WWI Sleeveless Sweater for Soldiers

It doesn’t look like much, does it?

Let me just say, this sweater is more than the sum of its parts.

I made this sweater for a friend and fellow history buff, someone who is very interested in military history. He requested it, and as soon as I saw the picture I knew exactly what sweater it was and what manual it came from.

The Priscilla War Workbook was just one of many knitting and needlework manuals produced by the Priscilla Publishing Company of Boston. My internet search wasn’t able to provide much information about the company itself, but they were responsible for publishing several craft booklets in the early 1900s, including the War Workbook, which was produced in cooperation with the American Red Cross. They also published books on basketry, cooking, lace making, and needlepoint, just to name a few. At some point in the interwar years, it appears they were purchased by another company.

The thing I love about this particular little booklet (which I sadly only have an ebook edition of), is that it includes photos or illustrations of everything, schematics of some of the sewing patterns (yes, there’s sewing, too), and it even has pictures of needle and yarn sizes, making it easier to find modern equivalents.

WWI and especially WWII were responsible for standardization in the knitting industry, largely because of the need and desire to knit for soldiers. The Red Cross took charge of collecting and distributing donations, which had to be sorted by size and branch of the armed forces–for example, a dark blue hood would only be sent to the Navy, not to the Army, and items that weren’t in the prescribed color for each branch couldn’t be accepted. It’s hard to be stealthy in hot pink, after all.

For much of both wars, yarn could be picked up from the Red Cross and the finished item dropped off when it was done. This helped standardize fiber content, yarn weight, and colors used for items that were effectively part of military uniforms. While in the American Civil war, women knit using whatever odd ends they could get a hold of, there was much more regulation and control when knitting for the troops starting in WWI and expanding in WWII.

The Priscilla War Workbook is a collection of knitting and sewing patterns for soldiers, boy scout volunteers, hospitalized veterans, and refugees (mostly women and children). Because there was such a desire to knit for the troops, knitting and sewing bees or circles formed all over the world. Some of these volunteers were young children just picking up the needles for the first time, or adults who weren’t experienced with knitting or sewing for one reason or another, or perhaps were returning to the crafts after giving them up in favor of store bought items.

For this reason, all of the patterns in the booklet are very easy to follow, and each weight of yarn and potential needle material is carefully explained at the front of the book. The sweater I’ve shown here is a large rectangle with a hole in the middle that is then seamed up the sides. If you can knit, purl, cast on, and bind off, then you can make this sweater. One of the things I love about it is that to make sizing less complicated, the garter stitch at the shoulders allows for more ease when pulling the sweater over your head, and for a wider variety of arm circumference. For more experienced knitters, the booklet also contains instructions for optional sleeves.

The one drawback to this book is that like most knitting patterns of the era, everything is written in just one size, which makes me wonder just how many size small sweaters the army received, as opposed to size large or extra large. The recipient of this one wears a size large, so I had to cast on extra stitches. It was a very easy adjustment to make, but I can’t help but wonder how many soldiers were sent care packages with too-small socks and sweaters.

The desire to knit, sew, or crochet for those in need is not new, and it’s not something that has gone out of fashion. Crafter still reach for their needles and craft for sailors, refugees, victims of natural disasters, cancer patients, homeless pets, and anyone they think might need a bit of extra comfort, support, or warmth. In fact, I’ve often read of charities asking people to stop sending knits, because they are inundated with more hats than they know what to do with, or the hundred or so penguins rescued from an oil spill now each have a hand knit wardrobe to rival Marie Antoinette.

Each stitch is a word of love, a word of thanks, an offer of comfort. The only difference might be that back in 1917, when this book was published, there were a few more people around of appreciated receiving them.

Like what you see? Check out Knitting for Living History.