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Sunday, September 25, 2022

Knit for victory: the lost songs that gave women a role on the home front | Social history

In one song, a badly knitted mitten is shot through a cannon at the Nazis and somehow ends up in the hands of Adolf Hitler, who finds it such a confusing and intimidating object he decides to stop fighting and surrender.

In another, a sentimental love song which Glenn Miller composed and Judy Garland performed, a young mother sings about knitting a sweater to keep the father of her baby warm while he is fighting in battle.

Written to keep women’s spirits up as they knitted clothes – particularly socks – for British soldiers during the two world wars, songs about knitting were once hugely popular all over the UK and around the world. But after the second world war ended, these knitting songs – an important oral record of how hard women worked to support the war effort – were put away and forgotten.

Now, many of the lost British songs are to be performed again, some for the first time in over 100 years.

Over the past decade, music historian and opera singer Melanie Gall has collected more than 100 knitting songs from the British Library and private collections all over the world, which she will take on a UK tour this week. “As soon as the first world war was declared, knitting songs started being written,” said Gall. “But since most people didn’t own gramophones, these were songs that could be taken home as sheet music and played live while the knitting was being done.”

Women would get together in someone’s parlour or drawing room to knit, she says. “Someone would play the song on the piano and sing, and everyone else would sing along and work.”

The songs were often funny, with silly puns and rhymes that frequently involved either kittens or women called Kitty. Some were about wonderful mothers, who sat at home knitting for their sons serving in the war, or – as in the song, Mother’s Sitting Knitting Little Mittens for the Navy (While Papa Props his Pants up with a Pin) – ignored their husbands and regular domestic duties in favour of “doing their bit” for the war.

Others were “quasi-dirty”, Gall said. “They talked about how popular the girls were, who knit. Some of them were like: ‘she knit with the corporal’ – and it clearly meant she was having sex.”

Knitting was deliberately represented in the songs as a sexy activity for a young woman. “Back then, women who were going to get married and have kids suddenly weren’t – because there was a war on. It was all postponed and they were spinsters at 21.” The songs were a form of war propaganda that attempted to make women feel like what they were doing at home was not only normal, but attractive to men. “Because they were knitting, they were doing something sexy.”

Their work was genuinely vital to the war effort, as warm clothing and fresh, dry socks were desperately needed in the trenches.

“Socks would get wet and, because you couldn’t dry things off in the trenches, men would get trench foot. And they would die.”

Melanie Gall
Melanie Gall, who has found more than 100 knitting songs, will perform some of them on an upcoming tour.

Trench foot, a painful condition that leads to gangrene, is estimated to have killed 75,000 British soldiers during the first world war – one reason why knitters were called “the soldier girls at home”. “Their work was equated with that of soldiers, it was put forward as being equally important as going to France and fighting.”

Despite this, after the war ended, the work women had done – knitting socks and vests – hardly seemed worth remembering, next to the historic battles that men had fought. “The minute the war ended, people put the songs away. They were never performed, they weren’t in vaudeville shows or in the theatre. They weren’t needed any more.”

But when the second world war began, knitted clothes and socks were once again required for soldiers – and so there came a second wave of songs. “For the most part, the world war two knitting songs were less novelty songs and more big band songs. And they were more sentimental.”

Gall, an avid knitter herself, is planning to hand out needles and yarn so her audience can sit and knit while she performs songs that have not been heard since the Armistice.

She hopes one day to publish a songbook of all the knitting songs she has collected: “These songs aren’t catalogued, they’re not in databases or libraries, a lot of them are just sheet music from someone’s piano bench they were kind enough to send to me. There’s no record of them anywhere – some of them are handwritten. I’ve spent years tracking them down, one by one, and I would love to publish them, because if my house burns down, they’re lost.”

She urges anyone who has a knitting song in their private collection to get in touch via her website, melaniegall.com. “I know of at least three I don’t have, from finding the lyrics. So there are more knitting songs out there and it would be amazing to find them.”

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