My grandmother, Grace Hunter, used to knit, read, and watch television at the same time. She sat in her well-worn high-backed armchair, with her Women’s Own magazine or her Harlequin romance flattened open on the wide armrest, and watch her soap opera or a game show. I realize now that she was reading when the commercials were on but when I was a child, it seemed to me that she could follow the television and read simultaneously. Her lips moved silently to the beat of the clicking knitting needles. Every so often I heard her take in a deep breath as she concentrated on her knitting rather than the television or her book.
My memories of Nana knitting were more than thirty years after the end of World War II. She was a volunteer knitter for the war effort. This well-worn knitting instruction sheet for Spitfire Service Socks suggests that it was used often.
It is most likely that Nana learned to knit as a young girl. She came from a modest working class family so knitting would have been a necessary skill. During World War I, Grace’s father, John Hunter, was stationed in France. Knitting for the soldiers was an act of patriotism and is was highly likely that Grace, thirteen when her dad went off to war, would have knitted so that the care package that the family sent overseas would contain some warm socks and other knitted clothing.
My mom told me that when World War II broke out, my grandmother was active in the war effort. She belonged to the women’s auxiliary in the church and they held knitting bees, held fund raisers, and catered parties for the men on the eve of their departure for war. Knitting socks and other clothing was one way, among many, of doing something tangible for the men who had gone to war.
During both World Wars, the Canadian Red Cross issued knitting instructions to civilians so that they could contribute to the war effort. Below is a picture of a booklet published during World War II. 1
The Red Cross was also in charge of collecting and distributing the knitting. Before sending the knitting overseas, the Red Cross inspected all items. Volunteers also helped with the quality control inspections and some knitters corrected mistakes made by others, such as taking out knots in heels of socks. Some volunteers would take the knitting completely apart and redo it, if needed. 2
The Canadian Red Cross estimated that 750,000 women knitted more than 50 million garments for the military in World War II.3
Even the style of knitting underwent a transformation. Continental-style knitting was popular in Germany but it fell out of favour in English speaking countries during World War II. Knitters changed to English-style knitting. The difference between the two styles is the hand in which the yarn is held. Continental-style knitters hold the yard in the left hand, not the right. Nana always had her yarn in the right hand, as her reading material was on the left armrest of her chair.4 She needed her left hand free to turn the page.
- Canadian Red Cross, WWII Civilian Knitting Instructions, https://www.redcross.ca/history/artifacts/wwii-civilian-knitting-instructions, accessed April 26, 2020
- Canadian War Museum, An Army of Knitters in Support of the War Effort, March 10, 2014, https://www.warmuseum.ca/blog/an-army-of-knitters-in-support-of-the-war-effort/, accessed April 26, 2020
- Weightman, Judy, More Knitting History, World War II, October 9, 2012, https://judyweightman.wordpress.com/2012/10/09/more-knitting-history-world-war-ii/, accessed April 26, 2020