Military Knitting Part 1

This post is pre-fab. I am currently out of the country and probably not checking my blog, but I promise to share vacation details once I’m home!

Regular readers know that my husband is in the military. Several other members of my family are as well, so I’ve always had a bit of an interest in the history of the military, if not in military history (yes, there is a difference). While searching for care package ideas during  Hubby’s last deployment I stumbled across quite a few stories of servicemen learning to knit to pass the time while deployed, or occasionally as a form of physical therapy.

People made such a fuss about how surprising it was to see soldiers knitting that it got me thinking about the history of knitting in the military. I know sailors used to knit; why not warriors? Sure enough, there is a long history of not just the women at home knitting for servicemen, but the men on the front lines knitting their own as well.

Middle Ages
Crusading knights return to Europe with a multitude of new things, including the first knitted goods the Western world had seen. It is thought that they may also have brought back the knowledge of knitting as a skill. While many think Spanish conquistadors spread knitting to the Americas, there is evidence that it was already there in the Andes as early as 1100 B.C.E.

egyptian sock

Sock on display at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. Thought to be circa 1000-1200 C.E.

The Renaissance 
While there was no shortage of wars  during the Renaissance, and knitters were almost exclusively male,  knitting was strictly controlled by the guilds. As merchants rarely became soldiers and vice versa, it is unlikely many warriors knit during this period.

mercenary camp

No knitters here. 😦 Photo by BrokenSphere via Wikimedia Commons

Crimean War
James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan (of the famous “Charge of the Light Brigade”) wore a unique knitted sweater into battle which became an instant hit in the fashion world. The same battle also popularized the use of balaclavas to keep British soldiers warm.

Earl of Cardigan

7th Earl of Cardigan by Francis Grant via Wikimedia Commons

World War I
The heyday of knitting by and for soldiers.  In Britain, Lord Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl of Kitchener, devised a method of grafting sock toes which did not irritate his soldiers’ feet. More on this in a future post. Meanwhile, physicians at Camp Dix (in New Jersey) declared that knitting was beneficial to men as a “mental stimulus” and Americans set to work teaching their soldiers to knit. Soon after, someone had the brilliant idea to use knitting as occupational therapy as well. Combine this with the efforts to encourage all civilians, including small children, to knit for the war effort, and pretty near everyone was knitting.

walter reed knitters

Bed-ridden wounded, knitting. Walter Reed Hospital, near Washington, D.C. Harris & Ewing., ca. 1918 – ca. 1919 [National Archives’ Flickr]

All right, I think that’s enough history today. I think we’ll pick up with the Bolsheviks next time!


13 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by caityrosey on August 1, 2012 at 9:24 am

    I really enjoy these history lessons about knitting. I wonder how often knitting is used as occupational therapy today? Seems like a good notion. More productive than a lot of the hand exercises they might give one to do, that don’t accomplish anything but exercise the body. I like the idea that you can be productive at the same time.

    I want to hear more about that toe grafting technique.


  2. I agree with caityrosey. Knitting would certainly be more productive (and enjoyable) than, say, basket weaving. It’s exciting to think you can make wearable and attractive garments out of some wool and two (or more) needles–lightweight and inexpensive.

    I have to admit I wasn’t expecting a history lesson and discussion in a knitting blog. It was a pleasant surprise.


  3. Wonderful post; I agree with the others, I adore the historical context of knitting. This picked my day right up!


  4. […] This post is pre-fab. I am currently out of the country and probably not checking my blog, but I promise to share vacation details once I'm home! Regular readers know that my husband is in the military.  […]


  5. Thank you so much for posting this! Love the history lesson. Was also recently wondering where the Kitchener Stitch got its name. Now I know 🙂


  6. […] week I posted a two-part article on knitting in the military, and there was some interest in the method of grafting sock toes […]


  7. Wow, that’s fascinating! Do you know of any other online resources about Lord Kitchener and grafting? I know my WW1 obsessed husband would love to read about it!


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