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.

Directions for Making Socks: My First Historic Knitting Project

Firstly, let me say a huge, big THANK YOU to everyone who has checked out my blog or followed me this week! My friend over at Knitter Nerd said many nice things about me, and now the pressure is on to live up to them!  Thanks Polo for sharing my blog and posts, and I wish you so much luck with the Knitter Nerd re-launch!  Please make sure you check out her amazing blog, if you haven’t already!

As Polo mentioned, I work at a small community museum in my hometown, and I am a complete history junkie.  My love for history has crept its way into my knitting addiction, and I have recreated two patterns found in Godey’s magazine: my Sontag and the Sortie Cap, both patterns dating to the mid-1800s.  For special events, I get to dress like a Victorian, and these knits complement my costume very nicely.  I’ve perused other Godey’s magazines, that conveniently have been digitized and are available for searching online, and I have other patterns I’d like to make, but I have a feeling they will be a project for me in the new year, you know, after the holiday knits are complete!

My first historic knit came from a pattern not nearly as old as the Godey projects, but the pattern is 100 years old.  Simply titled ‘Directions For Making Socks,’ this pattern was found in the Ontario Reformer in 1915, with the intention of promoting making socks for soldiers who were fighting overseas in World War I.  After tackling only one pair of socks previously, I decided to make a pair of WWI socks in the spring of 2014.

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

Word to the wise, when working off directions from 100 years ago, basic knowledge in sock construction is key. Thankfully, I have very helpful friends in the knit circle I attend, and they held my hand when it came to setting up and knitting the gusset, and my grandmother was very helpful when I needed confidence in following the heel turn instructions.  Otherwise, it is a very simple sock with a lot of ribbing and plain knitting.  The sock was quite an investment in my time, but I think if I was to make another one, it would make up much faster.  My knitting has improved and I’m much faster now, but the 12 inch leg truly tried my patience!  Knitting the leg along was a test to my dedication of the project!

The completed WWI Sock
The completed WWI Sock

Above, I keep referring to the singular sock.  I finished the first, and second sock syndrome set in… big time.  Eventually, I came to the conclusion that for demonstration purposes, the museum only really needed the ONE sock, so its mate never got completed.  Thankfully, the dedicated women in the 116th Knitting Society had more fortitude than I.  They were a group of women who worked hard and made socks throughout the First World War which in turn were sent overseas, and the local newspaper frequently reported on their progress.  As an example, in early December, it was reported that 56 pairs were sent to France.

We also know that the socks were greatly appreciated by the soldiers who received them, as the newspaper once published a letter which was sent to a woman in the 116th Knitting Society, expressing his deep gratitude at receiving the simplest of gifts.  The First World War was a hard war.  Yes, I know this is not a fair statement as no war is ‘easy,’ but this was one of the first with trench warfare, and trench foot was a very grim reality that soldiers faced.  The arrival of new socks, lovingly made by those at home, would likely have been a source of joy and relief in an otherwise grey world.


Once again, many thanks to Polo, and to you readers for stopping by my little blog! I hope everyone is having a great Thanksgiving (to all of my fellow Canucks), Columbus/Indigenous Peoples’ Day (to those south of the border), or just enjoying your Monday!