Knitting the Nation: Expectations of Women’s patriotism in Ireland and Britain
This week, PhD student Olga Walker (University of Canberra) examines women’s patriotism through knitting across the four nations.
Since my last contribution to the Four Nations History Network in June 2016, my research journey has taken a tour of some very interesting back-roads. In this blog, I reflect on how hand-knitting was and, still is being used to identify women’s art as a patriotic activity. Taking a four nations approach has allowed me the opportunity to consider the role of hand-knitting from both a single nation’s historical perspective, while at the same time reflecting on some of the similarities across other nations. Women of the 1940s and 1950s in Ireland and Britain were asked to knit for their nation, and similar calls were still being made in 2016. The examples discussed show how patriotism can come in all shapes and sizes, and how women’s identity is still being constructed through the re-circulation of tropes. Of course, what we can’t measure is whether or not feelings of patriotism were part of the motivations behind women’s reasons for knitting for particular causes.
Hand-knitting wool was expensive and difficult to obtain in Ireland in the late 1940s and early 1950s. On 8 May 1946, Seán Lemass, the Minister for Industry and Commerce, was asked in the Dáil Éireann about the perceived delays in setting prices for newly imported Argentine two-ply “Merrywool” wool, delivered to a Dublin merchant on 5 April. He responded that the prices for the wool had been fixed on 25 April, and he was satisfied that the delays were reasonable.[i] In an article for The Irish Independent on 5 June 1946, Patricia Boyne[ii] advised her readers that there would soon be a plethora of yarns in a wide range of colours to choose from. She also declared that knitting could now be considered as pleasure and not as work, unless they were like the Shetland knitters, knitting to earn a living. The Irish Press had been regularly publishing knitting patterns, and on 21 June 1946, C. Nic A.[iii] wrote in praise of those patterns designed for use with Irish wool, as it was apparently quite difficult to refit patterns designed for foreign wools. Although there had been some increase in supply of hand-knitting wool, shortages continued, due to the heavy demand for wool from commercial cloth and hosiery manufacturers. It was not felt to be in the public interest to increase the allocation of wool supplies for hand-knitting yarn.[iv]
In response to the increasing popularity of the knitting patterns by “Penelope”, published each week in The Irish Press, the paper advised (25 July 1947) that reprints at 2d. each would be available.[v] However, the continuing difficulty of getting supplies and the high cost of hand-knitting wool still plagued knitters. In the Dáil Éireann on 10 March 1949, questions were once again asked about the price of hand-knitting wool, which had increased by a halfpenny per ounce for yarn manufactured from native wool, and by one penny per ounce for yarn manufactured from imported wool.[vi] The response was that the price rise was due to the increase in the price of raw wool, and not to any increase in profit margins. Nevertheless, the cost of knitting wool and clothes using wool as their principal raw material continued to increase in 1950 and, in 1951, more questions were raised in the Dáil Éireann.
Against the backdrop of increasing hand-knitting wool prices and the difficulty in obtaining supplies, the call came from “Penelope” for the women in Ireland to use Irish hand-knitting wool. On 16 March 1950, she wrote in The Irish Press that she wondered why people were making such a fuss of ‘Irishness’ during Irish week when, week in week out for over five years, she had been using Irish wools and had never recommended anything else.[vii] “Penelope” also stressed that her patterns were for the benefit of the family, and aimed at the mother who wanted to do well in supporting her family, and that Irish wools were second to none. ‘Irish Week’ ran from 13-18 March in 1950 and included a fashion parade supported by the Ladies Committee of the National Agricultural and Industrial Development Association (NAIDA)[viii], and shop displays with Irish goods. Members of the public were urged to give preference to those shops selling Irish goods. However, ‘Irish Week’ and the ‘Buy Irish drive’ were not without controversy, with letters to the papers decrying the need for such promotions. Despite the continued shortage of hand-knitting yarn and its increasing cost, “Penelope” advised women in The Irish Press on 23 February 1951 that, “…while ever there is sheep in Ireland to provide wool for our knitteds…”[ix] all would be well. This call to show patriotism and support for the nation by using only Irish wool in their knitting is just one example of how a woman’s identity has been constructed through her craft. She is a supportive mother of her family and nation if she follows “Penelope’s” advice.
Similar shortages of hand-knitting yarn were being experienced in Britain and became the subject of House of Commons debates. As in Ireland, deliveries of wool were primarily for the retail trade. Hand-knitting yarn, like all other yarns, had been in short supply. Wool shortages in Scotland led to questions in the House of Commons. For example, on 20 November 1947, Hector Hughes (Aberdeen North) asked the President of the Board of Trade about the acute shortage in Aberdeen of knitting wools. The response from Harold Wilson (who later became Prime Minister) was that knitting wool was in short supply due to the lack of labour in the wool industry, but he was not aware that the problem was more acute in Aberdeen than anywhere else.[x] Questions about the shortages of hand-knitting wool continued to be asked in 1948 in the House of Commons, when Scott-Elliot (Lancashire) asked the President of the Board of Trade what steps were being taken to deal with the acute shortage of knitting wool.[xi] No response was provided. By 1950, the price of hand-knitting wool was of great concern, and Mrs. Ganley on 12 December[xii], asked the President of the Board of Trade whether the Central Price Regulation Committee had completed its review of knitting wool prices, and whether a decision had been made on its recommendations. Wilson responded that their recommendation was that a price control should be re-introduced and would come into effect from January 1951. It is interesting to note that income from wool was relatively significant in 1950, compared to later years.[xiii]
As in Ireland, women in Scotland were given the opportunity to be support their nation once again, following the call to knit for the troops on active service in the Korean War. Despite the shortages and costs, a notice published in the Evening Telegraph, Scotland, on 7 December 1950, advised:
…thanks to the generous cooperation of Headquarters, Personnel Service League in London, the Argyll and Southern Highlanders Regimental Association had been able to arrange for a supply of knitting wool at a reduced price, to be used for troops on active service. […] Applications for supplies of wool from any friends of the regiment who are anxious to help by knitting should be made to the chairman of the Executive Committee, c/o the Regimental H.Q. and depot, Stirling Castle… (H. Douglas-Home, Major, Scottish Command H.Q.6/12/1950).[xiv]
However, hand-knitting wool supplies and costs did not improve. In Wales, Lady Megan Lloyd-George, MP for Carmarthen, asked why Wales couldn’t be seriously considered as somewhere to develop a woollen industry.[xv]She saw no reason why Wales could not have as viable a wool market as Scotland. Her concerns were for rural industries in Wales that had seen a large decline in business due, in part, to migration from the rural areas.[xvi]The link between hand-knitting and politics is worth further study. As Elizabeth Robinson states in her study, Women and Needlework in Britain, 1920 to 1970:
Three key themes emerge repeatedly throughout these chapters: identity, pleasure and obligation. These are vital to understanding why women stitched, and what it meant to them when they did. Viewing needlework as both a valid subject for research in its own right and as a window onto broader aspects of women’s history […] both verifies and challenges more wide-ranging findings and assumptions within women’s history.[xvii]
Over the past fifty years, and with a plentiful supply of a variety of cheap machine-made knitted goods, there is no longer any economic incentive or, one would think, a patriotic reason for hand-knitting. However, designers such as renowned textile artist, Kaffe Fassett[xviii], and Scottish artisan Kate Davies[xix] are avidly passionate about the art of knitting which is being coupled with an increasing interest in detailed accounts of where and how the wool is farmed. But fast-forward to 2016, when The National Trust launched its campaign called “Knitting for Victory”[xx], to mark the 70th anniversary of the party that was held at Upton House in Warwickshire by Lord and Lady Bearsted as part of the WWII victory celebrations. The National Trust called for knitters to help to break the Guinness World record for the longest line of knitted bunting using the traditional colours of red, white and blue.
On a political note, despite the failed 2014 Scottish Referendum for Independence, women from all over Scotland who still support Independence were asked to join a scheme called “Knitting a Nation”[xxi] and show their patriotism by knitting an A4 rectangle map of their part of Scotland to their own design. Their stated aim is to advance the cause of independence should there be another opportunity to vote.
Despite post-war shortages of wool and its increasing costs, women were, and still are being called on to play their part for their nation. Thus, as Margaret Robinson points out, study of the link between women’s knitting and construction of a woman’s identity is still relevant, particularly in light of the latest appeals mentioned above. They continue to act as a platform for nation building activities, albeit in various guises. However, in 2017, this circulation of the trope of women’s patriotism through their knitting has yet to result in acknowledgement of the work they do in this regard.
[i]Houses of the Oireachtas. Dáil Debates (1946) Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. – Fixing of Wool Prices. Dáil Éireann Debate Wednesday, 8 May 1946, Vol. 100. No. 18.
[ii]Patricia Boyne. ‘Gay Knitting.’ The Irish Independent, 5 June 1946.
[iii] C. Nic A. ‘In a letter C. Nic A. Writes’, The Irish Press, 21 June 1946.
[iv]Houses of the Oireachtas, Dáil Debates (1946). Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. – Supplies of Knitting-Wool. Tuesday, 25 June 1946. Dáil Éireann Debate Vol. 101. No. 17.
[v]Penelope. ‘About knitting. To-day Penelope answers a lot of questions.’ TheIrish Press, 25 July 1947.
[vi]Houses of the Oireachtas, Dáil Debates (1949) Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. – Price of Knitting Wool. Thursday, 10 March 1949. Dáil Éireann Debate Vol. 114. No. 8.
[vii]Penelope, ‘Aran Gansey for a Man from Ben Eadair’, The Irish Press 16 March 1950.
[viii]National Agricultural and Industrial Development Association (NAIDA). ‘Irish Week.’, The Meath Chronicle, 18 February 1950.
[ix]Penelope, ‘The lovely traditional Stitches of Aran’, The Irish Press, 23 February 1951.
[x]Hector Hughes (Aberdeen North) Scotland – ‘Wool Yarns’, HC Deb 20 November 1947 vol 444 cc197-8W, 197W.
[xi]Scott-Elliot (Lancashire) ‘Knitting wool’, HC Deb 29 January 1948 vol 446 c1176.
[xii]Mrs. Ganley ‘Knitting Wool Price Control’, House of Commons Debates, 12 December 1950 vol 482 cc137-8W137W.
[xiii]Review of the British Wool Marketing Board, 2008: 10.
[xiv]Editorial, The Evening Telegraph, Scotland, 7 December 1950.
[xv]Lady Megan Lloyd-George, MP for Carmarthen. Council for Wales – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21 March 1951. Retrieved fromhttps://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=1951-03-21a.2437.0&s=wool+in+Wales#g2450.1
[xvii]Robinson, E. (2012). Women and Needlework in Britain, 1920-1970 Thesis. Repository, Royal Holloway. Retrieved fromhttps://repository.royalholloway.ac.uk/file/47fc4d88-eea0-e510-6d8f-0bfcc950f7cc/7/2012robinsonemphd.pdf
[xx]“Knitting for Victory”, The National Trust. Retrieved fromhttps://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/upton-house-and-gardens/features/knitting-for-victory-at-upton-house
Following a career in financial management in the private sector, and as a financial analyst with the Public Service in Canberra, Olga Walker is now a PhD Candidate with the University of Canberra. She graduated with a BA Arts (Community, Culture and Environment), and has undertaken the following postgraduate studies: Grad. Cert. (Public Sector Management); Grad. Dip. Arts (English); Grad Dip Arts (Research); and an MA (English).