Posted by: judyweightman | October 9, 2012

More knitting history: World War II

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.

Very young English girls knitting, November 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.

“Learn to Knit”: Life Magazine, Nov. 24, 1941

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.

Both knitting and music were used to keep up morale on the home front during World War II.

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.

Students at Emerson Elementary School, 1944

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:

Bette Davis knits sweaters for the Red Cross on the set of “In This Our Life.” (1942 © Bettmann/CORBIS)

Woolworth’s heiress Barbara Hutton knitting for the Allied cause (ca. 1941-1945 © Bettmann/CORBIS)

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.

Eleanor Roosevelt knitting on a plane

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.

Princess Elizabeth with her knitting and her family

Everyday people knit as well, from kids:

Albert Gagnon’s daughters knitting (Office of War, 1942)

to workers with some downtime on the job:

Between shows, attendants at a cinema in Cheshire knit socks for soldiers in the Cheshire Regiment, 1939

Gas station attendant knitting

Even those under attack would take their mind off the bombs with their knitting.

Sheltering from the Blitz, October 5, 1940
Women, girls and babies (lying on the shelf) wait in an air raid shelter run by the Salvation Army in Clapton, east London.

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.

Berlin 1945


  1. […] For what happened during World War II, click here. […]

  2. […] written about knitting history before, in posts about homefront knitting in WWI and WWII. There’s another side to it, of course — not just that people were knitting in earlier eras, […]

  3. This is just the informations we’ve been looking for to draw attention to our prayer shawl knitting group. Thank you so much.

  4. My grandchildren are amazed that in third grade, I was allowed – even encouraged to bring yarn and knitting needles to school and knit the 9 inch squares for “the soldiers.” Someone was going to put the squares together into blankets for the troops. I felt like I was helping out – and even though the war was just over, there were many hospitalized young men who needed the blankets. I believe we can encourage our young girls – and boys – to do much the same thing with regard to the homeless. Scarves are simple and doing for others teaches many good lessons.

    • What a great idea, Gail! Whether scarves or blanket squares, knitting for others doesn’t have to be complicated.

  5. what yarn fibers were utilized during WW2 yrs? Only wool? I thought my mom had some yarns with nylon as well.

    • Nylon was invented in 1935, and it came into its own during the WWII years due to shortages of wool, silk, and even cotton — so, yes, I think people were knitting with nylon blends during that period.

  6. […] The knitting was done as much for morale as for practical purposes. It gave people a way to feel tha… […]

  7. […] as it was for the pure need of warm woolens by the troops.  Even so, according to Judy Weightman (More Knitting History:  WW II),  “although scrap metal was collected and melted down for the war effort, steel knitting […]

  8. The knitting was done as much for morale as for practical purposes.

  9. these people did amazing things for the army and I would do this if anyone needed them

  10. So very interesting!! My Mum, who will be 86 this month, learned how to knit at school in Winnipeg, Manitoba beginning in 1939. Each class in the school became a Red Cross Club, and they knit socks, vests, and sweaters for the Canadian troops overseas.
    My Mum has been knitting ever since!! She is well known for her wonderful socks especially. She can come for Christmas on December 22 or 23 with the tops and heels of a pair of socks done, then measure the person’s feet, and have them ready for Christmas morning!
    She has also knit many pairs of kilt hose for pipers, drummers, and dancers.

    Thank you so much for your post!

  11. I’m knitting for a homefront scene. I figured the knitting wife probably took time to make a few things for her elder farmer husband: wristlet, chest protector, flap mittens, and for herself wristlets with a little pink decoration from scraps.

  12. […] future husbands in service, no hands stayed idle long that could could be put to work and everyone from small children to movie stars and royalty to soldiers themselves “knit their bit”. With support from yarn suppliers and pattern publishers and […]

  13. Loved your info on WWII knitting history. Let’s hope those of us who knit will never be called on for such an event again!

  14. […] Judy, More Knitting History, World War II, October 9, 2012,, accessed April 26, […]

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