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Knitting Needles: Not Just Women’s Weapons, by Deb Witwicki

What would Papa (Clifton Price’s paternal grandfather) make of his strapping, six-foot grandson knitting up a little dishcloth?

That question was on Price’s mind as he travelled to Ontario six years ago to visit both sets of his grandparents. It wasn’t as if the young man was put off by what people might think of him knitting. After all, he was then clicking his needles in the Alberta oil fields where he worked as Measurement Well Drilling Engineer, fending off such comments from the roughnecks as, “Come on man, you’re not fxxxing knitting?”


From The Alberta Oil Field to the Knitting Shop: A Man's Journey

Clifton built tools to scope the drilling route, gave the directional drillers the data they needed and then monitored his sensors on the computer. “If everything was working, I had nothing to do,” says the physics grad, “and I needed to knit to stay awake on nightshifts.” In fact, one of his motivations for the Ontario trip was to visit his maternal grandmother, who had taught him to knit when he was 14 years old, to brush up on his skills.

Still, Price’s Papa hailed from the macho world of the Royal Canadian Navy where he served in the 1970s and he did enjoy a good round of teasing.

As it turned out, Papa was not at all surprised that a man would knit. What did surprise him was that anyone would knit for the enjoyment of it. “I hated knitting,” he said. His navy kit included socks but, if he wanted a spare pair, he had to knit them. He also was required to learn darning to mend his socks and pants.


Military Men Who Knitted

For centuries, military men have knit to augment their kits and also to pass the time when they were prisoners of war or recovering from their wounds in hospitals. In her book, Knitskrieg, A Call to Yarns! , Joyce Meader tells the story of Jim Simpson, who was a prisoner of war in Germany for 18 months during World War II. With neither skeins of wool nor needles he created a woolen blanket, nearly two metres square, featuring the map and Coat of Arms of Australia. He unraveled yarn from old knitted garments and fashioned knitting needles from the handles of the camp pots, which he bartered from the cook for a pair of knitted socks.

Those interested in military knitting will want to explore Knitskrieg (available from the Edmonton Public Library), which chronicles the enterprise from the 1800s to the present. The author is both a knitter and historian; she reproduces military garments for reenactments, documentaries and films. Her book includes patterns for a Boer War sleeping helmet, armlets, a knitted chest protector from World War I and poppies, amongst others.

Over the centuries, knitted items prized by those serving in the military included mittens, gloves, hats, blankets, and scarves. Socks were amongst the most coveted of these because, without socks, soldiers were prone to foot injury and infections, even gangrene, from their long marches. In her account of knitting during World War II, Meader notes that The Red Cross proclaimed that “wet feet were as much an enemy as the enemy” in their published patterns for military comforts.

While many men knit, women have led the charge in military knitting. Throughout the centuries, their needle arts have been a vital support to the war efforts. Meader says that it led to a greater appreciation for “woman’s work” in general.

Beyond the vital need for knitted garments, the craft also gave women a way to participate and to send a physical demonstration of their love to dear ones at the front. (Women were officially allowed to enlist during the last two years of World War I, although they did serve in earlier wars, and many knitted uniform sweaters and undergarments, amongst other pieces, for themselves.) Meader notes that in World War I, even Queen Mary joined the cause. “She led the movement to encourage knitting and when Lord Kitchener commissioned her to provide 30,000 pairs of socks, she was determined to fulfill this gigantic task. Ladies from all classes, spurred on by the fact that royalty had now become involved, joined in and knitted socks by the dozens.” In fact, in early wartime, everyone knit, even children as young as three years old. Military knitting, as other needle arts over history and today, also led to an important building of community as government agencies, women’s societies and others gathered people together for the cause.

Knitting even played an, albeit, minor role in espionage. In World War II, the British Office of Censorship banned patterns from being sent overseas because they feared they would be ideal subterfuges for encrypted codes. Meader explains, “Perhaps their fears were not unfounded…The resistance movement in Belgium recruited elderly women whose houses overlooked the railway yards to keep a note of the trains arriving and departing in their knitting. The codes were basic, for example, purl one for one type of train and knit one for another.”

In earlier years of war, knitting patterns were hard to come by. Women copied patterns to share with others, often perpetuating mistakes in finished garments many times over. In later years, military patterns were widely published by magazines, governments and social service agencies. One pattern, from the time when the Americans joined World War II in 1941, dubbed knitting needles as “Women’s Weapons”.

As for Clifton Price, at this time knitting has won the battle over his many other talents and job qualifications. Many of you know him as Manager of The Fibre Nook; he will begin teaching classes here this fall.

Resource: Knitskrieg: A Call to Yarns!, Joyce Meader, Unicorn Publishing Group, London, 2016

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