Monkeys, Socks and WW1 ... and Christmas?
By Karen Tweedie

In 1917 during WWI, in a patriotic effort rarely seen, people across America responded to the government’s request and started knitting sweaters, socks and more for our troops. Those who could not knit donated wool yarn. Many of our front line soldiers suffered from trench foot caused by weeks and months in wet trenches. Trench foot could cause gangrene and lead to amputation. The soldiers needed to change socks many times a day to avoid getting trench foot. The biggest need for our soldiers was for socks.

At the time, there was only one commercial sock manufacturer in the world, the Nelson Knitting Company in Rockford, Illinois. They were working at capacity producing 5,400 pairs of socks per day for the army which was far short of the need. An experienced hand knitter could knit a pair of socks in a week. School children learned to knit and worked on socks during breaks. Office workers gathered together and helped each other learn to knit. But even with all of the hand knitting, the need for socks for our troops could not be met.

Mabel Boardman, the only woman on the Red Cross Central Commission, realized that hand knitters would not be able to fulfill the dire need for socks, so the Red Cross mobilized and purchased small Circular Sock Machines made in Canada and the U.S. They set up knitting machine training rooms, then distributed the machines and yarn and patterns to civilians to knit socks. Once trained, a person could complete a pair of socks, which requires approximately 400 yards of yarn, in just 40 minutes. The Red Cross had to commit to making 400,000 pairs of socks within three months and with the help of so many men and women, they reached that goal! Any individual who pledged to knit at least 30 pairs of socks for our troops was able to keep the knitting machine and continue to use it to make socks for their own family. Our troops had enough socks to keep their feet dry to avoid trench foot and in late 1918, the war ended.

14 years after WWI ended, the Nelson Knitting Company developed a sock style for which they are still known: the red heeled sock. People started making toys, particularly sock monkeys, from the worn out red heeled socks. They were very popular toys and the sock monkey has become an icon that is still popular today.

About the author.

Karen is a West Volusia Historical Society volunteer, with lots of time on her hands because of COVID-19. She became fascinated with the story of WWI and socks, the Circular Sock Machines, and the red heeled socks in particular. She had sewn over 100 sock monkeys in the 1980s. She did further research on the Circular Sock Machines, joined the Circular Sock Knitting Machine Society, and purchased a 1922 Auto Knitter machine in excellent working condition. She set out to learn to create red and white socks, the stockings hung from a mantel being a quintessential symbol of Christmas, and began planning the tremendously successful outdoor holiday event, Christmas in Bloom that was held on November 28, 2020.

Adams Elementary pupils knitting for WW1 war effort, Seattle 1918 - Seattle Public School Archives

Office workers with Circular Sock Machines.  Internet photo

WW1 Red Cross poster encouraging knitting 1917 - American Red Cross photo archives

Nelson red heeled socks 1940s - Internet photo

Karen and her 1922 Auto Knitter

Sock Monkey handcrafted by Karen