Comfort for Critters

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Knitting as Espionage

As we create our blankets, I’m sure many of us send quiet, prayerful messages to the pets who will receive them. I’ve recently learned that knitting has been used to send other types of messages, equally important. There is a long history between knitting and espionage, in two distinct ways. Knitting has been used as a “cover”, but also as the carrier of hidden messages.

During the Civil War and both world wars, women were encouraged to knit socks, hats and other clothing for soldiers. In fact, the American Red Cross even held knitting classes and provided free supplies. So the sight of a woman knitting was quite common. The stereotype of a woman quietly knitting, presents a non-threatening picture, and a perfect cover for a spy.

One of my favorite stories relates to George Washington, during the Revolutionary War. Molly Rinker, a spy for General Washington, would sit on a hilltop, pretending to knit while spying on the British. She would hide scraps of paper, with secret messages, in her balls of yarn. This yarn would be discretely tossed over a cliff to soldiers hidden below.

At other times when knitting was used as an innocent-looking cover, it was also used to encode messages. Knitting, at its most basic, is the combination of two stitches, knit and purl. This makes it the perfect vehicle to convey Morse Code. There’s a story told of the Belgian Resistance during WWII, using knitters who would watch the trains go by and either drop a stitch (for one type of train) or purl a stitch (for another type of train) to help track the logistics of enemy troops.

Even the yarn alone can be used to send messages. By tying knots in the yarn, before knitting, the code can be embedded. An ordinary loop knot would be the “dot” of Morse Code, and creating a knot in a figure-eight manner would be the “dash”. Once the knots are in place, the yarn is made into a garment. It’s only after it is unraveled that the message can be read.

It’s obvious that governments caught on to the connection between knitting and spying, eventually. Any non-knitter that has ever tried to read a knitting pattern, may understandably wonder if there’s a hidden message tucked inside. In fact, during World War II, the UK banned knitting patterns, fearing hidden messages. The US banned people from sending knitting patterns overseas, for the same concerns.

It’s interesting to envision these quiet, textile-making spies, as we craft blankets with our own messages of love for homeless pets. It’s also another example of the mistake people make, when they underestimate the power of a woman sitting quietly!

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