During WW I, the war to end all wars, families in rural Canada were given circular sock knitting machines and 10 lbs of wool (enough for 30 pairs of socks) to knit socks for the war effort. Socks were in short supply, wool was rationed and service men in the trenches in winter, needed wool socks to keep their feet warm and dry, prevent trench foot and subsequent gangrene. At this time factories making socks couldn’t keep up with the volume needed and machined socks wore out much faster than hand knit socks. While much has been written of the American war knitting efforts, this is the Canadian story.
Knit Your Bit
“In the summer of 1917 the American Red Cross put out an urgent call for knitted goods and hospital supplies to help fight the war. Their immediate need was for one and a half million each of knitted wristlets, mufflers, sweaters, and pairs of socks. The need for the socks was paramount: The trench warfare conditions under which the war was fought meant that soldiers spent weeks or months entrenched in wet and in winter freezing conditions.
For soldiers in the trenches or on the march in France, warm socks made all the difference. The boots these soldiers wore (the 1917 Trench Boot) were made of heavy retanned cowhide with thick soles. Although in theory water-repellent, the boots ripped out at the seams fairly quickly. They had iron heels and five rows of hobnails (to prevent slipping) hammered into the soles. These hobnails conducted the cold from the frozen ground directly to the soldiers’ feet.
An improved version (1918) called the Pershing Boot added an extra sole and thus extra warmth, but a soldier could not bend his foot in the rigid boot and his feet remained cold, sore, and often wet. These boots were not insulated in any way, and soldiers took to wearing two pairs of thick wool sock. This required them to wear boots two sizes larger than their regular size. Allowing for wear and tear and the prudent practice of changing socks often in order to avoid contracting trench foot (a fungus), the need for a continuous supply of warm wool socks was endless.” (Knitting for Victory — World War I)
To meet the demand, knitters at home in Canada made a relentless effort. Those who received the sock knitting machines continued to knit with wool from the Red Cross. During the war all wool was controlled by the Red Cross and rationed. “Pink” knitting was frowned upon. Knitting socks with needles took about a week, and the Red Cross allowed 21 days for a handknitter to complete her socks before demanding the yarn back, to be given to another knitter. Think of your yarn stash! How wealthy we are today!
Rural households after the war
After the war, many circular sock knitting machines were used in rural households. Knitting was a constant occupation during the Great Depression. The autoknitter company and several other sock machine companies sold their machines to women and contracted to buy back the home manufactured socks for resale. Quality control was severe and many women had their socks returned to be ripped out and reknit to meet higher standards. Socks that were accepted by the company brought the knitter 18 cents per pair. You can read more of this fascinating history at the gearhart machines blog. Industrious knitters made 1200 pairs of socks per year, using company-issued yarn, and earned $225 in annual wages.
Households fortunate enough to own a circular sock knitting machine continued to use them during the Great Depression. The knitting machine companies advertised the machines as a way for women to make money from home. The companies provided the wool, purchased the socks and resold them to department stores. Home knitters, who were highly practised, could knit a pair of socks in an hour or two. The companies published success stories in knitting magazines and newspapers to entice would be entrepreneurs and home-workers to layout the cash for a machine — $47 during this era. An entrepreneur could earn 75 cents for a pair of socks if she sold them herself, purchasing her own yarn or 1/4 of that by working for the company.
When WW 2 came to Canada, wool was once again rationed. The Red Cross was put in charge of all domestic wool and imported wool. Those who owned circular sock knitting machines were provided wool for the war effort. The troops required many pairs of socks to keep their feet warm, dry and comfortable in European winters. Midway through the war, with metal in short supply, those who owned machines were asked to turn them in to be melted down for metal. Hence, there are few machines left in Canada.
The circular sock knitting machines were cranky (pun intended). They dropped stitches, were susceptible to malfunctioning in cold, damp weather. While the circular sock machines in Britain and Europe were made from hardened steel, those in North America were manufactured from less durable cast aluminum. The aluminum tended to pit in damp households, making the machine rough in use. Some machines remain today and occasionally one can be found in its original box and in good working condition. A reconditioned circular sock knitting machine is a rare treasure if you can find one.
Here’s to the knitters of WW 1 and WW 2 who wore holey socks on their own feet in order to keep the troops warm and comfortable.
Today, we can contribute teddy bears to help people, or make our own socks by hand or with an antique or refurbished machine.
Find out more about Canada and the Great War effort here.
Do you have a family member who knit for the war effort? What stories have you heard? Share them in the comments.