Sock Knitting in the Civil War

Knitting history is fascinating, and the upcoming new issue of Knitting Traditions, from PieceWork magazine, is a wonderful source for the interesting bits of knitting lore that we love so much.

Engraving, "Six and Eighty-Six Knitting for the Soldiers." From The Tribute Book: A Record of the Munificence, Self-Sacrifice and Patriotism of the American People during the War for the Untion, 1865. (Courtesy of Lynne Zacek Bassett.)

What caught my eye this time was a story about knitting socks during the Civil War, and what an important role those handcrafted treasures played in both the knitters' and the soldiers' lives.

Historian and author Lynne Zacek Bassett wrote the article for Knitting Traditions, and I thought you'd enjoy a little excerpt.

Busy Fingers: Knitting Stockings in the Civil War

South Carolina resident Mary Chesnut commented in her diary late in the summer of 1861, "I do not know when I have seen a woman without knitting in her hand." In the North as well as in the South, knitting needles clicked incessantly during the Civil War years (1861-1865).

Although machine-knitted stockings were widely available, they were considered inferior to handknit stockings and wore out quickly from the rigors of long marches and insufficient washing.

The call for handknitted stockings went out throughout the country. Stories of soldiers going barefoot or suffering from blistered, swollen, and infected feet from wearing their boots without stockings spurred females young and old to take up their knitting needles.

Winslow Homer's engraving "Christmas Boxes in Camp—Christmas 1861," which appeared on the cover of the January 4, 1862, Harper's Weekly, depicts a group of soldiers joyfully receiving a crate of gifts, including new stockings. John L. Hayes, a wool lobbyist, called stockings" . . . the class of clothing the most indispensable for the health and comfort of our soldiers."

Women and girls often enclosed notes offering Christian instruction, encouragement, or even jokes along with their stockings to the military camps and hospitals. Teenage girls, finding the idea of corresponding with a soldier romantic, wrote notes such as this one published in Mary A. Livermore's My Story of the War:

"MY BRAVE FRIEND,—I have learned to knit on purpose to knit socks for the soldiers. This is my fourth pair. My name is—and I live in—. Write to me, and tell me how you like the foot-gear and what we can do for you. Keep up good courage, and by and by you will come home to us. Won't that be a grand time, though? And won't we turn out to meet you, with flowers and music, and cheers and embraces? 'There's a good time coming, boys!'"

Beyond the practical accomplishment of supplying seemingly endless quantities of stockings, knitting answered the emotional need of women and girls who were desperate to participate in the struggle for their country. Woman's Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, Patriotism, and Patience (1867), states, "Men did not take to the musket, more commonly than women took to the needle. . . ."—the sewing or the knitting needle.

—By Lynne Zacek Bassett, from Knitting Traditions, Spring 2012

For the rest of this article and so much more, I invite you to order your issue of Knitting Traditions today.


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