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:

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. Knowing my affinity for the craft, … Continue reading “What’s in a Sock? The World War I Sock”


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/

Street Name Stories – the ‘Knitting’ Streets

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

Those who know me know that I’m an avid knitter. In fact, in the past I’ve written a blog post about a WWI Sock knitting pattern, I’ve examined some of Oshawa’s early woolen industries, and I’ve done a deep dive into one of those industries, the Empire Woolen Mills, available to read on our Discover Historic Oshawa site.

A woman, dressed in historic clothing, is knitting outside
Knitting at an Culture Squared in 2016; thanks to Carla from the RMG for the photo!

As well, I really enjoy this blog series, examining the stories behind many of the street names in Oshawa. Many have local connections, such as Ritson, Adelaide, and Skae, while others’ roots have a larger scope, like the streets names for WWI or WWII battle sites, Simcoe Street, explorers, or royalty.

As I was looking at the Oshawa map, looking for inspiration for a new post, I found quite a few names that are woven into the fabric of the fibre work world (I’m sorry, I was really stretching for that pun!).

I’ve previously written about Kitchener Avenue. His name has been given to a common grafting technique for finishing a pair of socks. In my original post, I made only passing mention of the more controversial aspects of Kitchener as a person – I should have delved further into him and why he is seen, rightfully, as extremely problematic. I know of quite a few knitters who avoid calling this technique by his name because of his actions during the Boer War and the creation of internment camps, atrocities that would be repeated over 40 years later by Nazi Germany.

While we’re talking about knitting and their namesakes, the community of Raglan, and in turn Raglan Road, was named in honour of Lord Raglan, a British commander in the Crimean War. These sleeves continue into the collar of a sweater as opposed to having armhole seams. Having made quite a few cardigans with raglan sleeves, I can say I’m a fan of the technique.

A woman is standing beside a brick building, wearing a t-shirt that says Oshawa
Lisa, standing outside of Robinson House – the cardigan I’m wearing has raglan sleeves

Speaking of cardigans (see what I did there), there Cardigan Court can be found northeast of Beatrice and Ritson, just off Trowbridge Road. Cardigans were named for another officer of the Crimean War.  James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, was a British Army major general who led the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War.

Of course, there is Oshawa’s Mill Street. This street is deserving of a post of its own, and I’m sure one will come in due time. Mill Street is located at a run in the Oshawa Creek, and many industries had harnessed the creek’s power for their mills, including Gorham’s woolen mill.

A street sign for Mill Street and Capreol Cr., Oshawa
Mill Street and Capreol Cr., Oshawa

On my ‘bucket list’ of vacation destinations are the Shetland Islands, home to the Shetland sheep, and one of the isles is Fair Isle whose name is lent to a popular and, let’s be honest, stunning, knitting style. Shetland Court can be found southeast of Thornton and Rossland, amongst other Scottish inspired streets.

These are the streets I could find with a few quick searches of Oshawa’s maps that relate to my beloved pastime. Have I missed any? Please let me know!

Early Woolen Enterprises in Oshawa

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

When I’m not sharing the history of Oshawa or giving tours of the site, I can usually be found with knitting needles and yarn in my hands. A voracious knitter with a dangerous yarn shopping habit, I’m rarely cold as I’m usually covered in wool.  Naturally, my interest is piqued when knitting or wool is mentioned in a historical context, like how I could not resist knitting the pair of socks from a pattern published in the local newspaper in 1916.  In Jill’s post from mid-November, she recounted that in the Sam Pedlar manuscript, the earliest business mentioned is Beagle & Conklin, purveyors of spinning wheels and handlooms in 1793.  Be still, my heart. This got me curious as to how many other woolly industries has Oshawa been home to through the years.

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Knitting at an Culture Squared in 2016; thanks to Carla from the RMG for the photo!

Let’s start with Beagle & Conklin. Pedlar serves as the resource for this industry.  After arriving in Oshawa in the early 1790s, Benjamin Wilson was so taken with the area that he wrote letters to those whom he knew in the States, espousing the greatness of Upper Canada, and Beagle & Conklin arrived as a result of one of Wilson’s letters.  They established their business of making spinning wheels and handlooms around 1793.  As stated by Pedlar: “It has often been asked how came it about that Oshawa is such an industrial centre, in the light of its history it is easily accounted for. So long as shaft and pulley revolves in Oshawa’s busy works, may the names of Beagle and Conklin be kept in mind.”

A number of woolen mills, where wool is processed, have also been located in Oshawa through the years.  Perhaps the largest such industry was Schofield, who were located on Centre Street and in our community from 1892-1951. It is worth noting that woolen mills were often large employers of women, and this was indeed the case with Schofield.

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The Oshawa Creek provided power to many of the early mills in our community, including Gorham’s woolen mill, located at what Pedlar called ‘The Hollow;’ he was referring to the area around what is today Mill Street.  The proprietor was Joseph Gorham, and this woolen mill was established in 1822, in the same vicinity of Dearborn & Cleveland’s grist mill.  Pedlar asserts, “this woolen mill so far as the writer has been able to learn is the third industry which utilized the water power of the Oshawa Creek.”  Before long, the Hollow was the home of E Smith’s distillery and Miles Luke’s tannery.  It is not known how long Gorham’s woolen mill was in business, but Joseph himself died in 1839, aged 50 years, buried at the Pioneer Memorial Gardens Cemetery.

An enterprising man, Samuel Hall was a prolific builder in our community, establishing factories, saw mills, helped with a store house and elevator at Port Oshawa, and a woolen mill north of the town.

The Oshawa Creek also provided power to Ethan Card, another woolen and carding mill established around 1842.  His was located at the ‘raceway,’ along the creek north of King Street, where the creek ‘races’ along. He was also laid to rest at the Pioneer Memorial Gardens, passing away in 1854.

If we look to the northern communities in Oshawa, there was the Empire Woolen Mill in Columbus.  It was located just outside the village, another mill that harnessed the power of the creek.  It was reportedly the largest mill in the area.  It was established in 1835 by Mathewson and Ratcliffe and was sold to the Empire Mills Company in 1850. According to information from Archaeological Services Inc., approximately 50 workers were employed by this business, many of whom were brought to the area from Lancashire and Yorkshire in England, and they resided either in boarding houses or small cottages.  The business moved in 1887, and a flood three years later washed away the mill’s dam.

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Empire Woolen Mills near Columbus, c. 1883 (AX995.169.1)

Finally, we know our own Thomas Henry dabbled with wool. As per the 1851 agricultural census, amongst his other crops and livestock, he had 27 sheep with 100 pounds of wool.  An interesting note in the 1868 Vindicator tells us Thomas had an incident involving his sheep.  As reported:

Returned – Three of the sheep advertised by Mr. Thomas Henry, have returned home without their fleeces, but marked with a hole in the right ear.  If the man who was kind enough to shear them will be kind enough to return the fleeces and the two missing sheep, he will be paid for the shearing, but not for the marking.

Finally, memories shared by one of Thomas’s granddaughters, Arlie DeGuerre, gives a glimpse into how Thomas’s daughters would have passed time inside the house:

One can scarcely imagine the work it was to clothe and feed a family of 14 children, especially when all the yarn was carded and spun from the sheep’s wool and then woven into cloth right at home.  The big loom was in a corner of the kitchen and it seemed to never stop.  On into the later evening one could hear the shuttle go back and forth; one foot peddle go down and then the other as Mother Henry wove the cloth for trousers, shirts, and dresses and all the woolen cloth used in the home.  Elizabeth the second eldest girl became the seamstress.  She sewed nearly all the time.  The girls knit socks and mitts, pieced quilts, mended and darned socks during most of their spare hours.

Oshawa has long been known as a manufacturing community, the creek providing power to the early industries that became established here, many of which were woolen mills, preparing the fibres so that warm clothes could be made.



Addendum: October 2020 – I was looking in our database at the Thomas Henry Correspondence Collection, a donation received in 2013 and has been written about before on the blog. I was very delighted to see this as part of the collection:

A013.4.221

Unfortunately, this slip of paper is undated and has no additional context, but Thomas Henry is named on this receipt for 10lbs (or 1.0lb) of yarn. A surprise like this was worthy of an addendum to this post.

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?

20140630_140520
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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