During World War I, knitters from Allied nations produced millions of socks, caps, scarves, and sweaters for military use. American Red Cross volunteers knitted nearly 24 million garments; Australian knitters sent 1.3 million pairs of socks overseas. These efforts are often described as “knitting for victory.”
German (and Austrian) women also knitted for their soldiers. Given the course of history, one cannot say that their work served the cause of victory. Perhaps for this reason, their woolly contributions to the war are less well-known. Yet already on 8 August 1914 — less than a week after German soldiers marched into Belgium — German women were mobilising too. The Rheinische Nachrichten reported that “the women and girls of Braubach mean to take up the knitting of stockings as they did in the past, and knit for the men who fight for us in all weather.” The article added that wool was available at no cost from Mrs Löw, although “knitters whose means allow it are encouraged to buy their own.”
During the Franco-Prussia War of 1870–71, soldiers had suffered from a lack of socks. In 1914, it was therefore deemed of utmost importance to prevent such a situation from happening again. “Knit!” the Kleine Presse exhorted its female readers. “The knitted stocking, which the French consider a contemptuous attribute of German women, dignifies you.” The Casseler neueste Nachrichten printed a letter from a group of local soldiers, who sent their best regards from France and lamented how much they missed the local beer, before getting to the real point: “What we — that is, our comrades — lack is warm underclothing, stockings, wristwarmers, and all the things that are absolutely necessary in cold, rainy weather.” If such implicit appeals did not work, the Zeitung für das Dillthal was much more blunt. “No one ought to show themselves in public without their knitting; she whose hands lie idly in her lap and leaves precious time unused should be ashamed of herself.”
Perhaps women took such comments to heart. In any case, they certainly took their knitting into the public sphere. In November 1914, knitting was banned on streetcars in Bockenheim; “the reason given is that fiddling about with the needles can easily injure” other passengers. The knitting craze led to a rapid increase in the price of wool and manufacturers found themselves unable to keep up with the demand for grey yarn — the standard colour for army garments.
While the press in Germany gave the impression that every woman in the country had suddenly become a prolific knitter, an article from the neutral Netherlands painted a slightly different picture. “Rich ladies came together to knit and sew. But this did not last long. They were quickly convinced that in doing so they were impoverishing their poorer sisters. Soon the only effective solution was found: to provide for the troops, and at the same time to combat the misery of the poor, by providing work. The ladies bought the wool and let women and unemployed girls do the work at home.” Employment agencies were set up so that women whose husbands had gone to war could earn a small income. These agencies filled orders for the army, supplying them with socks and other knitted garments.
Schoolgirls were quickly corralled into the war effort. “During the First World War, we were allowed to knit socks for soldiers during class time,” recalled Martha Maria Gerthe. Cläre Preisner remembered that “during the last lesson of the school day, we had to knit, and while knitting we had to sing patriotic songs.” Students at the Schillerschule in Friedberg knitted 80 pairs of stockings and 140 pairs of wristwarmers for the army in September 1914; by the beginning of the following month, they had added 40 pairs of stockings and 80 pairs of wristwarmers. Hopefully their stockings fit the intended recipients; Cläre Preisner further recollected that “my father always said, well, now, isn’t that crazy, those socks, they’re more suited for an elephant than a soldier.”
Perhaps because of the skill needed to knit decent socks, there seems to have been a debate over whether to make Fusslappen instead. These “foot wraps” consisted of a flannel square, which was then folded in a particular way over the foot to produce a covering similar to a sock. (They remained in use in some European armies well into the twentieth century.) Obviously, the making of Fusslappen called for much less effort and skill than sock-knitting. However, they required some expertise to fold and wear as a bad fit would produce discomfort — if a soldier even managed to get his feet into his boots in the first place. “It should not be denied that Fusslappen…can be put to good use, nor that some individual soldiers use them exclusively,” wrote the Casseler neueste Nachrichten. “For the majority, however, a handknitted, well-fitting, woolen stocking is their first choice.”
The Vaterländischer Frauenverein (VFV)—Patriotic Women’s Association— organised knitting and sewing bees. Prior to Christmas 1914, the local chapter in Braubach held biweekly meetings that produced 310 pairs of socks and stockings along with 283 pairs of wristwarmers. The Red Cross also organised the production of socks and other garments. After knitters delivered them to central collection points, these items were then assembled into parcels known as Liebesgaben. These packages were sent to soldiers at the front, in military hospitals, and in POW camps. They usually contained items such as chocolate, alcohol, and soap, in addition to handknitted socks.
Both German and Allied sources agreed that a pair of socks lasted approximately 14 days. “We are told that the average life of a pair of socks with men on active service is a fortnight,” The Telegraph of Brisbane, Australia, informed its readers. Similarly, the German soldier Paul Vietmeier wrote to his mother in January 1915: “If I receive a new pair of stockings every 2–3 weeks, that is quite enough. You don’t need to knit them so long; socks are sufficient.”
The distinction between stockings, which extended to mid/upper calf, and socks, which reached between 5–12 cm over the ankle, was made as early as October 1914. Soldiers reported throwing away stockings as soon as they developed holes, which — if modern handknitted socks are any indication — usually developed at the heels, toes, and ball of foot. At the same time, the rest of the stocking remained in usable condition.
Thus, to save time, money, and yarn, the solution was to knit stockings in two parts: the top Beinling (literally translated as “legling” or legwarmer) and the bottom Füssling (“footling” or sock). One pair of leglings sufficed for three pairs of footlings. When worn, they overlapped at the ankle; soldiers particularly appreciated this extra warmth.
The colour of the yarn could be a matter of life and limb. In October 1914, the Wiesbadener Neueste Nachrichten reported on the importance of using grey yarn, particularly for gloves and wristwarmers. Black could be seen too well from a distance, thereby providing a target for the enemy and causing soldiers to be shot in the hand. Australian knitters were also encouraged to use grey and specifically advised against red, black, and blue yarn because the dye was sometimes not colourfast and would stain the men’s skin. Germans may have faced the same problems with dye; the VFV’s “Ten Commandments of Knitting” recommended that “for all knitted items to be worn directly against the skin, use only natural-coloured yarn.”
In Austria-Hungary, fears about poisonous dye reached a pitch in the fall of 1914. The rumour that “the wearer of a dyed stocking will more easily develop septicemia if he is wounded on the foot” gained such traction that newspapers felt compelled to address it. While the article did concede that foot wounds were linked to high rates of septicemia, “this has nothing to do with the stockings themselves” or synthetic dyes, which were found in everything from clothes to carpets to upholstery. Rather, it was because soldiers had little opportunity in the field to keep their feet clean; “the germs present in the dirt are naturally the ones that so easily lead to septicemia in the event of a foot wound.” Similar fears about poisonous dye seem to have been present in Germany as well, but did not necessitate such thorough debunking. The Schwanheimer Zeitung noted, almost in passing, that “the concerns about the use of black wool are unfounded. Today all woolen goods are dyed using non-toxic dyes.”
- Read more: Where did soldiers wear these socks?
Immediately following the outbreak of war, German newspapers published patterns for stockings. These instructions from August 1914 are typical:
“For a man’s sock, cast on 80 stitches, knit 2, purl 2 90 rounds to the heel. The latter amounts to 40 stitches, approximately 38 rows or 14 edge stitches. After turning the heel and picking up the stitches, the gusset is decreased approximately 8–10 times, so that the total number of stitches is 72–80. After approximately 60 rounds, the toe decreases begin.” Exactly how to turn the heel and decrease the toe is not specified. The pattern concludes somewhat acerbically, “If ladies follow these instructions, they will produce not a flour sack but a sock that fits a normal foot.”
While those instructions may have been unusable by beginners, they were nevertheless slightly better than the ones provided by the Lauterbacher Anzeiger: “Cast on 72 stitches, leg 30 cm in knit 2 purl 2, foot with heel 28–30 cm including the decreases [for the toe].”
By 1915, organisations like the VFV had begun to print their own pattern booklets. These patterns contained more detailed instructions than those in the newspaper and also featured photographs of the finished objects.
The VFV’s stocking pattern is a great improvement over the ones printed in newspapers in that it contains actual instructions for turning the heel and decreasing for the toe. It was therefore a pity to discover that the directions for the heel were so incomprehensible that they did not produce a functional sock. For knitters accustomed to turning heels in this way, the written pattern may have functioned simply to jog their memories; for others, attempting to follow the instructions as written would likely have led to much frustration. Luckily, an alternative pattern published by the Cologne-based Nationale Frauengemeinschaft contained a much more straightforward description of the heel turn.
Tube socks were rare. However, a pattern did appear in the Wiesbadener Tagblatt, with the remark that “some ladies will not be able to imagine this sock; it has no heel and the appearance of a bag.” To make it, “Cast on 72 stitches, knit 2, purl 2, 26 centimeters. Then, without decreasing, 22 centimeters stockinette stitch. A simple toe with decreases follows, measuring approximately 8–9 centimeters.” It was such a novelty that “a sample stocking…can be viewed at the Tagblatt offices.”
The reader who submitted the pattern insisted that “this sock fits every foot, large or small” and that they wore wonderfully in army-issued boots. It is hard to know whether or not to believe this claim. Tube socks were described in Austrian newspapers as “socks for hospitals, without heels, just tubes with decreases for the toe.” On the other hand, a New Zealand newspaper published a pattern for a heelless “Japanese Soldier’s Sock” in 1915. It came “specially recommended by the late Lord Roberts for the soldiers at the front…it is easily made, fits spirally round the leg, and forms a splendid heel.” (During World War II, however, Norwegian soldiers expressed the opinion that such socks, knitted with spiral rib, were unfit for purpose.)
Once the socks had been knitted, they needed to be washed before being sent off. “Unwashed wool…irritates the skin and often causes a nettle-like rash,” warned the Wiesbadener Zeitung. They added the following washing instructions, clearly aimed at preventing felting: “One should first put the knitted objects in lukewarm soapy water, let them soak for a quarter of an hour while pressing repeatedly (not rubbing) and then let them air dry (not on the stove).”
Then the socks were ready for distribution. Knitters in Allied countries often enclosed letters and poems to go with their socks. German knitters did the same. Collections of wartime poetry were published in book form; newspapers also printed verses, such as this one from thirteen-year-old Maria Winter. “I have knitted these here socks / Now chase the Russians into the swamp! / And if in France you may be / Fight there also valiantly.”
Women from the Telephone and Telegraph Office in Königsberg sent socks to Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, who had led German forces to a decisive victory against Russia at the Battle of Tannenberg early in the war. They enclosed a short poem, which read in part “While on the hunt for Russians he can / Wear these stockings in their cold land.” Hindenburg sent a postcard in return: “Thank you for the lovely stockings, which should serve me well.”
At least one soldier was capable of knitting his own socks. He was such a phenomenon that he warranted an article in the newspaper. “We have a comrade here who knits,” wrote one of his trenchmates from the Western Front. “He has already knitted himself one pair of stockings and has started a second.” His fellow soldiers nicknamed him “Rike” — short for Friederike, the feminine version of Friedrich, his actual name.
Later in the war, wool shortages in Germany caused a steep decline in knitting. The British naval blockade meant that Germany no longer received shipments of Australian wool to supplement its domestic production. In fact, a lack of wool for the production of knitting yarn had been predicted as early as the fall of 1914.
In 1916, soldiers’ wives who had once been employed as sock-knitters now found the parameters of their work changing: sewing and mending replaced knitting. The lack of wool is further reflected in the newspapers. Throughout 1914 and 1915, the Red Cross in Wiesbaden regularly placed ads encouraging/bullying women to “knit socks!” In 1916, these ads ceased and did not resume for the remainder of the war. The request for socks was eventually replaced by one for “rags, paper, and rubber” as well as “kitchen scraps suitable for animal fodder.”
In January 1917, the British Minister of the Blockade, Sir Robert Cecil, told the press that the blockade was working: “It seems established beyond question that the enemy has little wool and less cotton and is making clothes and boots of paper.” A year later, in a report on the German sheep and wool industry, the Prussian Ministry of War tacitly affirmed Cecil’s claim. “It is a well-known fact that domestic sources of production alone could not possibly supply the army and civilian population with the wool they require. Germany entered the war unprepared with regard to the control of its raw material production and raw material supplies.” The blockade also prevented Germany from importing fodder for its own flocks, which led to a decline in the number of sheep domestically.
“For want of a nail…the kingdom was lost,” says the old proverb. In this case, one could say that for the want of wool a war was lost.