Knitting for the troops
It can be difficult to get an idea of what was happening on the home front just by looking at military records. What were the people who weren’t serving doing? How did they feel? What did they do to play their part in Australia’s war effort?
One thing many Australians did during both the First and Second World Wars was knit. Australia-wide, local organisations, schools, church groups, knitting circles, and individuals banded together to undertake the huge task of providing comforts to Australian troops. Comforts included gifts like food, entertainment, recreation facilities, and clothing given to troops to supplement what the military couldprovide.
During the course of the First World War, Australians knitted over 1 million pairs of socks as gifts for the troops. Historican Michael McKernan estimated at 10 hours of work per pair, that would be an extraordinary 10 million hours of work.
In the Second World War, they outdid even that, with over 3 million pairs of socks knitted! Australians also made a variety of other items, like scarves, vests and mittens.
The Memorial’s Research Centre is currently displaying patterns, letters, leaflets, souvenirs, and other items from our collection focusing on knitting comforts for Australian troops. The display honours what an Australian Comforts Fund booklet called the amazing “flying knitting needles” of Australians.
One of my favourite parts of the Memorial’s collection about knitting is the variety of patterns for everything from balaclavas to knee pads. Comforts funds, schools, the Red Cross, women’s magazines and yarn companies all produced their own patterns for knitted comforts. Some even published special editions of magazines with themed sections for Army, Air Force, and Navy personnel.
A perennial favourite in the Memorial’s collection of patterns is “Directions for knitting two socks at once” (RC10289). This pattern expects the knitter to have expertise in sock knitting, but there are plenty of others that are less daunting for a novice, like “Directions for standard socks for our men on Active Service” (RC10291).
Knitting for the Troops will be on display in the Research Centre's Reading Room until mid-November.
If you’re interested in hearing more, an interview on this subject with knitting podcaster Renae Beardmore is available to download from her suzy hasfrau blog.
References and further reading
Australian Comforts Fund, "Comforts for the fighting forces... an investment in morale", Australian Comforts Fund Souvenir Collection, Australian War Memorial, Souvenirs 8/3/1
Australian Comforts Fund, Victorian Division, Voluntary war workers' record (Melbourne: Arbuckle & Waddell, 1918)
C. O. Badham Jackson, A state at war: the official history of the Lord Mayor's Patriotic and War Fund of New South Wales, the Australian Comforts Fund, NSW Division (Sydney: John Sands, 1947)
C. O. Badham Jackson, Proud story: the official history of the Australian Comforts Fund (Sydney: F. H. Johnston, 1949)
Samuel Bowden (ed.), The history of the Australian Comforts Fund (Sydney: Scotow & Pressell, 1922)
Michael McKernan, The Australian people and the Great War (West Melbourne: Thomas Nelson, 1980)
Michael McKernan, All in!: fighting the war at home (St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1995)