In frequent rambles, while plumbing the depths of my family history, and the local history of my little village-township I have knocked up against references to the activities of the ladies of Red Cross committees during times of war. There were fundraising dances held in the local tea-rooms; participants gaily adorned in fancy dress costumes vied for first place in the best-dressed stakes. Ladies would come dressed as "The Empire" or "Madam Pompadour", while the gentlemen might attempt "Admiral Churchill" or "Waltzing Matilda". There were also card parties convened in the houses of those considered to be "gentlefolk", with amounts of up to £10 being raised in one sitting, or over the course of an afternoon.
But alongside these committee-work fundraising ventures, women were extolled to take up their needles and bundles of yarn to knit sturdy warm socks for the soldier lads and absent menfolk so far away in the lonely theatre of war. Socks were knitted by the thousands and collected by the Red Cross for dispatch to the trenches. There is much fodder in the National Archives of Australia's digitised newspaper collection, documenting the social history of war-time sock knitting. What a difference it must have made to so many wounded, weary and homesick chaps to receive these woolly warmers from home.
The instructions for knitting war-time socks were quite particular, and these were made available through Red Cross publications at the time. I haven't come across the exact recipe yet, but I did find a war-time sock pattern to share. These call for grey yarn with a small amount of white contrast. However, socks knitted for the soldiers were to be knitted in regulation green. The pattern below was published as one long stream-of-consciousness; not nicely dissected into readable blocks. I have transcribed it as it was written, and it makes me thankful for modern pattern designers who package their pattern instructions so that they are easy to digest.
PATTERNS FOR RED CROSS WORKERSThe patterns for warm socks and mittens will be found useful and well made, and will contribute materially to the comfort of the troops. Heather yarn could be substituted for grey, though both are good standing colours. The key note of all work done must be usefulness not ornamentation.
KNITTED SOCKS AND MITTENS.
KNITTED SOCKS AND MITTENS.
SOCK, KNITTED IN RAILWAY STITCHRequired, four ounces of grey hosiery yarn, half ounce of white yarn for the heel and toe and four steel knitting needles, No 15. Cast 30 stitches on the first needle, 25 on the second, and 26 on the third needle, 81 stitches in all, with grey wool Work in ribbing, 2 plain 1 purl, for 24 rounds. Knit 1 round plain, taking 2 stitches together at the end, and now there are 80 stitches in the round. 1st pattern round - Knit 1, purl 1, knit 1, purl 2 and repeat. 2nd round - The same. Third round - Plain. 4th round - Knit 1, purl 2, knit 1, purl 1, and repeat 5th round - The same sixth round - Plain. These six rounds constitute the pattern. Mark with a thread of cotton the sixteenth stitch upon the first needle and consider it as seam stitch to be always knitted plain unless otherwise directed. In knitting the 12th round make the first leg decrease by working plain until within 3 stitches of this seamstitch, then knit 2 together, knit 3 (the seamstitch being the centre one of these) slip 1, knit 1, pass the slipped stitch over, and continue plain to the end of the third needle. 13th round. - Same pattern as the first round till within 3 of the seamstitch, then knit 1, purl 2, knit the seamstitch, purl 2, knit 1, and continue the pattern. 14th round -The same as the fourth round-Plain. 16th round-Same as the fourth round, and when within 3 of the seamstitch, purl 1, knit 1, purl 1, knit the seamstitch, purl 1, knit 1, purl 1, and continue the pattern. 17th round-the same. 18th round -Plain and decrease thus: when within 3 stitches of the seamstitch knit 2 together; knit 3, slip 1, knit 1, pass the slipped stitch over, and continue plain to the end. 19th round-Same as the first round, and when within 2 of the Seamstitch purl 2, knit the seamstitch, purl 2, and continue the pattern. 20th round-The Same. 21st round-Plain. 22nd round Same as the fourth round and when within 2 of the seamstitch knit 1, purl 1, knit tho seamstitch, purl 1 knit 1, and continue the pattern. 23rd round-The same. 24th round-Plain, and decrease thus: When within 2 stitches of the seamstitch knit 2 together, knit the seam- stitch, slip 1, knit 1, pass the slipped stitch over, and continue plain to the end. 25th round-Same as the first round, and purl a stitch on each side the seamstitch and purl the seamstitch. 26th round-The same. 27th round-Knit plain along; 10 stitches of the fist needle, then slip 1, knit 1, pass the slipped stitch over, knit the seamstitch, knit 2 together and continue plain to the end of the round. 28th round -Work pattern same as the fourth round, purl the seamstitch and knit 1 stitch plain on each side. 29th round - The same. 30th round - Knit plain along 10 stitches of the first needle, then slip 1, knit 2 together, pass the slipped stitch over, and continue plain to the end of the round. There are now 20 stitches on the first needle and the same number as before on each of the other needles, 70 stitches in the round and the pattern comes in exactly as at the top of the leg. Continue working in pattern till you have done 11½ patterns down the leg. Then for the heel-Knit plain (still with grey wool) to the seamstitch, purl that, knit plain l8 stitches more, turn the work, slip the first stitch purl 36 stitches. 3rd row of the Heel-Slip the first stitch, knit 17, purl the seamstitch, knit 18. 4th row - Slip the first stitch, purl 36. Repeat these last two rows once more with grey wool. Then knit 2 rows with white and 2 rows with with grey six times. Then 2 rows with white, and turn the heel with all white: -1st row-Slip 1, knit 17, purl the seam- stitch, knit 1, slip 1, knit 1, pass the slipped stitch over, knit 1, turn the work, slip 1, purl 4, purl 2 together, purl 1. 3rd row-Slip 1, knit 2, purl the seam- stitch, knit 2, slip 1, knit 1, pass the slipped stitch over, knit 1; turn the work slip 1, purl 6, purl 2 together, purl 1. 5th row-Slip 1, knit 3, purl the seam- stitch, knit 3, slip 1, knit 1, pass the slipped stitch over, knit 1, turn the work, slip 1, purl 8, purl 2 together, purl 1. Continue thus, working one more stitch each time till all the side stitches are knitted in, the last row will be a purl row and 21 Stitches will be on the needle for the top of the heel. For the Gussets -Take the grey wool, and pick up and knit 10 stitches along the right-hand side of the flap of the heel, on another needle knit the 21 stitches belonging to the top of the heel and pick up and knit 19 stitches along the other side of the flap, to do this conveniently you must slip 10 of the heel stitches upon the first needle so that you get 29 stitches on one needle and 30 stitches on the other, and these are the two foot needles, on the third needle knit in pattern 33 instep stitches, 2 plain stitches being at the beginning and 2 plain at the end. 2nd Round- Beginning on the first foot needle, knit 9, slip 1, knit 1, pass the slipped stitch over, knit plain to within 3 stitches of the end of the second foot needle, knit 2 together, knit 1, knit in pattern along the instep needle. Decrease this every alternate round, continuing plain on foot and pattern on instep, till reduced to 66 stitches in the round when work on till the foot is the length required. 10½ patterns down the instep will be about right for an ordinary sized sock. For the Toe -Knit 2 plain rounds with grey wool; 2 plain rounds with white; after which decrease at the beginning of the first foot needle and at the end of the second foot needle, and at the beginning and end of the instep needle every alternate round, working 2 rounds with grey and 2 rounds with white, till 4 white and 4 grey stripes are done, then 6 rounds all white - still decreasing; arrange the remaining foot stitches upon one needle, and cast off.
PATTERNS FOR RED CROSS WORKERS. (1914, August 26). The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 - 1933), p. 9. Retrieved April 25, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article19979562
And here endeth the sermon ... So now for the challenge. Would you have a go at knitting war-time socks? I'm definitely thinking about it. Actually, I reckon I will. There is sock-yarn aplenty mouldering away in my stash, and while I don't have a soldier in the house I do have a wanna-be farmer who so strikingly embodies those well-loved, quintessential strengths of the ANZAC spirit. He reminds me of resourceful young men who left their farming communities and outback country towns to give their all for King and Country. I am quite possibly getting overly-imaginative on this score, but it is past midnight now, so maybe you will excuse the romantic vision. I've just remembered that this chappy has a birthday coming up soon (a number with an "0" on the end of it). And knowing how much he does love my hand-knitted socks, I might just spend ANZAC Day not only remembering the sacrifices of the past, but maybe also knitting some hope into the future.