When Knitting Was A Manly Art

Today one seldom sees anyone knitting. Grandmotherly types, likely suspects, pull newspapers or magazines out of their handbags rather than skeins of wool while waiting for trains or buses. And headsets abound among younger women. The only person I know who knits in public is a man; and though he seems oblivious to criticism, his friends tend to make excuses for what is generally perceived as odd or inappropriate behavior.

When I was at boarding school during World War II, however, everyone knitted - including the headmaster, the teachers, and the whole football team. We knitted 9-inch squares, which somebody else sewed together to make blankets and scarves for British soldiers. "Knitting for Britain," it was called. The wooden needles were large and clumsy, not really fit for much else. It was a knit-two, purl-two, mindless sort of occupation, like mucking out a barn or shoveling snow. But it was wartime, so we all did extra things.

There was a picture hanging up in the school library of the football fields grown up in wheat during World War I. We were not issued rifles or taught to shoot and march in formation as our fathers had been. Pearl Harbor was still a few months away, and we weren't geared up to do anything much yet.

A few boys became obsessed and knit enormous, lumpy, 12-foot scarves for themselves. But most of us were satisfied to turn out a square or two at a time and throw it in the knitting bin. I don't know who supplied all the wool.

I didn't really think of what we were doing as knitting. It seemed so unskilled compared with what "Aunt" Margaret, my grandfather's second wife, did. A snappily turned-out divorcee just my mother's age, she was the knitter in the family - famous for being able to turn the heel of a sock while at the movies. She knitted argyles with her own patterns on them for the males of the family. She never made just a plain pair of socks, all one color. If she used one color, there would be cables spiraling up the sides, like beans around a pole, or elaborate ribs, or some other design.

Most of her socks were composed of several colors: Gray-and-yellow checks on a field of black is a pattern she made for me. Some had pictures on them: sailboats, top hats, a glass with a straw and a cherry in it. When you put on these socks, you knew you had something special and you were careful to keep them straight. So they wouldn't bag, you wore tight elastic garters, which dug into your calves.

By spring 1942, we not only had work squads - I was on outdoor maintenance, which was a lot better than being on the coal squad - but we were also waiting on tables and feeding the steaming, stinky dishwasher in the kitchen. Gas, sugar, meat, and all sorts of other things were rationed. Getting back and forth from home in Philadelphia to school outside of Boston was twice as hard because of all the sailors and soldiers traveling on the trains.

The next year was even worse. There were mock air raids, quite realistic and taken very seriously because there was a large Army base nearby. We spotted planes from the roof of the school (It was always exciting to be on a roof) and telephoned in their identities and approximate positions. With U-boats being sighted off the East Coast, the idea of German airplanes bombing the school seemed only slightly absurd.

AND then there were all the graduates, masters, and even some seniors, returning to the campus on leave, heroic in their uniforms. How we envied the knife-edge creases in their trousers, the brilliant shines on their cordovans, and the epaulets on their squared shoulders. War meant driving a car fast across the football field, or getting up in the middle of the night and marching down into the cellar in your pajamas, bathrobe, and slippers, holding your breath there in the dark, and listening for the ominous purr of planes.

"Knitting for Britain" became quite competitive. Who could knit the fastest, or make the longest scarf, or make the most noise with his needles? A good many of us took up knitting seriously and made socks, sweaters, and woolen hats. We would knit in bed after lights out and, some of us, even more surreptitiously, in chapel. Finally, the headmaster had to take steps to limit the activity.

"Knitting for Britain" was something of an escape from more serious work, I suppose; therapeutic, perhaps, at a time when life was becoming so tangled. But no one ever thought it odd that a school of 200 boys should be busily whiling away the hours in such an activity.

And certainly no one ever suggested that it was inappropriate for us to be doing "women's work." That question, in those supposedly unliberated times, never even came up.

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