Knit : A Circular Sock Machine = Lives Saved

A circular sock machine = lives saved.

circular sock machineby Lori Law

I have one of those contraptions called a ‘circular sock machine’.  Despite their ages being circa early 20th-century, in many cases, there are a lot of these machines still working today.

I’m not going to delve into all the ps and qs of these machines here (it would take years).  They are interesting in their design, engineering and their longevity.  They are fun and frustrating machines (dropped stitches run away on you faster than lightning striking an elm tree).  They are fabulous stash busters.  :D

Sometimes I wonder where my particular machine, a Legare 400, built in Montreal, has been.  Here’s a little more about the history of these machines.  Recently it was mentioned in some of the groups I frequent about sock knitting machines being a huge force during WWI.  We knitters think of yarn being pretty much everywhere these days.  During the war, wool  and yarn, like so many other things, were rationed towards the war effort.

In September 1918, all American yarn retailers were ordered by the War Industries Board to turn over their stock of service yarn (any yarn in khaki, gray, heather, natural or white) to the Red Cross.

Sock machines were handed out by the Red Cross and used to make tubes which were then cut into shorter lengths and made into ‘socks’ by sewing the ends together to make toes, to make quicker work of knitting socks for the troops, in addition to the many combined efforts put forth by  hand-knitters.  Without proper warm wool socks, soldiers were dying of exposure.  Socks were considered more important than sweaters at that time.

Often, we don’t think of knitting and yarn as being so much of a lifesaver, especially with all the luxury yarns around today.

In one of the groups I wander through here and there, in addition to the mentions of sock machines being well used during WWI and WWII earlier this month, a fellow ‘cranker’ shared this story, in which knitting saved the lives of a woman and her family:

Thinking of veterans and sock knitting during wartime reminds me of a wonderful experience I had when I was demonstrating my Auto Knitter on Windmill Island over in Holland, Michigan. Sock knitting wasn’t only for the soldiers. The civilian resistance made good use of them, too.

I was happily cranking away and talking about the machine when this man of about 70 years old came pushing through the crowd saying, “That sound!! I KNOW that sound anywhere!!” He stood in front of the machine and looked at it like it was a long-lost friend! “I haven’t seen one of those in fifty years! My mother must have made a hundred thousand pairs of socks on hers.”

Needless to say, all attention in the crowd immediately shifted from me to him. I said, “Oh, please!! DO tell!!”

He went on to explain that he’d grown up on a dairy farm in central Netherlands. He was a young boy when the Nazi’s invaded Holland. They basically kidnapped all the able-bodied men in his village and sent them to work in munitions plants in Germany as, being farmers, they knew large machinery and equipment well enough to keep them off the front lines.

However, this left his mother alone to run this dairy farm with her sister and their NINE little kids (both families combined). They were forced to sell all of their dairy product at greatly reduced prices to the Nazi war effort and would likely have starved to death had his mother not purchased what I think must have been an English Auto Knitter (a Beehive?) in the late ’30s to “earn extra money” in her “spare time.” He thought it looked “identical” to my Bogan AK, only black, and he remembered that it came from England.

She got up before dawn every morning to start the milking and take care of the cows, kept a garden, and raised nine kids with Nazi war-planes flying overhead on they way to bomb London. They had a few sheep on their farm that had been there for wool for their own needs, but before the war, they’d always sent the wool to the mill to be carded and spun into yarn. The mill, of course, was working, but no long available to the locals so she taught the kids how to wash, card, and spin the wool into sock yarn themselves so that at night, after all the kids were in bed, she’d stay up late to knit a few pairs of socks on her Auto Knitter before going to bed herself. The kids would then close the toes the next morning after their chores.

The sound he heard my machine making that had brought on this rush of memories was the same sound he had fallen asleep at night listening to as his mother made socks to trade for food to feed her family.

To add to the drama, they did all the wool processing and sock-knitting in secret because they were afraid if the Nazi’s found out that they were making socks, they would have all been confiscated and used by the occupation army that was in desperate need of warm gear by the end of the war.

Even with the socks to trade, there was little food to be had in the Netherlands during the war and they nearly starved anyway, but at least they had a commodity to trade if they found food. He said that when food wasn’t available at all, his mother smuggled the socks to their neighbors so they wouldn’t have to go without socks. On the rare occasions that the men were allowed to return home for short visits, they would smuggle a few pairs of socks back to Germany to give to the single men that were working in the munitions plants there, as only men with families were allowed any type of leave at all.

He said that when their own supply of new wool ran out, they would unravel old knitted goods that were full of too many holes to repair, splice the yarn together, and knit THAT into socks, too. He showed me how he would carefully splice the yarn ends together with a little darning needle so that the yarn wouldn’t separate in the yarn-guide and ruin the sock.

Also, his mother wouldn’t let anyone else touch the machine because she was so scared that something would get broken on it and she wouldn’t be able to fix it since it was impossible to get any goods from England, which is where the spare parts were. Imagine the pressure she was under for six years, carefully knitting all those socks, knowing it was helping to keep her family fed and knowing it would be disaster if that machine quit working.

Shared with permission from author Eric Wolff, who owns Browning and Wolff, on Etsy.

I will think of this often, especially when I’m cranking.

Lest we forget.

Lori Law dyes and knits and spins and weaves for Oceanwind Knits.  She is also the editor of Ennea Collective.


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