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Peace -AND- War
"If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other."
THERE WOULD SEEM, AT FIRST GLANCE, TO BE NOTHING PEACEFUL ABOUT KNITTING IN TIMES OF WAR. TO MANY, KNITTING TO SUPPORT THOSE FIGHTING IN WAR MAY SEEM AS THOUGH IT SUPPORTS THE WAR ITSELF. BUT PEACE IS NOT A COMMODITY EXCLUSIVE TO PACIFISTS. ANYONE IN A DIFFICULT SITUATION—FROM WAR REFUGEES TO SOLDIERS ON BATTLEFRONTS—DESERVES SOME MEASURE OF PERSONAL PEACE. THAT IS WHAT HAS INSPIRED KNITTERS THROUGHOUT HISTORY TO KNIT FOR THEM ALL, ESPECIALLY DURING THE MOST DEVASTATING AND DEMORALIZING TIMES. You don't have to embrace war to knit for warriors, as Jeanne Dykstra, who organizes an effort to knit for troops stationed in Iraq, points out. "These soldiers are America's children," she states, echoing the words of people who have been carrying on a tradition of "knitting for Sammy," "knitting their bit," or "knitting for the boys" (and girls) that has lasted more than two hundred years.
America was founded in an act of noncompliance, and it's no surprise that colonial knitters stitched in that spirit as well. Britain's tight restrictions on its colonies led American colonists to dig in their heels. Spinning, weaving, knitting, and sewing, formerly seen as domestic roles of the "weaker sex," became a new way to assert American independence. Home production of clothing became a protest; spinning bees and knitting circles became resistance movements.
When the Revolutionary War began, women were urged to "cast their mite into the public good," to assist the government in clothing its army, and they did not disappoint. From Virginia to New Jersey, they furiously knit socks and sewed shirts for the soldiers—in addition to those they made for their own (usually sizeable) families. Others used their knitting to forward the war effort in more subversive ways. "Old Mom Rinker," a knitter near Philadelphia, passed on tidbits of British military information garnered from eavesdropping tavern keepers. In a way only a knitter could conceive of, she embedded notes to General Washington in balls of yarn, went to a cliff outside of town, and perched there with her knitting, the picture of innocence. When the general's troops passed along the path below, she would nudge a ball of yarn over the cliff edge, landing it at their feet. One of the troops would just as innocently pick it up, and the message would be hastened to General Washington.
Almost a century later, during the Civil War, the pleas for knitted things—especially socks—came directly from the soldiers. Personal appeals, sent to mothers and sisters and wives in battlefield letters from soldiers with frostbitten feet and tattered boots, heightened the knitters' sense of urgency. With no government bidding, women automatically organized themselves to roll bandages, collect donations, and knit.
Knitters in the North were particularly efficient at organizing knitting and sewing circles, having long gathered for such domestic pursuits in church societies and social gatherings. They began knitting for young men from their own region, but the desire to knit in the spirit of Union solidarity—for any Union soldier on the battlefield—soon became apparent. In 1861, community leaders from across the North established the United States Sanitary Commission, a predecessor of the Red Cross that organized the charitable efforts of Northern women and streamlined the distribution of items to the Union soldiers. Together, women churned out gloves, mufflers, blankets, and a veritable flood of socks—all stamped "U.S. Sanitary Commission"—freely given to anonymous soldiers and often accompanied by a note of encouragement.
In the South, women faced more organizational obstacles—greater distances between their homes, few established sewing and knitting circles, scarce materials, and a prevailing belief in women's helplessness. But they cared for their soldiers as much as any woman in the North, and when the need arose, they knit just as determinedly. As in the North, Southern women knit first for their own sons and husbands, then the collective Confederate need. With battles occurring literally in their backyards, many women stuffed their pockets with socks and delivered them to soldiers themselves. Plantation houses were set up as knitting and sewing centers. War knitting bees offered camaraderie as well as a release for the knitters' fear and worry.
Everyone, it seems, in the North and South alike was enlisted to knit: expert older women, young belles, General Lee's wife, slaves, children, even convalescent soldiers. All efforts were welcomed. Whether a soldier was on the winning or losing side, whether he lived or died, his feet were warmed and, at least for a time, his spirits lifted.
A new generation of wartime knitting began in 1914, when Germany invaded Belgium and northern France, signaling the beginning of World War I. The Red Cross recruited knitters nationwide to clothe and comfort Allied soldiers, European civilians, and, eventually, U.S. troops. This effort was formalized in 1916; known as the Production Corps, it included knitting, sewing, and bandage-making. "Women at home during the war wanted to do something," says Thomas Goehner of the Red Cross Museum, "and giving a part of themselves through knitting was a way they could contribute."
With headquarters in Washington, D.C., and chapters located nationwide, the Red Cross Production Corps was an efficient organization, able to quickly communicate specific knitting needs and distribute regulation yarns, patterns, and needles to knitters all over the world. Knitters were recruited through advertisements in local newspapers and the Red Cross Magazine, and knitting was promoted at bond rallies, war parades, and Red Cross meetings. Patterns were published by the Red Cross and other relief organizations, yarn manufacturers, needlework magazines, and even the New York Times. The Red Cross set quotas for each chapter and received handknit items by the millions, packed for immediate shipment to France. Between 1917 and 1919, when the war ended, more than 8 million Red Cross chapter members produced more than 370 million relief articles for the Allied forces and civilians in Europe (though no records were kept of exactly how many of those were hand-knit).
But the knitting effort extended beyond the scope of the Red Cross. John D. Rockefeller opened his Fifth Avenue mansion in New York City to accommodate busy knitters, and the Navy League sponsored a three-day knitting bee in Central Park in 1918. Despite the withering heat, the bee yielded hundreds of woolen knit goods. Huskier sorts–firefighters, police officers, and even Governor Hunt of Arizona–took up their knitting for "Sammy," generating great publicity for the knitting cause. President Wilson allowed a flock of sheep to graze on the White House lawn; their shorn wool eventually sold for $1,000 a pound at a Red Cross auction.
Some critics suggested that all this knitting was a waste of time, energy, and resources, arguing that the items provided were more "comforts" than "necessities." But soldiers in foxholes would probably have argued otherwise, and knitters certainly did. Their fingers flew throughout the war and well into its aftermath, when the Red Cross urged them to keep knitting garments for war refugees and hospitalized soldiers. In 1925, actress Mary Pickford—perhaps the first celebrity knitter—knit between scenes of her latest photoplay in support of ongoing Red Cross efforts.
When World War II began in 1939, knitters instinctively reached for their needles and, spurred on by such role models as Eleanor Roosevelt, began knitting once again "for the boys." They started by "knittin' for Britain" through the Red Cross Production Corps and Bundles for Britain, then for their own soldiers when the United States entered the war. Between 1939 and 1946, these knitters made an astonishing number of items—about 65 million, all told—for U.S. troops, Allies, and civilians.
For soldiers in trenches and on ships, only wool yarn would do, and it was supplied to the Red Cross by yarn companies such as Bear Brand and Bucilla. So much wool was consumed for the war effort that wool shortages occasionally stilled knitters' fingers until a new supply was acquired. Once received, garments were scrupulously inspected. Oftentimes, poorly knit items were ripped out by Production Corps sticklers and reknit or returned to the knitter. Even the packaging of knit items was strictly prescribed by Production Corps officials; the post-knitting instructions for the Red Cross–approved muffler direct knitters to fold it in half five times, then tie securely in packages of five.
The knitting efforts of World War II were colored by a new generation and a new era. More celebrities were knitting, ditties about knitting were playing on the radio, and college coeds were taking up knitting in droves. Department stores and fashion magazines touted the benefits of wartime knitting, realizing the impact this could have on their sales. Knitters only knit harder, with ever-altruistic intentions. They may not have been working in munitions factories, but they were helping.
Even after World War II ended, knitters of the Red Cross Production Corps stayed active for many years, knitting for veterans and refugees. When the Korean War began in 1950, relief efforts toward Korean people—especially orphaned children—spurred knitters affiliated with organizations like Church World Service to knit once more. But as time went on, military needs and women's roles changed, and with them, the necessity of knitting for soldiers. The Red Cross phased out its Production Corps in the 1960s, and little evidence exists of knitting either for troops or refugees during the Vietnam War.
Today, knitting for troops stationed abroad—some actively involved in war—is once again a high priority for many knitters. Groups like The Ships Project, Operation Toasty Toes, and others coordinate nationwide knitting efforts to supply soldiers with warm slippers, hats, and other comfort items (see page 19) Knitting guilds, after-school programs, and other small, localized knitting groups support units in which community members and loved ones are stationed. All fulfill an important role: bringing a bit of peace and joy to soldiers in some of the least peaceful places on earth.
Farm women living near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, during the harsh and dispiriting winter of 1776 not only hand-knit but hand-delivered their goods, riding to the battlefront with saddlebags stuffed with hundreds of shirts, breeches, and socks.
Even Martha Washington knit for the war effort. An incessant knitter who often lived near the battlefront herself with her husband, she organized a war knitting group among officers' wives.
During World War II, adherence to the regulation Red Cross patterns, which complied with military specifications, was of utmost importance. Even the colors had to satisfy military needs—olive drab for the Army, navy blue for the Navy. Into each item was sewn a label that read, "Gift of the American People thru the American Red Cross."
To learn more about the subject of wartime knitting or the role of knitting in American culture generally, seek out a copy of the wonderful book No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting, from which much of the information in this chapter was drawn. Written by Anne Macdonald, it is an informative and charming look at the history of the craft in America.
GIFT OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE
Red Cross Knitters Remember
"Peace cannot be attained through violence, it can only be attained through understanding."
RALPH WALDO EMERSON
The Red Cross is nearly synonymous with wartime knitting. Ask knitters of a certain age about it, and you'll find many of them have stories of knitting furiously in movie theaters, in classes, and at Red Cross meetings for the "boys" stationed overseas. They knit for sons, for husbands, for sweethearts, and for no particular soldier at all. Knitting became their patriotic duty, the one thing they could do to honor those defending the United States.
For some women, like Karel Lea Biggs of Clarksville, Tennessee, knitting for soldiers was a tradition passed down through generations. "My grandmother taught me to knit," Karel says. "She told me her grandmother, the daughter of a Civil War Union general, taught her during World War I, when she was about nine. She learned by knitting olive green squares, which were sewn together to make blankets that were sent to the soldiers in Europe."
Other knitters were taught as children in schools or as Junior Red Cross members. "I learned to knit in third grade," says World War II knitter Shirley Robb of Decatur, Georgia, "when all the girls were taught to knit. As an eleven-year-old Girl Scout, I knitted bandages for the Red Cross: size 30 crochet thread, size 1 double-pointed needles, thirty stitches, garter stitch. Endless knitting." Helping the Red Cross in this way made for a new generation of proud—if sometimes bored—wartime stitchers.
Maria Kaiser of Raleigh, North Carolina, remembers her grandmother knitting scarves and helmet liners for troops in World War II. "She was a constant knitter," Maria says. "I remember her knitting in the dark of a movie theater. My mother knitted one scarf," she adds. "But that was her only knitting venture, and she said she felt sorry for the soldier who received it."
Scarves, helmet liners, hats, socks, gloves, mittens, vests, and sweaters—all were needed and abundantly knit by Red Cross volunteers. "I was sixteen years old when I knit long stockings for the Red Cross," remembers World War II knitter Alice Tabak of Brooklyn, New York, who, at age eighty-one, has long lost track of how many pairs she knit. "They gave me off-white woolen yarn and needles. It felt so good to know I was doing such a useful project."
Californian Janet Shott recalls knitting six-inch squares for soldiers' blankets every Friday afternoon at school when she was in fourth grade. "And if you were lucky enough to be selected," she adds, "you would be let into school early to sit at the 'Knit for the Boys' table," where schoolchildren rallied their peers to pick up needles, recruiting them as they walked in the door every morning. "That was our way to participate," she says. "We were so proud."
SENDING PEACE TO WAR ZONES
The Ships Project
Ellen Harpin's Ships Project, a nationwide knitting-for-troops endeavor, stemmed from one short letter—a message "to any sailor" she penned shortly after September 11, 2001. The letter found its way to a soldier stationed on the USS Bataan at that time, a woman named Gloria. Noting that Ellen was a knitter, the sailor casually suggested that she should knit a pair of slippers for her. Ellen did not disappoint.
"After Gloria received the slippers, she wrote back and said her friends wanted them too. She asked for sixty more pairs," Ellen laughs. She sent out a request for help to her online knitting group, and answers—and slippers—came trickling in. By December, she had started her own Internet knitting list, originally called the Bataan Project, and hundreds of knitters signed on. Ellen's project, now known as The Ships Project, has steadily grown to more than a thousand knitters, and the total of knit items sent exceeds 175,000. These items have been sent to soldiers on ships and bases in locations like Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Qatar, and Uzbekistan.
Since her project began, Ellen has built solid relationships with military personnel. These connections allow her slippers and other knitted goods to reach soldiers whose movements are classified, like those on submarines and in special operations. "It was a hard sell originally," she says about clearing some soldiers' requests. "Now the units come to us. We've never said no; we've never let them down." Her efforts have been recognized not only by the soldiers, but also by the industry. She was named Knitter of the Year in 2005 by Knitter's magazine and Lion Brand Yarn Company.
Excerpted from Knitting for Peace by Betty Christiansen, Melanie Falick. Copyright © 2006 Betty Christiansen. Excerpted by permission of Harry N. Abrams, Inc..
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