When you think of knitting, do you think about winning wars? Probably not, but historically knitting has been one of those small contributions made during various war efforts. The word knitting comes from the Old English cnyttan, meaning “to knot”. We use the knitting term to indicate making a textile product by looping yarn using two needles. Knitting has played a role in human conflict down the ages.
A fictional representation is in Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, where Madame Defarge sits by the guillotine as the enemies of the French Revolution are beheaded, calmly recording their names in wool as their heads fall. More historical references date to more recent conflicts. Spies during the American Revolutionary War used the cover of knitting, to serve the new country. Molly “Old Mom” Rinker, spied for George Washington, during the Revolutionary War, while sitting on a hilltop knitting and watching the British. Hiding scraps of paper within balls of yarn, she passed messages in plain sight of the enemy.
The British government was so concerned about knitting, that in both WWI and WWII they banned people from posting knitting patterns abroad in case they contained coded messages. During World War I, A woman in Belgium knitted at her window, watching the passing trains. Making bumpy stitches in the fabric, or dropping stitches from the fabric, she recorded counts of German trains. These fabric messages she passed on to spies in the Belgian resistance.
An undercover agent in WWII, Phyllis Latour Doyle, snuck information to the British using knitting as a cover. Parachuting into occupied France in 1944, she learned German secrets and used silk yarn to code secret knotted messages. She hid her code equipment by wrapping silk yarn around a knitting needle and using it to tie her hair up.
Today, individuals are waging different types of battles with yarn. In 2013, knitted items were strung from trees and lamp-posts in parts of Leicester, UK. The police hoped this would calm the area and deter crime. This is a type of “yarnbombing,” where people knit cozies for tree trunks, parking meters and stationary or moving objects. The history of knitting is not over. I’m sure that in the years to come knitting will continue to play a role in how people respond to and confront violence and radical change. I salute the knitters, carry on!