Knit One, Purl One… Willing Hands and Willing Hearts

03 January 2014

Cultural Studies | History | War and Conflict

Recently there has been a change in the office. The gentle clicking of needles can now be heard at lunch time and conversations about the Bake Off or weekend plans are interspersed with advice on increasing and decreasing, or deciphering a pattern. Over the last few years knitting has become fashionable once more, with clubs popping up all over the place and celebrities gushing about the craft. My own past attempts at knitting have produced a few passable scarves, given away as gifts to grateful (I hope!) family members, but I’m afraid the long lists of coded instructions for anything more complicated have rather defeated me. Knitting is a craft which can produce a myriad of items, some more useful than others – socks, scarves and gloves are standard, but a pattern for knitted jewellery has caused some confusion and amusement in the office!

Weldon's Garments and Hospital Comforts for our Sailors and Soldiers.

Whilst working with some material from the Robert Opie Collection for our forthcoming resource: The First World War: Propaganda and Recruitment, I came across “Weldon’s Garments and Hospital Comforts for our Soldiers and Sailors”. This is a pamphlet of designs for knitted and crocheted items for women to make for their men on active service or in hospital, as well as advertising paper patterns for cutting out nightshirts and nurses’ aprons. The author of the pamphlet writes: ‘Willing hands and willing hearts are united in one effort […] We all realise that the sufferings and privations attendant on war may be much mitigated by the provision of small additional comforts, such as those illustrated and described in these pages’. It was a way for women to contribute to the war effort, whatever their social class.

Designs for a knitted sleeping cap and kneecaps.

The pamphlet contains detailed instructions and illustrations for garments, as well as the specific materials required, such as ‘Peacock Petticoat Wool’, ‘Faudel’s Homespun Wool’, and ‘3 ounces of Isaac Briggs & Sons’ Ex-Super Khaki Fingering Wool, 6 ply’, exactly the same shade as the British military uniform. It also gives instructions for how to vary the detail and complexity of the garment, as well as the size. Poignantly, the Soldier's Ribbed Crochet Sleeping Cap includes the instructions: ‘Begin with forty-five chain for man’s size, or forty for boy’s size’.

Design for net doilies to protect food and liquid from flies.

Some of the items seem particularly unsuitable for life in the trenches, where it could be difficult enough to find somewhere dry to sleep, let alone think about donning a knitted or crocheted sleeping cap (complete with tassel, as design which is ‘most useful for sailors and soldiers’). Likewise, the instructions for net doilies (or 'D’Oyleys’) to protect food and medicines from flies, to be made using Ardern’s Lustrous Crochet No.20 and either white or coloured beads, seem a little out of place for use in a military camp.

I suppose the designs in this pamphlet, however, were not purely for practical purposes. The items made were a link with home and normality, a luxury or comfort which those on the front line or wounded in hospital were often lacking. They were a sign that someone had cared enough to spend their time making knitted kneecaps, pillows, belts, sleeping helmets, or a Crimean folded night cap (to be made from a square of white, grey, or red flannel (no other colours permitted, it would seem!). So if somebody decides to give me some knitted jewellery perhaps I won't be so disparaging after all...

Design for a sleeping helmet and advertisement for wool.

For those of you wishing to try your hand at something from 'Weldon's Garments', the instructions and patterns, along with a wide variety of ephemera from the Robert Opie Collection, will be published in  The First World War: Propaganda and Recruitment, due for publication at the end of October 2013.

Images reproduced courtesy of The Robert Opie Collection. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


About the Author

Sophie Heath

Sophie Heath

Since joining the team in March 2013 I have worked on a number of exciting products, from the First World War to America in World War Two, Church Missionary Society Periodicals, Food and Drink in History and Race Relations in America - all very different but fascinating! My academic background is in foreign languages, in particular French and Italian, and I really enjoy putting this to good use when working with the foreign language material in our products.