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  • Debra Scala Giokas

First Knitter of the Land

How First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt Encouraged Volunteers to Knit One Million Sweaters

On September 30, 1941, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt took to the stage in the ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. She told the audience of 2,000 women, “We cannot turn our backs on the needs of other people.” And then she began to knit after her speech, to lead by example.

Eleanor launched a national drive to enlist every American woman in a knitting army. She encouraged volunteers to knit one million sleeveless sweaters for soldiers and sailors before Christmas.

At the tea, Major General Irving J. Phillipson, Commander of the Second Army Corps, assured the women that both the sweaters and the thought behind the gifts would be deeply appreciated by the men in uniform.

Now with Eleanor as the “First Knitter of the Land,” knitting became a national movement and a way for Americans to express their patriotism.

Eleanor Roosevelt made this green khaki plain knit, long-sleeved pullover sweater for Joseph P. Lash

while he was in the U.S. Army during World War II.

Courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, New York

On November 24, 1941, LIFE magazine published a cover story called, “How to Knit.” To help the war effort, the pattern for a simple knitted vest was included inside. The completed sweater was to be sent, with the name and address of the knitter, to a local group of people collecting the items to be shipped to soldiers.

Although the United States was still considered a neutral country, many soldiers had been sent overseas after Germany invaded Poland in 1939. But two weeks after the LIFE magazine article, the Japanese Navy Air Service attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and caused the United States to formally enter World War II.

Americans picked up their needles and started knitting on breaks from their jobs. They knit in factories. In hospitals. At gas stations. At movie theaters. At childcare facilities. They knit in the evenings when they listened to war-time news on the radio. The Glen Miller Band played “Knit One, Purl Two.”

This song, along with Eleanor’s plea, inspired people’s love of country and the soldiers. Knitted sweaters from devoted women in towns far away from the war also warmed the hearts of the soldiers who received them.

Why did the warm clothing have to be knitted? In those days, handmade woolen clothing was stronger than any other material. Knitting was also a great way to calm fears and to relieve the anxiety of those waiting to hear from loved ones serving in the war.

In addition to the sleeveless sweaters, Americans also knit gloves, socks, and caps to wear under helmets, as well as gloves. Armies needed to change socks often to keep their feet dry in order to prevent a condition called trench foot which could cause amputation or death. People also knit bandages from white cotton yarn that had to be sterilized before sent.

This knitting bag belonged to Eleanor Roosevelt.

Courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, New York

In her honor, every year the “Eleanor Roosevelt Knit-In” takes place in May at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York. Attendees knit and crochet yarn blocks to be assembled into afghans and donated to Veterans’ Administrations Hospitals, battered women’s shelters, American troops here and overseas, and others in need.

This has been excerpted from Ladies, First: Common Threads.

To unravel more yarns about Eleanor Roosevelt and other first ladies and their needle crafts, please join me at Long Island's Sayville Library at 7:00 p.m. on October 11 (which would have been Eleanor Roosevelt's 138th birthday). To register, please click here.

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