Knitting through COVID-19, and through Red Cross history

Back in March 2020, when the time came to stay home to help flatten the COVID-19 curve I was ready.

My husband and I put together a plan and prepared for a new normal where we would only leave home if it was absolutely essential. As a pretty serious knitter, I was particularly ready for staying home with a mountain of yarn and nothing but time on my hands.

Taking time to be creative and to work on projects that bring you joy is great for self-care. I believe it’s always important to talk about mental health, and during this time of physical distancing that conversation is urgent. A recent survey showed nearly half of young adults are struggling more with their mental health during COVID-19. The pandemic is both slow and fast moving, it feels like we’re constantly bombarded with new information, new reasons to feel overwhelmed. At the same time, it feels like we’ve been stuck at home for a small eternity.

For me, knitting is one of those things that does wonders for my mental health, now more than ever.

As the pile of my so called “pandemic projects” and “COVID cast-ons” grew, I couldn’t help but connect the dots to other times when my chosen hobby played a part during history.

A group of youth sitting around a table knitting, photo credit: Library and Archives CanadaDuring the First and Second World Wars, small booklets with knitting patterns were distributed across Canada. Women used the patterns to make much-needed items for soldiers and civilians who were impacted by the conflicts and the Canadian Red Cross distributed them. This was not a small operation, according to the Halifax Women’s History Society, “The Monument Design: The Design for The Volunteers” an estimated 750,000 volunteers knit 50 million items during WWII alone.

Someone shared a scanned copy they found online of one of the booklets. This one was for items needed by the army and the navy, things like socks, sweaters, mittens, gloves and hats. Staring at my heap of yarn, my seemingly endless void of time, and back again at my heap of yarn, my next pandemic project seemed obvious.


Casting on

The role of the Canadian Red Cross during times of conflict evolved during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The British Red Cross and Canadian Red Cross’ work was with wounded soldiers or prisoners of war. Knitted items were designed to bring comfort and meant someone back home could make a difference in another’s life. By the Second World War, the Canadian Red Cross was working independently from the British Red Cross, and the work expanded to include war-affected civilians, initially bringing support to British civilians who had been impacted by air raids. This work expanded further to bring support to civilians in many occupied countries, particularly after the 1944 D-Day invasion which brought new access to people who had been isolated from aid.

A pair of mittens knitted by the author.In my yarn heap there is conveniently exactly the materials I need to make a pair of mittens. According to the instructions they should be khaki, or any colour suitable for military woolens. I used this grey, which I figured would be considered acceptable. For the needle size there was a bit of Googling involved, since the pattern used UK sizing. After a quick search I learned I was in luck and had the right size.

I like making mittens, it’s a relaxing and really satisfying to watch them take shape. While I worked on them I couldn’t help but think about the people who worked from these patterns in the past. Volunteers are such a crucial part of the work the Red Cross does, Right now, Canadian Red Cross volunteers aren’t making mittens to help homesick soldiers, they are reaching out to people who may be struggling during this time of isolation, helping Canadians returning home from abroad, helping to provide meals, and more. While many of us are working to respond to the needs of those impacted by COVID-19, volunteers are still working to help those impacted by disasters like fires. The work changes, but that desire to help others is always there. The whole thing makes me feel very happy to be part of something so big, and I dropped a few stitches while I was deep in thought.

Every donated item was carefully inspected to make sure it met the specifications in the instructions. I like to think this pair would have made the cut. Since the Red Cross doesn’t currently accept in-kind donations, like mittens, I am going to be donating this pair to a local group that hands out items to people experiencing homelessness.

If you’re interested, you can find a copy of the knitting instructions online. If you’re interested in joining the Red Cross, find out more about volunteer opportunities – including roles in the COVID-19 response.

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