History History of Fashion

Grandma is knitting a war: how needle and yarn became espionage

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, the cozy season is in full swing with pumpkin spice lattes, holiday decorations, and soft sweaters. So if you’re looking for a fun hobby to get crafty with this season, you might consider knitting. Wait, wait, wait—it’s not just an old-lady activity; although it probably wants you to think it is. In fact, knitting has a fascinating history with wartime espionage and encoded messages.

In Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities, Madame Defarge spends her time knitting an endless scarf. But she puts Arya Stark’s kill list to shame. In her never-ending scarf, Defarge knits the names of aristocrats to be sent to the guillotine. However, Defarge’s stylish kill list isn’t just found in fiction. In fact, the practice of knitting coded messages goes as far back as the American Revolution and has continued through both World Wars. 

In the American Revolution, Molly “Old Mom” Rinker served as a spy for George Washington. British troops would stay in her family’s inn, the Buck’s Tavern, and discuss their plans. Allegedly, Rinker would spend her time knitting in plain sight and in earshot. Like the best of gossiping grandmothers, she’d take the time to knit socks, listen to their plans, and every now and then, drop a ball of yarn over a cliff to Washington’s waiting soldiers who would find a message inside detailing British plans. After all, who would suspect that the sweet, knitting older woman was a spy? This idea of a harmless, knitting grandmother was practically an invisibility shield.

Furthermore, this practice continued into World War I. A French woman named Madame Levengle was also known for using knitting as a distraction. According to Kathryn Atwood in Women Heroes of World War I, Levengle would appear busy by knitting, while secretly tapping out messages to her children in the room below. All of this happened under the eyes of a German marshal quartering in their home. But once more, knitting provided the perfect cover. 

You might think that people would start to be wary of these knitting women. But World War I, actually encouraged everyday women to take up knitting as part of the war effort. In the United States, knitting was seen as a patriotic activity with “Knitting for Sammie!” (aka Uncle Sam) pushed forward by the American Red Cross. But the craft found a foothold hold beyond the United States. In England, the Women’s Institute also organized to knit clothes for evacuating children and troops despite their anti-war stance. Allied nations, such as Canada and Australia, also joined in. 

But eventually, espionage found itself between knitting needles again. By World War II, Elizabeth Bently ran two spy rings, passing information to the Soviet Union about the United States through coded messages in their knitting. Another woman, Phyllis Latour Doyle was a British spy who would parachute into German territory. Posing as a French girl, she would chat with soldiers, and then knit messages via Morse code. She was so good at her work that Doyle delivered 135 messages to the British before the end of the war. The Belgian resistance also recruited women whose windows overlooked railways and knitted knots into their work based on the number of German trains leaving railway yards. Eventually, some of those governments had started to catch on. By World War II, both the UK and the US Office of Censorship, an emergency wartime agency, actually banned people from mailing knitting patterns because of concerns around espionage.

Today, knitting continues to be a form of artistic and political expression. Looking at the “pussy hats” of the Women’s March or organizations such as Yarn Mission, knitting remains politically charged despite the persistent stereotypes as an old ladies’ domestic craft. It’s significant that, historically, women could get away with this type of espionage because it took advantage of gendered ideas and cliches. So let’s remember that women who knit are more capable than any stereotype. 

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