered “We took up knitting in school. We used to make scarves. Each class would spend one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon,” and Jeannette Mark Nugent recalled, “It was mostly socks that I would knit, perhaps mitts. They were for the servicemen overseas. Sometimes we would put a note in the socks to the servicemen along with our name and address. Although I never received any letters, some friends I knew did hear from servicemen thanking them for the socks.” 

It was estimated that some 750,000 people on the homefront (the majority of which were likely women) produced more than 50 million garments during the Second World War.5 Locally, sewing and knitting groups had 1200 women who made nearly 50,000 articles towards the war effort.6 There were likely knitters of every skill level pitching in to do their bit. Knitting for the forces was just one way that those on the homefront supported the war efforts during the First and Second World Wars.


Here are a few other posts I have written, for those wanting more info on historic knitting:


References

  1. Canadian Red Cross WWII Civilian Knitting Instructions, https://www.redcross.ca/history/artifacts/wwii-civilian-knitting-instructions
  2. IR McK,”This and That,” The Globe and Mail, Oct 3, 1940, pg. 9
  3. “Reknits Others’ Knitting, Woman’s Job Is Unexciting,” The Globe and Mail, Aug 1, 1944, pg. 10.
  4. “Thousand Pairs of Socks Knitted by Whitby Red Cross,” The Gazette and Chronicle, March 6, 1940, page 1.
  5. That stat came from the Canadian War Museum: https://www.warmuseum.ca/blog/an-army-of-knitters-in-support-of-the-war-effort/
  6. Oshawa Historical Society, Stories from the Homefront, 2004, page ####

Additional Research:

https://www.redcross.ca/blog/2021/4/knitting-through-covid-19-and-through-red-cross-history

https://thediscoverblog.com/tag/canadian-red-cross/

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