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June 7, 2021

Knitting Brigades of World War I

Between America’s entry into World War I and the end of the war less than two years later, Americans knit 23 million articles of clothing and bandages for soldiers overseas, directed by the American Red Cross. How was this knitting organized? Who did the knitting? And why don’t more people know about this impressive feat? Kelly digs into the story of World War I knitting efforts and interviews Holly Korda, author of The Knitting Brigades of World War I: Volunteers for Victory in America and Abroad to find out more.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. Episode Image: Women knit at the Red Cross Knitting Booth while waiting for their trains at New York’s Grand Central Station, 1918. NATIONAL ARCHIVES/ 20802094.

Episode Transcript available at:


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Kelly  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we tell the stories of people and events in American history haven't gotten much notice. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then interview someone who knows a lot more than I do.

Our story today is about World War One. But instead of talking about generals or battles, I'm going to talk about knitters. In April of 1917, the United States formally declared war against Germany and entered World War One, which had been raging across Europe since 1914. War looked a lot different in 1917 than it does today. World War One was thought largely in trenches--long, narrow, uncomfortable ditches, where the soldiers actually lived, and they needed warm, dry clothing to survive. In 1917, warm dry clothing meant hand knit wool items, things like socks, wrist warmers, sweaters, even knitted helmets. 

Enter the American Red Cross. The American Red Cross was already an active national organization with over 100 chapters. In May 1917, President Woodrow Wilson created the American Red Cross War Council to aid funding initiatives and to direct the activities of the organization. The War Council was all men. 

Prior to that, the de facto head of the American Red Cross had been Cleveland philanthropist, Mable Thorpe Boardman. She wasn't formally the head because she believed that the organization would lose credibility with the public if a woman was the chair. With the creation of the all men War Council, Boardman needed a new way to contribute. So she identified this need for hand knit items, and she put her impressive organizational skills to use directing this massive national knitting project. 

Another woman Florence Marshall, was appointed head of the newly formed Woman's Bureau of the American Red Cross. Marshall went to work figuring out exactly what the military needed and how they recommended that these hand knit garments be produced. Marshall had a background in vocational education. She used that technical knowledge to survey the existing knitting patterns and improve them. And she released a knitting pattern booklet called "Instructions for Knitting," which was the first nationally released knitting pattern booklet issued by the American Red Cross. At the time, knitting needles didn't yet have standard sizing. So the Women's Bureau decided to specify three standard Red Cross needle sizes and publish their diameters, so knitters would know what needle sizes to use, regardless of who made the needles. 

Americans took up the challenge and knit more than 15 million pounds of wool into socks, sweaters, hats, bandages for soldiers overseas. In less than two years, Americans knit more than 23 million knitted articles and prepared more than 300 million surgical dressings. So let's get a sense of just how massive an undertaking this was. I'm a knitter. I've been knitting for over a decade. And for the past few years, I knit every single day. So I found a Red Cross knitting pattern online, you can still find them; I'll put a link on our website. And I know one of the simpler items, a pair of wrist warmers. So essentially, these are mittens without fingers or thumbs. It took me five hours to knit the pair of wrist warmers. Now imagine people who maybe just started knitting just learned how to knit and that they're doing things like sweaters. And just imagine how many person hours it would take to knit 23 million articles of clothing. 

It wasn't just adults who knit the junior Red Cross open to all Americans schoolchildren launched in September of 1917. And it was organized through the schools. Over 11 million children joined the Junior Red Cross. Children were taught to knit in their schools and many of them did. They were also encouraged to help their moms find time to knit for the war effort. In 1918, a list of 82 suggestions for children titled "How can I help win the war?" placed as the number one tip: "Do mother's work so she can knit." I think we should give that advice to kids today: "Do mother's work so she can knit."

All of this knitting took a lot of wool. Some items like wash clothes were knit from cotton. But wool was the best fabric to have next to the skin in the cold wet trenches. The American Red Cross worked at distributing yarn and yarn manufacturers throughout the country diverted their wool into yarn specially marketed for wartime knitting in grey, navy and khaki colors. 

Wool was in such high demand that President Wilson had a flock of 48 sheep on the White House lawn; you can still find pictures. When the flock was sheared in 1918, each state was given two pounds of wool to auction off as a fundraiser for the Red Cross War Fund. The state governors served as auctioneers, and they raised nearly $52,000 from the auction. One of the people who bought the wall in the auction kept it in a safe deposit box, and his daughter donated it to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum 100 years later. 

World War One ended on November 11 1918, when Germany formally surrendered, and knitters were free to go back to knitting for themselves and their families, at least until they were called again to knit for soldiers during World War Two. Now to learn more about this world war one knitting, I'm going to speak with Holly Korda, author of The Knitting Brigades of World War One: Volunteers for Victory in America and Abroad. 

Hi, Holly.

Holly Korda  6:38  
Hi, there Kelly. Thanks for having me.

Kelly  6:41  
Yes. So I love this topic. I'm super fascinated by this idea of all these people knitting back in the States during World War One. How did you first get into this into this topic?

Holly Korda  6:56  
Well, I was very surprised about the whole topic. Some years ago, decades ago, I was just making conversation with my grandmother, who was an avid knitter, you could never find her without having knitting needles in her hand. So I just said, Gee, We called her Grandy. "Gee Grandy, who taught you to knit?" And she came from a very large family. So I figured maybe one of her sisters or her mother and such. And I was surprised what came out from there. She stood up very proudly. And she said, "Well, I learned to knit from the Red Cross during World War One when I was 11." And this whole story just spilled out of her how the Red Cross volunteers had come into the schools and they taught to the all of the students how to knit and they met for the war. She was so proud of her part, knitting for the knitting for the war, they knit bandages. And ultimately, you know, throughout the country, more than 300 million bandages, surgical dressings were knit from floss by school children, by women by men. It was the age of knitting; everyone was knitting. So that's how I first how I first heard of this, and I, I then got on the phone. And I called the National Red Cross because I was thinking how could this huge endeavor be going on and I had no awareness of it. So I, I found the Red Cross and I had the great fortune of speaking with a man named Patrick Gilbo, who was the national archivist. And this was the this was the days before the internet and, or anything like that. And we had we were using photocopying machines back then. He was thrilled that someone was interested in the topic. He then started to tell me the story of the knitting brigades. And he followed that up we maintained the correspondence for quite a while he photocopying things from the National Archives about the whole effort. And I was fascinated then I put it together and I gave a little talk at the Red Cross. I was living in Boston at the time. They didn't know about it either. So I kept all of my materials until a few years ago, when in my town they were asking if anyone had a history topic they would be able to share with a local retirement home. So I thought gee, I wonder if anyone would be interested in this topic. And I said, I also asked myself, gee, now we have the internet. I wonder if there are more photos if there's more information out there. And boy was I surprised. So that's how, how I got into the topic. I gave the talk and a slideshow of the photos that I had found. And I found that was really very well received. And then it has sort of taken off by word of mouth. And virally. One of the women who was at this retirement home, her daughter was a librarian locally, and she asked if I would come and speak at the library. And then that was also very well received. So I've been actually giving the talk around, you know, around public libraries, and then to associations and stuff. So it's all been word of mouth. It's been wonderful.

Kelly  10:55  
That's great. So I I'm a knitter. And I know lots of other knitters. And you know, mostly how I know them is through the internet, right. And so how we pass knitting patterns to one another I, when we come up with ideas about things to knit I've been involved in like the Welcome Blanket project. It's all online. So how back in world war one long before the internet, how did they distribute this information to people about what to knit? How would it knit? You know, how what what did that process look like?

Holly Korda  11:25  
Well, actually, that was one of the things I was very interested in, I'm thinking: "How could this happen?" Way back in 1917. And in those days, it was published in local newspapers. And it was it was all it all happened through the Red Cross. And it went to local newspapers, it went to women's magazines. There was a great effort during world war one to do what they call World War One propaganda to sort of get the nation all revved up. But keep in mind, you know, this is before TV, this is before the internet. I was really amazed at what they were able to do. The Red Cross was selected to actually organize the entire war effort during World War One. So there was a War Council. And one of the things that happened is the woman who had formerly directed the Red Cross, she had directed it until we actually went to war. And it was a rather small, but it had a national reach. And there were very few organizations that at that time that had a national reach. And that's why Woodrow Wilson had selected the Red Cross to organize the effort. What they did is they went into every state, and then they divided the state into cities and towns and individuals, volunteers, this was an entirely volunteer effort. And it was volunteers who organized the effort under the direction of leaders in the Red Cross.

Kelly  13:19  
Are you a knitter yourself?

Holly Korda  13:21  
Given many of the knitters that I have met since I've become involved in that I would, it would be ashamed call me really a knitter. Although I have knit a number of things. I primarily do afghans, scarves things that are pretty simple.

Kelly  13:38  
Have you tried any of the patterns that they were knitting in World War One?

Holly Korda  13:43  
I do have, I have many of them. And in fact, one of the things that's happened since I've been giving these talks is people come to the talks, and they give me things that they found. One woman, and I'm located here in Maine, one of the women who attended came with a piece of a newspaper clipping from 1917 from a local newspaper that had the Red Cross official patterns for knitting socks. Socks were particularly important during World War One because, you know, we were really bringing an army overseas that was not well outfitted, that did not and we did not have the manufacturing capacity in this country at the time. Therefore, we really needed to organize knitters, these were essentials, and trench foot was a big problem. For the soldiers, the trenches, it was trench warfare, the trenches would fill up with water, and the way that you would avoid trench foot was to have dry socks. Well, every soldier that went over was only given two pair of socks and very poor boots that usually fell apart. So these were really critical. So socks were out there, but also what they called mufflers and balaclavas, which are like helmets that were knit sweaters without arms. And I remember in particular, my grandmother talking about the sweaters without arms. Also wristlets. So they were like, gloves with open fingers so that people could, the soldiers could use their, their guns, their machinery. So it was just really, a lot of it, the Red Cross would give out the patterns. The Red Cross also distributed the yarn that people would would use,

Kelly  15:50  
What kind of yarn? So nowadays, you know, people buy all sorts of different fabric, you know, different kinds of material that's in yarn, all sorts of different fancy dye patterns, I assume that's not what people were knitting with in 1917.

Holly Korda  16:04  
There were about three types of yarn that were used. There was a white floss that was used to knit the bandages. And for the socks, it was either wool or cotton, but primarily wool. And in fact, there became a shortage of wool in the United States. And we ended up having to reach out to other countries to get wool. The United States was not the only country that was doing a massive knitting effort during World War One. This was also going on in Britain, and Australia, and Canada, all around, all around the world. For the same types of reasons. There became a culture of knitting in this country; you were expected to be knitting wherever you were. You may go to someone's house for dinner, and you were expected to bring your knitting bag and that you would be knitting. If you went to the theater or to a show you were expected to be knitting. And people really were very critical and they would swarm at you if if you were not knitting and also if you were knitting for yourself all the knitting was supposed to be for the soldiers. So the socks and the out the garments for the soldier it was primarily gray, khaki colored and navy blue. So that's what that's what happened. There were knitting was already already a popular activity, but it really took off during World War One.

Kelly  17:48  
What are we first when I'm out in public knitting now people are giving me weird looks because I'm knitting in public. You know, nowadays, we think of knitting in probably going into World War One too, as a sort of a thing that women do that, you know. There are certainly men and boys who do knit but it's primarily women. What did that look like during World War One during these knitting brigades? Was it only women? Was it only white women who was doing the knitting?

Holly Korda  18:15  
What was so fascinating to me about this, it wasn't just women. It was primarily women. And women had the skills but it was also men. And when I've gone around my state, I've been surprised at how many people came and say, and were telling me gee, my grandpa, always knit and I could never figure out where he learned to knit or what his story was. So men knit is well, I believe the first place where men learn to knit was in New York City in the workplace. And they had the stenographers come in and teach all the men how to knit and they would do this during during lunch hour. Also in the schools, as I mentioned, for my grandmother's story, the Red Cross, engaged volunteers all around the country to go into the schools and teach the boys and the girls how to knit and everyone's knitting. So that was exciting. Also, it crossed racial and ethnic lines. You know, it wasn't just white women. There were African Americans who were knitting. There were Asian Americans who were who were knitting. One of the fascinating things and I've been in contact, not only to get permissions for the book, but also but will primarily for that, but the Sioux Indians. out in South Dakota in North Dakota, they played a very active role. Not only knitting, but also purchasing Liberty loans. There was a large effort to during World War One to sell Liberty bonds. In order to raise funds for the war, we didn't really have a national army at that point, and there was no way to provision the whole war effort. So Liberty loans were were created, the Sioux tribes out in North Dakota actually took on a large a large part of that. And they even though they were poverty stricken at that time, they contributed, contributed significant funds in terms of liberty, liberty, loans, also stepping forward to go go overseas. Everyone was involved in, in the effort,

Kelly  20:56  
So, this whole idea of getting so many people knitting and young kids and everyone knitting, did it change knitting in any way? Well, you know, were their innovations and things that happened in the actual way that the craft was done.

Holly Korda  21:12  
There were there was what they the British style of knitting, which is what most Americans use, which is what's common to many to most of us who do it even myself, where do you use the right hand to loop the yarn around the needle. And then there was also a left Left Handed knitting, which became known as German knitting. And that was the style that was often used in Europe, a, a form of, of double knitting came so that you could knit a very experienced knitter could knit two socks on two needles at the same time. And that was one of the innovations that came up. Another that happened was what they call a kitchener stitch. knitting socks in particular can be very challenging, particularly turning the heel. I don't know, Kelly, if that's something that you have done?

Kelly  22:16  
about twice, I don't like knitting socks.

Holly Korda  22:19  
Well, that can be challenging. And, in fact, that was something that some of the soldiers were sort of complaining about. So tube socks actually came out of World War One, they were often made with a a circular sock machine, which is another form of knitting that was used during the war. But the Kitchener stitch is still in use now. And it's a way of weaving the the toe and bringing them together so that there wouldn't be there wouldn't be a sewn area that would rub against the foot and such. So now I should also ask, also mention that the Red Cross, you mentioned earlier, the patterns, they standardize the patterns. And they believe that it was important for the standardization. And they had a quality in a quality assurance for all of the materials that came in from all around the country. And very experienced knitters would go and they would pull out of something that was really not in good. Not done well. But this is why they had the standard patterns. And then they had the knitters who would you know, only let the materials go through that had been done properly.

Kelly  23:48  
And tell me about this Knitting Bee that happened in New York City.

Holly Korda  23:52  
Oh, that's very exciting. That's it was a weekend long event. And it was sponsored by the Navy League. Even though it was the Red Cross that did most of the knitting. The the Navy League was also sponsoring a lot of knitting, and it cost 50 cents to participate in this. There were hundreds of people in in Central Park: men, women, children, who were all knitting during that weekend. Now that 50 cent entrance fee was used to to provide yarn for those who might want be able to have the entry fee. There were all sorts of contests that were done during the Central Park Knitting Bee: who could knit the most in the shortest amount of time. There was even a contest among blind knitters. Who were the older knitters, you know people in their 80s and 90s, who were knitting, and also very young knitters as well. So that was an exciting time.

Kelly  25:11  
I love that. Wish we could bring it, if I could go back and see one event in history, I would love to go watch everyone knitting.

Holly Korda  25:19  
Again, I keep that I kept asking myself, the deeper I got into this, how was it that we never heard anything about? You know, this is truly sort of the unsung history.

Kelly  25:30  
Yeah, really is fantastic. Are there any? Are there any of those knitted items that are still in existence that are still around?

Holly Korda  25:41  
There are some and there are a number of knitters who are recreating using old patterns, or recreating some of the the old garments, there is a museum that is in Missouri, that is the World War One, the national World War One Museum, and they have some items, they actually also have my book, which I'm pleased about, but some of those garments do do exist still. And there seems to be in recent years, a number of knitters who are just very interested in re-creating them.

Kelly  26:29  
Do you think we'll ever see something like this, again, whether it's knitting or not that, you know, sort of a whole country coming together in an effort like this?

Holly Korda  26:38  
That is a great question. And I would say that more than anything else, that is the single most question that people ask, I think, to a lesser extent, we've seen some of it, we're certainly capable of it. It's hard to see right now with so much division in the country, over so many issues, political and otherwise. But what comes to my mind is how the country came together around 9/11. You know, there was a necessity there. And people did come, come together, I'd like to think that we will move through this period that we're in where, where we're just everything is still divided. I was particularly interested in that. Because when I first had my conversations with my grandmother, I was very interested from the perspective of a public health researcher. And my day job is I do public health research. And there was a lot of concern about HIV and AIDS at the time. And how do we get the public to understand, all the education, and how do we get the word out? That's one of the reasons that this, these knitting brigades just seemed so amazing to me. And I really think that women need to stand up and take a bow here, because it was women who led this effort. This effort came out of the women's committee of volunteers at the Red Cross, and especially at a time before women even had the right to vote. So many women were stepping up and even many of the suffragettes were knitting; women also went and took over a lot of the jobs that men who went overseas were taking. I know here in the Portland, Maine, area where where I live, there are a number of photos of the women at the Portland Company who made the howitzer shells that were used for the war. So it was a very proud time for women in particular, who could show that, yes, they could play an important role, as well. And it was right after that in 1919, that Wilson pushed forward the vote, the vote for women, and in 1920 we moved into having those rights.

Kelly  29:32  
Is there anything else that that you want to make sure that we talk about, that you think people really need to hear about this time?

Holly Korda  29:41  
I think that it's not just a story about knitting. It's a story about volunteerism. And as you know, it's amazing to me to think there were more than 24 million garments in a period of 18 months that we had in the war that were that will knit to support the soldiers. We also had American volunteer knitters who, who knit garments for people in Europe. The Europeans really suffered during World, World War One, the Great War. This is really a story about volunteering in your community, and how small communities could could pull together and how regular people can really make a difference, can really make a difference in their community. And in this case, nationwide, and that's what's so a very inspiring to me, in going around and talking about these knitting brigades, I have met so many volunteer knitters. As a result of that I've, I've dedicated this, this book to, to the volunteer knitters, I've met people who are who are knitting for people in Afghanistan; they're knitting for the homeless in their own communities. I had one woman who told of how she was a second grade teacher. And she knit a hat and mittens for every student in her class. She was a very fast and experienced knitter. So by October, she typically had the whole class outfitted for the winter. And I've just been so impressed with the many different knitters that I have met, who continue to do volunteer work continue to step up. And there's many ways that all of us can volunteer in our communities. So that would be that would be the message, you know, each one of us has something that we can do, something that we can do. And knitting was not just the only piece. This is the time when we had Victory Gardens, and oh, gee, students in the schools, in particular, in the colleges and such, they would put on what they call patriotic pageants. And they would charge people for attending and donate that money to the war effort. They would go door to door selling news magazine. There were some other young women who created canning clubs and home service clubs, they would bake pies, they would can foods, and sell them to their neighbors again, to make money. One such club, the gals would go door to door and they would offer to give you a shampoo, and they would charge for that. So it was it was a time that I think we can all be very inspired by and very proud of how we behaved as a as a country. Yeah.

Kelly  33:08  
Lovely, lovely message. So if people want to learn more and want to get your book, How can they do that?

Holly Korda  33:15  
It's available on Amazon, and they can just go. My name is Holly Korda, just go under my name and the Knitting Brigades of World War One. That's the other way; it's available easily on Amazon.

Kelly  33:33  
Excellent. Well, Holly, thank you. This was a really fun conversation. I am just this is I think one of the coolest historical stories that that I know of, and I'm delighted to be starting the podcast off with this.

Teddy  33:50  
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Transcribed by

Holly KordaProfile Photo

Holly Korda

Holly Korda became fascinated with World War 1 volunteer knitting when she learned of these home front heroics from a relative who learned to knit in school for the war effort. A researcher by training, she reached out to a Red Cross historian in the 1980s to uncover more about these amazing efforts. Fast forward to the Internet age, Holly expanded her research on the knitting brigades and has shared numerous presentations on the topic with volunteer knitting groups, community groups, veterans, and history buffs across the state through library and historical societies, association gathers, and World War One commemorations.

A resident of Old Orchard Beach, Maine, she is involved with and honors community initiatives that demonstrate the power of the human spirit--and community members who step up to make a difference.