Monday, July 4, 2011

Independence Day

Happy 4th of July!  As I consider those who fought for our independence, I think about how difficult it was to fight that war in those years and in those conditions.  All the soldiers wore handmade socks, like everyone else in those days.  A call was put out by most women who had loved ones in the army for stockings to be made in their son's, husband's, or relative's size.  Those socks were credited with helping the men survive Valley Forge by no less than George Washington himself.  He remarked in a letter home to Martha that the new trend of "socks without heels" (tube socks) had been a boon to the men, as they wore more evenly, and lasted longer.  He implored the women at home to keep knitting, as he wanted the men to have at least two pairs of socks each, and each pair only lasted an average of 45 days.  (All the marching was tough on the socks.)

The Civil War was no different.  The women at home began knitting in groups, making all manner of socks, "helmets" (hats and balaclavas), and gloves.  It was hard work, and over a million garments are estimated to have been knitted and used at the front.

World Wars One and Two brought on the biggest surge of homefront knitting.  On November 21, 1941, Life Magazine devoted most of the issue to teaching American women to knit, and included patterns for socks and a vest to be made in standard sizes for the troops.  Citizens for the Army and Navy, a citizens' group, mentioned in an article that the armed forces needed a million garments by Christmas.  The need was filled in three weeks.

Knitting was Patriotic.  Wool was in very short supply, as it was largely used to make uniforms and bedding for our troops.  "Reclaimed" wool was common, and "Virgin" wool was a luxury.  "Ragg" wool sweaters were knit for loved ones at home, the first time that sweaters made it to the American mainstream fashion pages.  (Previously they were only used in sports.)  Children were taking knitting lessons in school, and according to records from the Red Cross, most of the garments made by children were approved and shipped for use by our troops.

Women knitted in every conceivable place - on buses, at movies, during dinner parties, through college classes, and even in church.  The first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, was famously called the First Knitter, toting her knitting bag everywhere, and knitting in public several times a week.  The patriot knitters knit voraciously whenever yarn was available.  When the war came to an end, there were millions of accomplished knitters on the home front, and yarn companies were not going to let them sit idle.

After years of knitting for others, women wanted to knit for themselves and their families.  Fashion knitting patterns appeared in women's magazines, became available at department stores, and were sold with yarns, now once again widely available after the wartime shortages.  New colors and standard needle sizes made knitting easier in the early fifties, and standardized skeins and patterns quickly came into vogue.  Knitting for children and babies became a must for grandparents and expectant mothers.
These knitters created the demands that made knitting what it is today.  Circular needles, beautiful colors and fibers, fast action tips, standardized needles and patterns - all of these advantages were developed for war-era knitters.  Knitting is a marvelous link to our past, and our history.  As I knit today, I'm silently grateful to those who made my favorite hobby such a joy.

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