Knitting for Tommy: Keeping the Great War Soldier Warm by Lucinda Gosling

Today is Veterans’ Day in the United States.  November 11 is Armistice Day — the day that fighting ceased in World War I.  The Great War did not formally end until seven months later, with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, but the United States memorialized the cessation of fighting rather than the formal end of the war.  (More background info on the Veterans’ Day is available on the website of the US Department of Veterans’ Affairs).  Since today is Armistice Day, it seemed an appropriate day to post a review of this book!

Knitting for Tommy: Keeping the Great War Soldier Warm

When I review books, I try to focus on accurate description.  While I give my opinion on the book, I try to explain the reasons for my opinion.  You see, as a general rule I love books.  I could read before kindergarten and have read voraciously ever since. In addition, my mother is a writer (her most recent book, Fed Up (no connection to the recent film by the same name), is an oral history of farmworkers in Apopka, Florida.  Check out her website for information on the book and her writing workshops) and I have spent many hours reading drafts through the years.  I understand how much work it is to produce book!  But every book is not for every person.  I try to provide accurate description and reasoned opinion so you can decide if a particular book is for you.

I confess that the current volume has been in my possession since early October and I have been unable to bring myself to review it.  When I received this book, I was deeply disappointed.  It simply was not at all what I expected.  I recognized that there is much about the book that is wonderful, but could not quite get over my disappointment in order to write about those wonderful things.  Now that some time has passed since I first read it, and in honor of Armistice Day, I’m forcing myself past the disappointment.

This book is not a detailed history of knitting during World War I.  In fact, it contains very little text at all, and the existing text has little in the way of analysis.  The primary purpose of the book is to compile (the first line of the acknowledgements actually says, “In the process of compiling this book…” Compiling, not writing, like most acknowledgements state) and reproduce images related to knitting during the Great War.  The introduction and first chapter contain the majority of text in the book.  By about halfway through the book, the text barely exists at all and the last 30 pages are pictures with captions.  If you read the text contained in the pictures, the captions on the pictures, and what passes for the main text of the book, you often read the exact same thing three times.  This is what I mean when I say the text contains little analysis.  It also contains few stories, favoring a straight forward factual approach — this happened, then this happened.  The author didn’t even take the opportunity to remind us that Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War during World War I, developed the Kitchener stitch to provide a seamless sock pattern for the women at home to knit.  Seams rubbed against soldiers’ toes, causing discomfort and pain.  Seamless socks were important to the war!  But none of this is discussed in the book, and it seems like such low-hanging fruit for a book about Knitting during the Great War.  This lack of discussion and analysis is the source of my disappointment with the book.

However, as a compilation of images related to knitting during the Great War, the book is far more successful.  The included images span a variety of media and situations.  Advertisements for wool, photographs of soldiers proudly wearing hand knits, photographs of women knitting and spinning, cartoons, art pieces, song lyrics and sheet music, propaganda pieces (mostly postcards depicting women knitting over captions declaring that everyone has a duty to contribute to the war effort), and reproductions of knitting patterns all make an appearance in the book.  Most of the images are in black and white, but the center of the book includes 30 pages in color.  It really is a treasure trove of images, and part of me envies the author as I think about all the images she must have seen but not been able to include in what is, after all, a slender volume (144 pages).

While the book does include 40 patterns from the era, you would be hard pressed to knit from them.  These are actual reproductions — photographs or photocopies — of the patterns.  They are not typed up as text in the book.  Since the book measures a modest 7″ x 7.5″ the directions on some patterns are not legible without the assistance of a magnifying glass.  In addition, these are early 20th century British patterns.  You would need to take care to understand the directions and have some knowledge of how to translate the nomenclature into modern knitting terms.  I personally don’t have enough knowledge of historical pattern writing norms to articulate how pattern writing standards have changed over the course of the last century, but I’m aware that they have.

Despite my initial disappointment with the book, I am glad to have it as a part of my knitting library.  The book left me with a strong sense of the community and common purpose present in British society during the war.  But it is more than just that.  I am reminded yet again that it is an honor to be a part of the community of those who create with yarn.  This is a community that exists, not just in the present.  We are also connected by the long strands of tradition that have shaped the arts and crafts of spinning, weaving, knitting, crocheting, dyeing, etc into what they are today.  As we knit socks or scarves or hats or blankets or sweaters or whatever for our loved ones, pouring our hearts into every stitch, we understand just a little bit what it was like for those women a century ago as they sat at home or in groups doing the exact same thing.

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