Sunday, March 29, 2009

Socks for the Boys

(Click on photo to enlarge for easier reading.)

I became an archivist primarily because I love to read the personal stories of those who lived in another time and place. That is what archivists do--preserve those stories for us all.

Marion S. Simpson of Hamilton, Ontario was one of many women who played an important role on the home front, knitting socks for the soldiers during the First World War. The socks were invaluable on both a psychological and practical level: gifts of socks from home both raised morale and helped keep the men in the trenches warm and dry.

This begins the introduction to an online archival exhibit by McMaster University Archives. It is part of a larger online exhibit, Peace and War in the 20th Century.

Marion Simpson volunteered for a local branch of a national society, the Canadian War Contingent, formed in Hamilton by Mrs. W.C. Hawkins. It was originally established in England at the beginning of the war, by request of the British War Office, to care for the needs of the Canadian contingent overseas, specifically to distribute comforts to Canadian soldiers in France. Socks were the chief item in demand. It acted as a forwarding agency for about 30 different patriotic societies and continued in operation until the end of the war.

The trenches of France and Belgium were muddy and constantly filled with water. As a result, soldiers were prone to a painful condition called Trench Foot. The only cure was for them to keep their feet dry and change their socks regularly. Soldiers in the trenches were supposed to have at least three pairs of socks and change them at least twice a day. Since hand knitting was time consuming, Associated Field Comforts began to supply knitting machines to people who would try to turn out from seventy-five to one hundred pairs a month. Assistance from the people of Hamilton was regularly acknowledged by the overseas contingent. In November 1915, 27,892 pairs of socks were sent to the Front from the city. By 1916 there were Four Canadian Divisions at the Front, resulting in a greater demand on the Association for socks. Various church clubs and volunteer groups began contributing to the output of Associated Field Comforts by supplying large quantities of knitted articles for the men overseas.

Notes were attached to each parcel to let the men know that the gifts were not Government supplies. Marion Simpson sent parcels of knitted socks to homesick soldiers at Christmas and of cheer which she enclosed in parcels. Christmas parcels were wrapped in white tissue paper and tied with red and green string, often with cards attached. Simpson also enclosed a , encouraging the soldiers to write back, and many did. The letters clearly reveal the suffered by those who were spending a bleak Christmas, far from home.

(Click on photo to enlarge for easier reading.)

(Click on photo to enlarge for easier reading.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

January Socks Are Finished!!

I know. It's already the end of March. But I am thrilled these socks are done. On to February's socks!

And how long did it take me to knit them? Well, I've realized it's difficult for me to determine that. I knit a few rounds and then go start the washer. I knit a few rounds and go outside to pick up the mail. I knit a few rounds and go fill the bird feeder. I knit a few rounds and check my email. My guess is that it took me about fourteen or fifteen hours to knit the pair of them IF I had just been knitting, but it's only a guess.

Do you like my sock blockers? I love them! I got them from The Loopy Ewe. They also sell Cookie A.'s sock patterns, lovely yarn, and gorgeous knitting bags.


I have finished the January socks and taken a photo, but I have to leave in a few minutes to begin an all day reference shift at the University archives. I will post the photo this evening or tomorrow morning.

In the meantime, I'd like to write a bit about what I think about as I knit. The walrus and carpenter in Lewis Carroll's The Walrus and Carpenter poem may have talked about various things:

Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings.

but I think about more practical things. What shall I fix for dinner tonight? Can I delay doing the laundry for one more day? Does the SUV need gas?

And sometimes I think about libraries and archives, about stories and research, and most of all, about reference and providing customer service.

I was thinking about an article I'd read in one of my courses as I knit the second January sock. Entitled The McDonaldization of Academic Libraries, it was written by Brian Quinn (College & Research Libraries, 61(3), 248-261) and is based on a thesis by George Ritzer, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, that suggests that many aspects of the fast food industry are making their way into other areas of society. Drawing on the work of German sociologist Max Weber, Rizer argues that one area of society that is becoming increasingly McDonaldized is
higher education. University students view the university and library as consumers would, looking for cost, quality, and convenience. They want short lines, polite and efficient personnel, and the flexibility to “have it their way.” The result is a dumbing down of reference services in order to placate the student.

The problem is that university students are more, or should be more, than consumers. Their task is to learn how to do research and find the information themselves. These are key skills, necessary to do high level research.

I have found that there are times when some students are willing and yes, even eager, to learn how to do it themselves. They want to become less dependent upon others and not have to wait to get the information they are seeking. Others, however, have no interest in this: they want the information, they want it in the format they prefer, and most importantly, they want it now. How much of a disservice are librarians doing by not teaching library skills and information literacy to students? Should we be trying harder to teach them?

These are just some of the questions I ponder as I sit quietly and knit socks.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


There are always distractions. This is spring break week which means I'll be working fewer hours. I'll be the only one at the archives reference desk all day Wednesday and, if there are any serious researchers around, it may very well be quite busy. If not, I may have the chance to do a bit of studying for the Certified Archivists exam I'll be taking in August. This week I also need to write a title and abstract for a chapter one of my former professors has asked me to write for his book, review almost twenty scholarship applications for SAA, and at least think about how I want to teach an information literacy class at the end of next month. I have a quilt in the frame I want to finish hand quilting by the end of April so that I can show it in a quilt show at the beginning of May. Then there's the stack of books I want to read multiplying on my night stand. Add to all that having my husband taking a vacation week this week; he keeps coming up with projects he wants us/me to work on. Yes, finding time to knit is getting harder.

I am nothing, however, if not persistent. I have finished the heel of the second January sock and have begun knitting the foot. I also hope to finish five pastel preemie hats (see Knitting for Peace)this week.

Time. I need more time.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Knitting Socks for American Civil War Soldiers

If you are as interested in the history of sock making as I am, then make certain you get a copy of the March/April 2009 Piecework Magazine. This special issue focuses on textiles for historical reenactment and includes a 10-page article on knitting socks for Civil War soldiers.

The article provides a list of resources available online, original instructions to knit socks for soldiers serving in both the Confederate and Union armies followed by a modern interpretation, the characteristics these socks shared including shape, construction, types of heels and toes, needles/gauge, yarn, and color, and an extensive bibliography for further reading, A especially poignant section includes notes found inside the socks. Here is one:

Brave Sentry, on your lonely beat
May these blue stockings warm your feet
And when from wars and camps you part
May some fair knitter warm your heart.

The painting shown above, Knitting for the Soldiers, is an oil on millboard by Eastman Johnson (1824-1906)and was painted in 1861. The little girl is shown making a three needle bind off on a blue army sock. The painting is part of the collection of the New York Historical Society.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Think Outside the Sock Contest Ends

The Think Outside the Sock competition has ended, but photos of the 293 entries can be viewed here. The winners will be featured in the summer issue of Knitters Magazine. You can see a preview of them here.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Keeping Track

I've started keeping track of how long it takes me to knit this sock. I've included the time it took me to cast on and knit twelve rows of ribbing. It took 45 minutes which seems extraordinarily slow to me, but perhaps knitting in the back of the knit stitches does take a bit longer.

First January Sock FO!

I finished the first sock. On with the second!

Pattern: Mock baby cable
Yarn: Koigu P449/100% Premium Merino Wool 50g/ 175yds (2 skeins)
Needles: 2.0mm dpns

Yarn for second sock.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

New Sock Books

I have two new sock books on hold at my public library and I'm anxiously awaiting their arrival.

The first is Sock Innovation Knitting Techniques & Patterns for One-of-a-kind Socks by Cookie A. It's scheduled to be available next month and will include fifteen sock patterns. I've also joined two related Ravelry groups: one is devoted just to the book (Makin' Cookie's) and the other is more general and includes her other patterns as well (Cookie's Knitalong). Cookie A.'s website can be found here and includes a preview of her book.

Her pattern for Pomatomus socks can be found on Knitty and I have them on my to-do list. Here are some photos on Flickr.

The second book is Knitting Socks With Handpainted Yarn by Carol Sulcoski. It was published last January and my library has ordered it, but it isn't in yet. It includes 21 sock patterns from a variety of designers. A review and a preview can be found on the Interweave site.

How Long Does it Take to Knit a Pair Of Socks, Anyway?

I decided earlier this month to knit a pair of socks a month. The green socks would be for March. I'm still on the first sock and I've just turned the heel. I'd also started a pink lace sock for February and it's at the spot where I need to start the heel. And then there are January's socks. Those are a bit further along. All I have to do now is the toe.

But still. I have three partially finished socks. And each one is the first one of a pair. I'm also working on preemie hats (see my Knitting for Peace blog, ) but last week-end I was only able to complete three of them and that was a four-day week-end for me. I can't knit on my way to work (I drive myself) and I can't knit at work either. Yes, many librarians are knitters, but no, we don't knit at the reference desk. My lunch is usually 15 minutes between shifts so there's no time there either. Mornings are filled with housework and by the time I get home I'm often too tired to concentrate on knitting. That leaves my week-ends, but they're starting to fill up with chores and other projects. Spring is coming soon and I'll want to garden.

So where does this leave me? I work best under pressure so perhaps I'll set myself a goal. Finish the January socks (both of them) by the end of March. Finish the February and March socks in April. Then I'll only be one month behind. Or perhaps I should just set aside my goal of knitting a pair of socks every month.

I don't really know how many hours it takes me to knit a pair of socks. It depends on how complicated the pattern is and how often and how much I have to tink. One thing I'll try to do is keep track of how long it takes me to knit the second January sock and then I'll be able to decide if this sock-of-the-month idea will work. In the meantime, I'll just knit.

Here is a photo of the yarns I've chosen for my sock-of-the-month, January through June.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Sock Summit

Sock Summit 2009

The 2009 Sock Summit will be held in Portland this August 6-9. Further information can also be found on the Blue Moon Fiber Arts Blog and there's a Sock Summit group on Ravelry as well.