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The Red Cross Knitting Tradition

From the archives of the American Red Cross Museum

World War I

Beginning with America's entry into World War I, the American Red Cross launched a massive campaign to have the home-front knit wool articles for the armed forces on campaign in Europe. As soon as the call went out, thousands of Americans began knitting the required socks, sweaters, mufflers, afghans, helmets, and wristlets based on detailed instruction booklets and patterns that had been approved by the armed forces.

"Response to urgent appeals made by Major Grayson M.P. Murphy, Red Cross Commissioner to France, and other United States Army officers, the Red Cross has started a drive to encourage the women of the country to knit sweaters, mufflers, socks, and wristlets for our soldiers and sailors...

One million pounds of knitting wool to be made up into these garments has been purchased by the supply Bureau of the Red Cross in Washington. An idea of the quantity of yarn in this one purchase can be gathered from the fact that if the wool were stretched out it would cover eight hundred thousand miles, or could be stretched around the earth at the equator thirty-two times."

From October 1927 "Red Cross Magazine"


In an immediate response to the call of the American Red Cross in 1925 for 30,000 sweaters for disabled veterans in hospitals, Mary Pickford began to knit between scenes of her latest photoplay. The famous screen star is the first woman in the U.S. to start a sweater after the Red Cross got out its nationwide appeal for knitters on September 15, 1917. Pickford stated: "It's the time for the strong to aid the weak; for the thinking men and women of America to form a solid block behind the unselfish workers of the Red Cross."

World War II

During World War II the call went out again for knitted articles for servicemen. Almost over night, the Red Cross once again appropriated the massive quantities of khaki wool needed and republished instruction sheets.

Try knitting these historical patterns from the World War II era, available from the American Red Cross: go to pattern downloads

Knitting facts

  • During World War I President Woodrow Wilson allowed sheep to graze on the White House lawn. When the sheep were sheered, the wool was auctioned off and the proceeds went to the American Red Cross war relief fund.

  • All knitted items went through a quality check. If the piece was deemed poorly made or did not meet the required specifications, it was returned.

  • Bear Brand and Bucilla Knitting Worsted were two of the suggested wool brands.

  • The Red Cross provided the specified needles and some chapters had knitting machines.

  • Each item had a label sewn into the garment saying "Gift of the American People thru the American Red Cross."

  • American Red Cross knitters were still supplying the military with wool helmets as late as 1964. The men at remote arctic military outposts like Thule Airbase in Greenland and Goose Air Force Base in Labrador preferred the hand knitted wool helmets to the machine made synthetic varieties supplied by the army. The soldiers claimed that they kept your face warmer, longer in sub-zero temperatures.

  • 1946 the North Atlantic Area chapters processed over 3,000 pounds of olive drab wool for the supplementary items for the military.


    This historical information is provided by the American Red Cross Museum in Washington, D.C.

    Images courtesy of the American Red Cross copyright

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