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:


  1. Canadian Red Cross 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:
  6. Oshawa Historical Society, Stories from the Homefront, 2004, page ####

Additional Research:

What’s in a Sock? The World War I Sock

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement 

Those who know me know that I’m an avid knitter.  I started the hobby three years ago, am largely self-taught (thank you YouTube!), and I absolutely adore it.  There is something so satisfying about creating something with a piece of string and two needles.

Directions for Making Socks, as appeared in the Ontario Reformer, Friday Sept 3, 1915, p5
Directions for Making Socks, as appeared in the Ontario Reformer, Friday Sept 3, 1915, p5

Knowing my affinity for the craft, my interest was piqued when I stumbled across a sock pattern in the Ontario Reformer from September 3, 1915.  Simply titled “Directions for Making Socks,” I knew this was a pattern I would love to try!  As this sock pattern appeared in the newspaper while World War I was happening, it is very likely this pattern was published to encourage to homefront to make these socks and send them overseas to soldiers.

Before starting this project, I was still very much a sock newbie; I had only made one pair of socks previously.  However I was up to the challenge.  I’m always trying new techniques and bigger and better patterns.  How else is one to learn?

My WWI Sock – Knitting the Leg

While making the sock, I found two things particularly challenging: the wording/language and my patience (or lack thereof!).   Patience is not a virtue I possess, especially when it comes to knitting.  I love bulky yarn and short patterns and the immediate satisfaction that comes from quickly completing a project.  The first step of the sock was ribbing (Knit 2, Purl 1 repeat) for 12 inches.  Twelve inches!  I estimated that my average time for knitting an inch while ribbing was about 1 inch/hour. Knitting the leg alone was a test of my dedication to this sock.  The foot was also a test, knitting ‘plain’ (knit stitch around) for eight inches.  I am faster with just an knit stitch, but it can be rather boring work.

My WWI Sock - Turning the heel
My WWI Sock – Turning the heel

The language was also challenging.  I found some of the terms slightly hard to follow, and right before I turned the heel, I called my grandmother and asked her advice on what the pattern was asking!

On and off, I was working on this sock for 7 weeks.  It would have been done faster if it was the only project I was working on, but I have to have a few things going to keep me engaged.

116th Knitting Society Notes, Ontario Reformer Dec 7, 1917
116th Knitting Society Notes, Ontario Reformer Dec 7, 1917

During the First World War, Oshawa’s 116th Knitting Society was busy making socks for the men at the front; the Ontario Reformer in December 1917 reported the Knitting Society sent 56 pairs to France.  If the socks were anything like the one I made, then I commend the members of the Knitting Society, and I’m sure they were much appreciated by the soldiers.

My finished WWI Sock
My finished WWI Sock


Directions for Making Socks, Ontario Reformer, Sept 3, 1915

Cast on 72 stitches; divide among your DPNs (I used 3: 18 sts, 36 sts, 18 sts), join, and knit rib (K2, P1) until the leg measured 12”.

Once 12”, knit to the needle with 36 sts – work these 36 sts plain (WS), and K1 S1 (RS) until it is 2 1/2” long.

Transfer instep sts to one needle; divide heel stitches among 3 needles, 12 sts on each – knit the 12 stitches on the first needle then follow heel shape instructions:

Shape heel:
* keep 12 sts on middle needle:
RS slip one stitch from side needle & k2tog, k10, slip 1 st from side needle and k2tog (11 sts, 12 sts, 11sts on the three needles);
WS: knit the 12 middle needle sts

* cont working 12 middle needle sts in this mannor until each side needle has 1 st each (14 sts total) – slip those 2 side needle sts to the middle needle

Pick up and knit 16 sts along heel side – knit across 36 sts – pick up and knit 16 sts from opposite heel side – divide sts among 3 needles (82 sts total – 24 on needle 1, 34 instep stson needle 2, 24 on needle 3)

Shape Instep:
Needle 1: knit to last 4 sts; k2tog, k2
Needle 2: knit
Needle 3: k2, ssk, knit to end Next round: knit -Repeat these two rounds until 68 sts total

Knit plain until foot measures 8 inches;

Decrease for toe:
First round: k6, k2tog, rep to last 4 sts which are knit
Next 5 rounds: knit plain
Next row: k5, k2tog, rep to last 4 sts which are knit
Next row: k4, k2tog, rep to last 4 sts which are knit
Next row: k3, k2tog, rep to last 4 sts which are knit
Next row: k2, k2tog, rep around
Next row: k1, k2tog, rep around
Next row: k2tog, rep around – 9 sts remain

Break yarn, leaving a tail. Draw through the stitches (I drew through 3 times) and fasten with a darning needle.

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