Purl vs. Pearl

Anne MacDonald’s No Idle Hands:  The Social History of American Knitting (1988), was eagerly devoured by an excited audience of devoted knitters.  It goes without saying that for those of us who love U.S. history, it was especially exciting.

From the perspective of the knitters of the 20th (and now 21st) century, it was interesting to see the political significance of knitting vis-a-vis wars.  That is, women from the time of the American Revolution through World War II picked up their needles and knit for soldiers.  It was done for a public purpose and, thus, was political in nature.  As a professor who taught both political science and women’s studies, I commonly included articles about this in the students’ readers!

The Spring 2012 edition of Piecework‘s Knitting Traditions contains three articles about American women’s knitting to support the soldiers in the Civil War:   “Busy Fingers: Knitting Stockings in the Civil War” by Lynne Zacek Bassett; “Civil War Socks” by Karin Timour; and “Young People’s Civil War Charity Knitting: The Alcott Connection,” by Joanna Johnson.  These articles are definitely worth reading!

As I read these three articles, I remembered attending an exhibit in the late 1990s at the National Museum of U.S. History.  On display was a collection of U.S. propaganda posters from the years around World War II.  I took a picture of the poster that made the most impression on me.  I scanned it in and post it here for you.

If you are interested in reading more about “knitting for victory,” I urge you to take a peek at History Link’s “Knitting for Victory: World War II.”  (You’ll see that MacDonald’s book is listed as one of the author’s references.)

Music of the war years also gave knitting a political context.  Read, for instance, the lyrics to “Knit One, Purl Two,” written by Flossy Frills and Ben Lorre:

This sweater, my darling,’s for you
While vigil you‘re keeping through rain and storm
This sweater will keep you warm
Purl two, knit one
Our trials I know have begun
And while you are fighting each battle through
My darling, my heart’s with you
I just left the cot where our little Todd
In sleep was smiling
He must have dreamed of you…
Knit one, purl two
My darling, whenever I’m blue
It’s comfort to know that when he’s a man
He‘ll be glad that his Dad came through
Knit one, purl two…

Thanks to YouTube, we can listen to Glen Miller’s Band play “Knit One, Purl Two.” 🙂

This poster and the song illustrate that to be effective – to encourage the viewers and/or listeners to support a cause – posters and music must draw both from current events and, especially, activities common to the audience.

Every American who was an adult at that time or grew up after December 7, 1941, knows what you mean if you say: “Just like Pearl Harbor!”  I am curious, however, how many people (outside of knitters) today would understand this: “Remember Pearl Harbor, purl harder.”  How many people (outside of knitters) would understand the reference to “knit one, purl two” in the song?  Would they know, like their 1940s counterparts, what “purl” and “knit one, purl two” mean?

What do you think?


About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
This entry was posted in Knitting. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Purl vs. Pearl

  1. I love the idea of recreating patterns from the past. Did you use a fiber similar to what might have been used during WWIi or did you get creative?!


  2. Knitting during WW2 is one of my favorite subjects! Last Christmas, I knit the Red Cross Gloves for soldiers for my male friends. The pattern itself is a gem and is available on Ravelry.


  3. The title says so much. 🙂


  4. I think it’s important to share across all levels! It’s never just a one way sharing. 🙂


  5. handstitch says:

    Nice historical bit. Though it’s before my time, I very much appreciate knowing…thanks to very generous folks like you for sharing what you know. I tell you I would love to go through your classic, old-time stash of designs and patterns, Karen 😀


  6. I really enjoyed this book, way back when when it first came out. It amused me to see it on your blog today; I had just pulled my copy out a couple days ago to put it into my “Something Different” post, which ended up being a still life of knitting and musical instruments instead, but still titled “No Idle Hands.”


  7. Thanks for the link! I just checked it out. You must be very proud of your son.


  8. Curls & Q says:

    Q – I really love your posts. They are filled with information. There still are groups out there to knit for vets. Thanks for putting a link to Glen Miller. I like this site: http://www.nationalww2museum.org/learn/knit-your-bit/index.html. I actually knit a WW II scarf pattern for my son when he went into the Air Force. He’s presently a civilian firefighter with the military over in Afghanistan for a year.


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