Canadian Red Cross Knitting During World War II

Recently, the Museum I work at received a donation of materials from a local Canadian Red Cross Branch. The first thing I asked was whether there was anything knitting related. To my delight, YES. Included in the donation were four pamphlets created by the Red Cross:

  • The Canadian Red Cross Society Selected Civilian Knitting Instructions for Women and Children (Compliments of The Yellow Pages of your Telephone Directory)
  • The Canadian Red Cross Society Knitting Instructions for the Armed Forces (Compliments of The Yellow Pages of your Telephone Directory)
  • Red Cross Knitting Instructions for War Work, Number 1 For the Services, Issued by The Canadian Red Cross Society, Revised Edition, November 1940
  • Red Cross Knitting Instructions for War Work, Number 2 Knitted Comforts for Women, Issued by The Canadian Red Cross Society, November 1940

After carefully looking through the pamphlets, and after our Registrar scanned them all so I could look at the digital versions, the next thing I wanted to do was learn a little more about them and about the Red Cross and knitting in general.

From the archival collection of the Oshawa Museum

I turned to the Toronto based newspaper, The Globe and Mail, to see what might have been reported on at the time. One thing that surprised me the most was how often it was reported that items were having to be fixed or reknit completely by Red Cross volunteers.

It was estimated that some 750,000 people on the homefront (the majority of which were likely women) produced more than 50 million garments during the Second World War.1 There were likely knitters of every skill level pitching in to do their bit.

Pieces were quality controlled, and in Toronto, they passed through the Red Cross offices on Jarvis Street. One volunteer, Mrs. Gibbett, was interviewed about the work of re-knitting items, and about socks, she commented “I hate to think of the poor boy’s feet after wearing a pair of those [socks with knots along the bottom under the heel and toes]. I rip them back and knit it up again.” Her job was described as ‘Unexciting,’ and even Mrs. Gibbett herself said “It’s not a very attractive job, but it’s got to be done. We can’t let all that wool go to waste, you know.”2

The Red Cross often made materials available for volunteer knitters – they would send out wool and the knitters would send the finished items back. The quality control job was one I hadn’t thought about, but it’s importance was great. Not only did it mean materials were not wasted, but it helped ensure that what was being sent was top quality – it would fit and not lead to potential injuries (like with knotted sock bottoms). Those who looked after the quality control were working throughout the war, and I’m sure many a feet were thankful they were.


  1. That stat came from the Canadian War Museum: https://www.warmuseum.ca/blog/an-army-of-knitters-in-support-of-the-war-effort/
  2. “Reknits Others’ Knitting, Woman’s Job Is Unexciting,” The Globe and Mail, Aug 1, 1944, pg. 10.

Red Cross Society World War I Sock

I love finding knitting references in old newspapers.

Back up. I love reading through digitized newspapers. When I find knitting references, it makes it even better.

Port Perry, Ontario is a small town on the shores of Lake Scugog, and it is located north of my hometown. The local historical society recently digitized and made their historical newspapers available online, and the search term ‘knit’ wielded a whole slew of interesting search results.

The following appeared in the Port Perry Star, 7 June 1916, on page 1.

Directions from Red Cross Society for the use of cotton in the knitting of soldier’s socks:

“Official instructions for knitting socks in the mixed cotton warp and woollen yarn:

“Materials required; No. 13 needle 4-ply Scotch Fingering (grey), about four ounces; four-eighths grey cotton warp, 3 ply; cast on 64 stitches (cotton warp). Rib for one inch (two and two if possible).

“Break off cotton and knit woollen yarn for 1 ½ inches (this is to make the cuff elastic; join the cotton again and rib for 1 ½ inches; knit cotton warp plain for 4 ½ inches; break off cotton and start knitting plain again with wool, and continue for 3 ½ inch, which will finish the leg; finish the ankle and foot in wool in the usual manner.”

With this mixing of yarn, one lb of wool is sufficient for eight socks, and one pound of cotton for 16 socks.

Port Perry Star, 7 June 1916, page 1.

The needles called for simply say No. 13. If a bell gauge is being used for this measurement, Colleen Formby notes that this size would be the equivalent of a US1 or 2.25mm needle. I’m assuming the “4-ply Scotch Fingering” is simply a grey fingering/sock weight yarn, and while the “four-eighths grey cotton warp, 3 ply” has me somewhat at a loss, I’m also assuming they’re calling for a fingering/sock weight yarn.

The Oshawa newspapers had also published directions for knitting socks, but while the instructions from Port Perry recommended using two different yarn types, the Oshawa newspaper simply said to use wool. The two different types of yarn and the reasoning for switching back and forth, to increase the stretchiness, was both interesting and, admittedly, something I hadn’t heard of before.

It’s also interesting to me that the directions, as printed in the Port Perry newspaper, assume the knitter knows what they are doing if they are instructed to “finish the ankle and foot… in the usual manner.” I know I was nervous turning my first heel, and the second sock I ever made was the WWI sock from the Oshawa newspaper. I remember calling my grandmother to make sure I was reading these heel turn instructions correctly. Turning a heel is serious business. However, if I was handed needles and yarn today and told to make a pair, I certainly would know how to make my heel and foot in a usual manner. Most knitters have their own sock recipe in their back pocket and know what to do. Perhaps these instructions of simply finishing in a usual manner are not so out of place in 1916.

In an academic journal, historian Sarah Glassford remarked, “Turning the heel on a Red Cross sock, for instance, required four needles, and no rough or protruding seams that might hurt soldiers’ feet were allowed” (“The Greatest Mother in the World:” Carework and the Discourse of Mothering in the Canadian Red Cross Society during the First World War).

The caveat of discouraging the rough seams to protect feet was a large part of why the grafting the toe became popular (this technique also know as the Kitchener Stitch – I’ve written about Lord Kitchener and the technique named for him in a previous post; I think I might need to revisit this as there has been great discourse as to the namesake and his actions during the Boer War, especially around the policies of concentration camps. As I said, a post for another day…)

This pattern came from the Canadian Red Cross Society. I was able to find a bulletin for the Canadian Red Cross from April 1916, and deep within the publication was the same sock pattern. It was advised that no other materials (yarns or needles) be substituted, and that if you wanted a cone of cotton warp (which would make about eight sock legs), it could be obtained for 25¢ from the Supply Department of the Canadian Red Cross Society at 77 King Street East, Toronto.

I’m not in a rush to try making this pair of socks, nor do I think I eventually will. The needles, yarn, and stitches called for would make a pair of socks that would fit me, and if anything does get me to try it, it would be to see how the two materials work together. Curiosity more than anything would get me to cast on.

Some things never change

It always makes me smile, when things never really seem to change.

I was reading through historic newspapers, as one who works with local history tends to do, and I came across a merchant’s advertisement in 1870, asking women why would they knit their own stockings when they can buy them already knit for 25¢.

Ontario Observer (Port Perry), 17 Nov 1870, p. 3.

Now, 150 years later, and it feels like this is likely a questions knitters haven’t stopped being asked since. You can walk into a store and buy a sweater at a fraction of the price of the yarn you would use, and you get the immediate satisfaction of being able to wear your new garment and not “sit for a whole week” or longer knitting rows on end until you’re finished.

So, why do we knit when there’s the convenience of simply buying *the thing.*

For me, it’s the craft. I love knitting. I love the feel of yarn wrapped around my fingers, the movement of the needles, the joy of completing this thing, and it becomes a labour of, and reflection of, love. Heck, it can be frustrating as all get out at times (every time I’ve had to frog back because I’ve miscalculated meterage comes to mind…), but once you’re ultimately triumphant, it makes the satisfaction all the greater.

So, sure, I could buy the knit stockings for 25¢, but I’d be losing out of the “whole week knitting,” and that’s the fun.

1918 Knitting Hints for Beginners

Do knitting tips from over 100 years ago still ring true? In 1918, the Globe, a Toronto based newspaper, ran an article with sage advice from a knitting expert, and they relayed the following:

Beginners make the mistake of knitting too closely as a rule. Their motto seems to be that of the old Highland Chieftain: the tighter the stronger. Once they learn the art of holding the yarn carelessly, instead of – a sort of lariat for the lasoo-ing their stitches – the task is well began.

The wise novice- or, perhaps ‘wary’ novice is best- will help herself by making first of all a diagram of the pattern she intends to follow. This is done by drawing a horizontal line at the base of a sheet of paper indicating the row of stitches originally set up. On this mark the number and kind of stitches which are to be taken along that line, with specifications for the length in inches these stitches are to measure. From this she will proceed with the diagram, showing by lines each extension and contraction, and marking each with the number of stitches called for. In this way she will see before starting the garment the shape it is to take and the approximate proportions. When the design has to be altered she will see by a glance at the diagram just where the alteration is to be made.

There is a certain awkwardness about learning to knit, but time, that cures everything- or almost everything- will cure it.

You often hear amateur say: how can women go right on knitting day and night almost? Doesn’t it get on their nerves? In reality knitting ceases to be work after a time and becomes merely a play and relaxation.

The Globe, Feb 14, 1918, pg. 9

Her tips, simplfied:

  1. Don’t knit too tight
  2. Read your pattern and make a diagram or schematic of what it is you’re going to make
  3. Have patience when learning

Safe to say that these hints are still relevant, to some degree, today. Beginner knitters often have a death grip on their yarn and needles, afraid that if their tension isn’t tight that their stitches might fall off and unravel. This, we know, isn’t the case. It’s much simpler to loosen your tension, loosen the hold, you have on your yarn and needles. It will make everything go more smoothly.

Tip #3, having patience, is also still very important. Knitting is a new skill. It’s going to take time to learn the motions, how to read a pattern, how to cast on, and everything else. Yes, holding yarn and needles for the first time, and the next several times afterwards, is certainly awkward. But, after some time, the motions feel familiar, and holding needles comes as easily as the knit stitch itself. Patience is your friend.

All of tip #2 might not be as applicable today, in my humble opinion, but parts still are of great importance. In 1918, patterns weren’t as detailed as most are today, so drawing your own schematic might not be necessary. When you purchase your pattern, more often than not, they come with schematics, showing finished measurements. The lingo has changed since 1918 and, again in my opinion, become far plainer and easier to understand. However, reading through your pattern before casting on is a huge tip that is still applicable! It’s a tip I don’t always take to heart myself, and perhaps mistakes could have been avoided if I had done so.

The Charitable Knitter

Being a knitter means you are a creator. You can take a piece of string, and using two sticks create something out of seemingly nothing. A few more sticks, string, and a number of hours, and you have a hat or a pair of socks. Two sticks, string, and time, and bam, you have a scarf, or perhaps the start of a sweater.

Due to the nature of the ‘string’ typically used, more often than not, the ‘things’ being created are rather warm. Wool is warm and keeps its warmth. Wool is both water repellent and water absorbent, meaning it does well on a rainy, damp day.

People create for many reasons – they want something for themselves, or perhaps they are creating for others and giving them away.

During the World War years, 1914-1918 and again in the early 1940s, there was a push in Canada and beyond to knit items to be worn by soldiers on the battlefields. War propaganda posters from the American Red Cross reminded those on the homefront that “You Can Help” by knitting, and the Canadian Red Cross issued booklets, containing patterns one could knit for the troops. An interesting artefact in the collection of the Canadian War Museum is a skein of yarn and corresponding pattern, “DUNKIRK Super Scotch” yarn, made by Newlands & Co. Ltd., a Galt, ON based company. On the label, they boast, “SUFFICIENT YARN FOR ONE PAIR OF SERVICE SOCKS.”

Directions for Making Socks, as appeared in the Ontario Reformer, Friday Sept 3, 1915, p5

My own hometown newspaper published a sock knitting pattern in 1915, and in other editions boasted about the accomplishments of the 116th Knitting Society, a charitable group formed to knit for the troops. Interestingly, the toe of the sock is not one that is grafted, rather, you decrease until a certain amount of stitches remain, and then you pull the yarn through the sock, closing the toe. One could imagine this would not be the most comfortable to wear, and this is where the legend starts of Lord Kitchener espousing the greatness of the grafting technique that now shares his name, the Kitchener stitch which is commonly used to finish of top-down socks.

The push for wartime knitting was seen again when the world went to war in 1939. Again, those on the homefront, largely women, were asked to turn to their knitting and make items for those fighting overseas.

In the 1930s, there was a call for knitters made Toronto’s The Globe newspaper, seeking out knitting for those who were facing hard times due to the Great Depression. The sock I recently made from a 1939 pattern likely came from this charitable push as the pattern was published before any calls to war were made.

In modern times, the call for charitable knitting is always present, in some form or another. Many local hospitals will accept hats for newborn or premature babies. There is an initiative in my hometown that also deserves mention. The AIDS Committee of Durham Region here in Ontario participates in the Red Scarf Project. According to redscarfoshawa.ca:

The Red Scarf Project began in 2012, and was organized by the Regional HIV/AIDS Connection, an AIDS Service organization based out of London, Ontario. The Project began as an awareness campaign, aimed at generating community dialogue around HIV during AIDS Awareness Week which takes place during the last week of November annually.

Every year, fibre people are encouraged to grab red yarn and make a scarf, the only stipulations are that they are red and at least 6″ wide and 60″ long. I made a scarf a few years back for the project and got my needles working again in late 2020. To my great disappointment, I did not make the cutoff date, and the scarf is still on my needles. I’m going to keep working on it, and once it’s finished, I’ll tuck it aside for the 2021 year.

Not only are the scarves placed around the city, becoming a visual commemoration, but little cards are attached to them, encouraging those who might need a scarf to take it with them. Creating awareness, fostering dialogue, and giving to those in need – win/win/win.