From the outbreak of war in August 1914 and for its duration, knitting comforts for soldiers and sailors became a national pastime. It wasn’t just women involved either, men, children, German prisoners of war and recovering combatants in war hospitals were all encouraged to pick up knitting needles and a recipe (the name often used for a knitting pattern) to do their bit for the war effort.
There was a genuine need for garments because in the first couple of months of the war, over 235,000 men enlisted and needed kitting out. Three pairs of socks were the official allocation per man but with flooded trenches and long route marches, they didn’t last long. There was also a secondary benefit from the knitting craze. Encouraging people to buy British wool kept the big wool manufacturers, like Baldwin’s of Halifax and Patons of Alloa, Scotland, in business and that provided employment.
It wasn’t just socks. Magazines carried instructions for knitting waistcoats, helmets (sleeping and balaclava style), mitts, body belts, mufflers, jerseys – almost any garment could be knitted. The knitted Cholera belt was officially recommended ‘as a great safeguard against chill from exposure and damp, and also safeguards against intestinal disorders.’
Garments of all sorts, all sizes and knitted by people of varying abilities made their way to the front. The one thing these garments had in common was the colour – khaki. And when they had served their purpose as clothing, the remains were used to clean rifles and boots.
By Ina Taylor