OLD ORCHARD BEACH — Americans pause today to honor military veterans on this 103rd anniversary of the Nov. 11, 1918, Armistice that ended World War I, and to remember American veterans of all wars.

America entered World War I, into the fighting  that had been raging in Europe since 1914, in April 1917. By the time the battlefields fell silent,  more than 53,000 U.S. troops had been killed in action, and more than 63,000 died of non-combat related reasons, mainly due to the influenza pandemic of 1918, according to the online Library of Congress website. More than 204,000 were wounded.

While the troops were off fighting, those on the home front, from the very young to the elderly, pitched in to help support the soldiers and the war effort.

One of those efforts was knitting socks, bandages, and other garments for those fighting overseas, said Holly Korda.

The troops, said Korda, who learned about World War I knitting brigades in a conversation with her grandmother some years ago, were ill clothed for fighting. The boots they were issued were poor quality and their kit contained just two pairs of socks. Keeping feet warm and dry was essential to troop health and so the American Red Cross, one of the few agencies with a national reach at the time, organized people to knit for the troops.

Korda, who went on to write ‘The Knitting Brigades of World War I, Volunteers for Victory in America and Abroad,” said she remembered her grandmother knitting, but had not known about the brigades until she mentioned she had taken part as an 11-year-old schoolgirl, when the Red Cross taught people young and old to knit.

“She was so proud,” said Korda.

The knitting brigades sparked Korda’s interest, and she began researching the phenomenon, which according to her book, saw Americans transform more than 15 million pounds of wool into essential garments.

More than 24 million articles of clothing and 300 million surgical dressings were produced by home knitters, she learned.

A full 10 percent of the garments knit for the war effort were made by children.

The rallying cry on the home front was “wool will win the war.”

Knitting patterns were published in local newspapers.

According to her book, President Woodrow Wilson’s White House lawn hosted its own flock of sheep and auctioned their wool for the war effort, and there was a week-long knitting bee in New York’s Central Park.

Korda’s initial research, in those days before internet, led her to a correspondence with the American Red Cross archivist, and  she gave a talk to a local Red Cross chapter.  Later,  in response to an inquiry from Libby Memorial Library in Old Orchard Beach looking for people to give historic talks, she began to look at her files and wondered if there was more information and started to dig further. She gave a talk at the library and then went on to give several more, in libraries and other locales up and down the Maine coast. Along the way, she met some interesting people, including Jim Grant of Good Karma Farm in Belfast, an expert on the circular sock knitting machine.

As it turns out, the circular sock knitting machines were used by some people in the knitting brigades. Some who could not get the hang of knitting by hand — the heel of a sock can be difficult to learn to create — used the hand cranked machines instead.

“It’s been fascinating” learning about the knitting brigade, Korda said. And while boys and men took part in the knitting brigades, most of those who knit were women — at a time when women could not vote.

“They stepped up and it was incredible,” said Korda.

Her look into the World War I  era showed Korda that at the time, the United States did not have the manufacturing capacity to make socks or sweaters —  or bandages for that matter — in factories.

Knitting helped bring the country together, and it served a vast need.

Korda, a consultant in the health care industry, wrote her book in 2019. On Tuesday, she gave a talk at the Old Orchard Beach Ballpark as part of the town’s recreation program.

Wherever she speaks, she said she hears stories about knitting in general — like the school teacher in Liberty who knit hats and mittens for her entire Grade Two class, or of World War I songs like “Knitting all the Day,” or of those who led the effort in their communities like Grace Campbell, who organized the World War I knitting brigade in Warren, near Rockland.

“I learned so much,” she said.

And, she pointed out, World War I has been called the most successful mobilization of volunteers in U.S. history.

Korda, who said she has knit scarves and the like, but does not call herself a knitter, said she came to a couple of realizations through the process of  researching and writing the book, which had been sparked by the conversation with her grandmother. One is that when people come together, they can accomplish a great deal.

Another lesson is “be sure to ask your relatives and older friends about their lives” when you can, she said.

“Knitting Brigades of World War I” is available at amazon.com.

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