For all the hi-tech kit which has made soldiers’ lives easier over the centuries, wool has enjoyed an enduring relationship with the Services. We caught up with Joyce Meader, author of Knitskrieg: A Call to Yarns and wife of a Territorial Army veteran, to find out more about the role knitting has played – and continues to play – in the military…
A&Y: Where did the idea for Knitskrieg come from?
JM: I’ve always had it in my mind but never had time to get around to it because of work and children. Then Uniform Press found me on the internet and somebody rang me up. They came down to see me and it went from there.
How did you find the process of writing the book?
I’m slightly dyslexic and somebody once said to me that I write the longest paragraphs in the world, so it was really helpful that they gave me an editor. I just scribbled everything down for her to put into readable words.
How much research did you have to do?
It was nearly all there – it was the modern stuff I had to go hunting about for. Most people want to know about the earlier stuff because the modern stuff isn’t really part of history yet. I zoomed around the internet to find the extra bits.
When did knitting and the military first cross paths?
Back in medieval times – that’s when we know things started to be knitted in a very large way. That was the instigation of the Monmouth cap, which is the horrible wooly thing that Civil War reenactors wear. It’s just a knitted round cap with a button on the top, which is also knitted and felted and is to stop the tin hat from bashing your brains in as you run like a demon across the battlefield. It acts as padding because tin hats were not lined with nice comfortable bits of foam.
What are the main items knitted for soldiers throughout the years?
Socks and stockings. In the 1500s, frame knitting started. It was cut-and-sew where they would knit this huge piece of cloth and then cut it up and sew it together, so that’s what stockings were at that point. They were hand-knitted and there’s a whole lot of history about it.
I personally don’t go further than the Crimea because I collect commercially-printed patterns and before that time people just knew knitting and did it as it was taught. The first pattern we know of for anything is 1817. I have a copy but not an original – I’d love to have one, but I don’t think I’m wealthy enough to buy it!
You provide talks for groups interested in learning about knitting. How are they going?
It’s very popular – I give talks about the history of knitting and especially military knitting and I’ve had three this week! It’s quite busy and I’d love it to be my full-time job. I go to Women’s Institutes, townswomen’s guilds, pensioners’ groups, nursing homes – anybody who wants it. Anyone that rings, if I can get to you, I will go. It would be wonderful to meet with Army wives.
Is knitting still relevant to modern-day soldiers?
Today, knitting is a comfort item. It’s a remembrance of home and that you’re not forgotten. The Americans are very into this – they have the Ships Project.
One poor lad wrote home saying he needed some bed socks because it was cold in the desert at night. They were sent out and by return of post [the project] got 40 other requests. Now they knit the items, take them down to the depot and they get shipped out.
It went to naval people originally because some of those serving during the first Iraq war had been at sea for longer than Nelson’s navy and hadn’t been home for three years.
Is knitting something Army families could try their hands at?
It’s a very easy thing to get into. YouTube is a wonderful place! You just pop in what you’re after and you will get all sorts of guides. You can even learn how to knit if you’re left-handed.
What about for the soldiers themselves?
In the back of my book there’s a piece about a radio operator based just outside of Kandahar who was sat there really bored and he was whizzing around YouTube when he found a video about crochet. He taught himself to crochet while he was waiting for messages to come in! There’s a lovely picture of him holding this huge blanket up and he said that he got to the point where he was waiting for parcels from his sister because that’s where all the yarn was coming from. It can also be used for therapy – there’s lots of research into mental illness and knitting and how good it can be for you.
Is it an expensive hobby?
It can be cheap if you hunt around to buy the yarn, but it can also be quite expensive! If you want something nice, fluffy and comforting then it costs a bit more. I normally knit with 100 per cent wool and try and stick to British sources. We have more than 70 breeds of sheep in the British Isles. I use Shetland a lot.
What are some of the more obscure military-inspired knitted items?
In the Great War, rifle covers and covers for the trigger area so they didn’t get wet. There’s a specific pattern for those.
There were also lots of military hospital comforts like stump warmers for the amputees and splint covers – when you break your femur and have your leg up in the metal contraption, there’s a knitted cover for it.
The most useless item on God’s earth was a knitted sling. Because knitting stretches as the day goes on, they weren’t very useful at all! A lot of it was utilitarian things like socks, up-and-over jumpers, balaclavas and “cap mufflers”, which were all hand-knitted.
For more information about Joyce, including her demonstrations, visit her website at www.thehistoricknit.co.uk
Knitskrieg: A Call to Yarns is out now priced £18.99 and is published by Uniform, an imprint of Unicorn Publishing Group. Army&You readers can purchase a copy direct from the publisher for £15, including P&P, by sending a cheque made payable to “Unicorn Publishing Group” to Acorn House, Tonbridge Road, Bough Beech, Kent TN8 7AU.