During World War I Americans of all ages were asked by the United States government to knit wool socks, sweaters, and other garments to this is daring college essay American soldiers at home and abroad. Most of this knitting was produced by volunteers working under the auspices of the American Red Cross. During the course of the war more than 6,000 Seattle-area knitters as well as knitters from other parts of the state produced hundreds of thousands of knitted items for the war effort. The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.
Germany surrendered and the war was over on November 11, 1918. 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 American soldiers in the trenches or on the march in France, warm socks made all the difference. Although in theory water-repellant, the boots ripped out at the seams fairly quickly. These hobnails conducted the cold from the frozen ground directly to the soldiers’ feet. 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. American soldiers were called Sammies, short for Uncle Sam, or doughboys. The term doughboy dates to the Civil War, and refers to the large brass buttons on the coats of Union infantrymen. The buttons resembled boiled dumplings called doughboys.
Sammie needed wool helmets and vests, chest covers and fingerless mitts to allow trigger access. Knitters also produced so-called stump socks to cover amputated limbs. The Red Cross issued patterns and yarn, collected finished goods, and shipped them to Europe. The quality of the finished products varied widely according to the knitter’s skill level but even garments with a few dropped stitches kept soldiers warm. Most women and many men already knew how to knit when the war began. Those who didn’t quickly learned.
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Some ace war-effort knitters specialized in reworking others’ shoddy work before the garments were turned over to the Red Cross. In Washington state, as elsewhere in the country, knitters worked both at home and in social groups. Any church, any women’s group, any auxiliary, any school, any neighborhood and many workplaces spent 1917-1918 together knitting for the Red Cross war relief effort. Knitting was acceptable at work, at school, at home, on public transportation, at social events, in theaters, and even in church.
Non-knitters were urged to purchase yarn for those who knit. One of the funds at the Seattle Red Cross headquarters which has been slowly but steadily growing is the Old Ladies’ Knitting Fund. This was first established because there were many dear little old ladies who were anxious to knit for the Red Cross, but who could not afford the 75 cents to pay for the initial allotment of the yarn. The longshoremen of the Great Northern docks made the first contribution to this fund. In December 1917, Madame Naokichi Matsunaga, wife of the imperial Japanese consul in Seattle, formed a Japanese Ladies Auxiliary of the Red Cross. Members met several times each week to knit in the Japanese Commercial Club at Maynard Avenue and Jackson Street.
It was Seattle’s first civic organization for Japanese women. Since the entry of the United States into the war the fair maidens of the Orient have aligned themselves with patriotic movements in Seattle in which they considered their services would carry the most weight. The Self-Improvement Club, an African American women’s organization, formed in Seattle during World War I for the express purpose of knitting for African American soldiers. They also wrote the soldiers encouraging letters and prepared comfort packages for them. The Junior Red Cross, launched in September 1917, was open to all American school children and was organized through the schools.
In Seattle many children learned to knit through Red Cross programs, most commonly starting with simple knitted washcloths. These washcloths were sent to American soldiers and to the citizens of war-torn countries. Longtime Seattleite Blanche Caffiere knit these washcloths as a Fairview School student. The children, Caffiere remembered, carried their knitting around constantly and knit between lessons and while at play.