Reflections on the Water-Blog by Lynn Whitney


Real Sailors Knit By: Lynn Whitney

Real Sailors Knit

By Lynn Whitney

I admit it. I love to knit.  Now, if you are like most people, the word knitting conjures up images of little old ladies, sitting by the fire with a cup of tea and a ball of yarn in their lap.  Well, here is another image, seafarers passing the time at sea, knitting.  Endless hours at sea created many hobbies for sailors, knitting being one, but it had a practical motive also.  If you got a hole in your sock, no one was going to fix it for you.  

So, let’s look back at the practice of knitting.  The most recognized theory is that it began in the ancient Arab world with the skill of knotting fishing nets, and traveled with seafarers trading in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.  One argument that knitting evolved in the Middle East could be that, while English speakers write from left to right, knitters work from right to left.  The skill continued to spread with the Crusades.  Most of the history of knitting is not known because the fibers used, such as wool and silk, were fragile and did not preserve well.  Also, the tools that were used were more than likely some kind of pick or sharpened stick.  We do know, that when the skill emerged as a viable occupation, it was male dominated.

During the 13th century, knitting appeared in England, but seemed to be limited to felted caps worn by sailors and soldiers, largely because of the lack of quality steel for needles necessary for larger projects.  By the 1400’s, knitting guilds began to spring up, first in France and then throughout Europe.  They were formed as structured apprenticeships and exclusively male.  The quality of the work improved and garnered wealthy clients, looking for the latest fashions, of which knitted stockings for men were very popular.  By the 1600’s, fine garments made of silk and silver gilt thread had become the height of fashion for women of means.   1789 brought the French Revolution and knitting took a rather gruesome turn in the form of Tricoteuses, or knitting women,  Charles Dickens’s Madame Defarge being one particularly bloodthirsty example.  These women, veterans of the Women’s March on Versailles, would gather at the guillotine and morbidly sit and knit during public beheadings. 

Two World Wars took the hobby of knitting and turned it into an act of patriotism. In 1941, it became a major preoccupation of Americans to help the war effort. Before Pearl Harbor, Americans had been knitting and preparing care packages to help the besieged Londoners.   The November 24, 1941 cover story of Life Magazine was titled, “How to Knit.”  It offered a basic pattern for a knitted vest and provided a response, “To the great American question ‘what can I do to help the war effort? ‘ the commonest answer yet found is ‘Knit.’”   Two weeks later, on December 7, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, America entered WWII, and Americans began to knit for Victory.  Not only did knitting provide warm clothing for soldiers and sailors, it gave comfort to those waiting at home.  The Red Cross became the clearing house for all war effort knitting.  Wool was in very short supply, but the Red Cross was able to obtain it and also supplied patterns for sweaters, socks , mufflers, fingerless mitts, toe covers for casts and other garments.  The garments were “for American soldiers and sailors assigned to posts where General Winter is an added enemy.”  {The New York Times, January 30, 1942.}  Patriotism surged to the point where various auxiliary groups began to compete to see who could knit the most, the fastest.  The Seattle area Naval Officers Wives Club pronounced, “The Navy needs men, but it also needs knitters.”  Using a play on words, a Works Projects Administration poster advised, “Remember Pearl Harbor – Purl Harder.”   Purl being one of the two basic knitting stitches.  

Today’s knitters see the practice as not only an art form, but a source of mental and physical relaxation.  The act of knitting can lower blood pressure and heart rate.  And if you are not convinced to take up knitting yet, a person can burn 55 calories by knitting for half an hour!   So, on your next sailing adventure, you might want to consider bringing some yarn and knitting needles along with you.  You could get a hole in your sock!  Or maybe you could just sit, swinging on a hook, watching a beautiful sunset with some yarn in your lap and a glass of wine in your hand.  Join the club of men who knit; Ryan Gosling, David Arquette and Russell Crowe, the” Master and Commander” himself.