As they had during World War I, people on the home front during World War II picked up their knitting needles almost as soon as the war began in September 1939.
Only two months later, these girls at a Carshalton, Surrey infant school (ages four through seven) were busy knitting strips of colored yarn that would be made into shawls for use in the bomb shelter being built at their school.
On this side of the Atlantic, people were eager to help our old friends in the U.K. and began knitting items for “Bundles for Britain.” Life magazine’s cover story on November 24, 1941 advocated learning how to knit.
Of course, two weeks later, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America entered the war and knitting began in earnest.
The knitting was done as much for morale as for practical purposes. It gave people a way to feel that they were contributing to the war effort — similar to Victory Gardens and scrap metal drives. Of course, none of these three activities was exclusively symbolic: all three of them served to support the war effort and free up resources needed elsewhere.
Beginning knitters would make mufflers. Schoolkids would knit simple nine-inch squares that would be sewn together into blankets. Those who never mastered purling could make bandages: 15-20’ lengths knit in garter stitch with 100% cotton yarn.
Those who could handle more ambitious projects knit sweaters, gloves, and fingerless mitts that would keep the soldier’s hands warm while he was shooting a gun. The most urgent need was for socks; soldiers needed multiple pairs, and they wore out quickly. Yarn companies put out pattern booklets for these items, all to be knitted in navy or olive drab yarn.
Although scrap metal was collected and melted down for the war effort, steel knitting needles were exempt, since they were considered too valuable.
The Red Cross took a leading role in promoting knitting and coordinating efforts, as they had in World War I. Celebrities of all sorts picked up their needles for the cause:
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was often shown with her knitting. This wasn’t just a publicity ploy — she had been photographed knitting as far back as 1932.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) was shown knitting by the fire, surrounded by her parents and sister.
Everyday people knit as well, from kids:
to workers with some downtime on the job:
Even those under attack would take their mind off the bombs with their knitting.
And people even closer to the action knit as well, especially ambulance drivers.
Bonus historical trivia
Continental-style knitting, which was associated with Germany, fell out of favor in English-speaking countries during WWII, and people changed to English knitting. The difference is which hand holds the yarn: the left in Continental, the right in English. Continental knitting is usually faster and more efficient, since the yarn doesn’t have to move as much, so it began to regain popularity after the war when knitting guru Elizabeth Zimmerman advocated it.