QI: how knitting was used as code in WW2? A quietly intriguing column from the brains behind QI, the BBC quiz show. This week: QI knits one, purls one

Real knitting

The word knitting comes from the Old English cnyttan, meaning “to knot”. What we now call knitting – making a textile by looping yarn using two needles – isn’t much older than 1,000 years and it wasn’t until the Renaissance that wool was used rather than silk or cotton. The verb “to knit” isn’t recorded in English until 1400. The earliest fragments of apparently knitted material were excavated at the fort of Dura-Europos in Syria in 1935 and date from 265AD. There are also socks from Coptic Egypt dating to the 4th century AD, but all these are made using a technique known as “nalebinding”, which only uses one needle.

Knitting codes

During the Second World War the Office of Censorship banned people from posting knitting patterns abroad in case they contained coded messages. There was one occasion when knitting was used for code. The Belgian resistance recruited old women whose windows overlooked railway yards to note the trains in their knitting. Basic stuff: purl one for this type of train, drop one for another type.

Knitting miscreants

The most famous example of knitting being used to record information is Madame Defarge in Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. She sits by the guillotine as the enemies of the French Revolution are beheaded, calmly recording their names in wool as their heads fall into the basket. But there’s no contemporary evidence tricoteuses – knitting women – existed. One of the first actions of the Revolution was a demonstration against food shortages by working-class women. At first venerated as the “mothers of the revolution”, these “bonnes citoyennes” fell from favour during the Terror (1793-94). It seems likely that “knitting women” was a mocking word for female militants, but writers (like Dickens and Carlyle), looking for a bit of colour, interpreted it literally.

Knitting us together

In 2013, hundreds of pom-poms and knitted items were strung from trees and lamp-posts in Bede Park and Great Central Way, Leicester. Police hoped this would soften and humanise the area and so deter crime. It’s part of a growing craze for “guerrilla knitting” or “yarnbombing” in which people knit cosies for tree trunks, parking meters and even buses or tanks.

how knitting was used as code in WW2
Needled: Rosalie Crutchley as Madame Defarge in the 1958 film of A Tale of Two Cities Photo: Ronald Grant archive

The experiment had mixed results. Criminologist Charlotte Bilby said: “If you see something that makes you smile, that makes you think others have enjoyed being in that space and have done something funny, something silly, that’s going to change your perception.”

Local residents were less sure. “I don’t understand why wool would change people’s perception of crime,” one said, “or how woollen balls are going to fix something.”

Extreme knitting

Guerrilla knitting is not to be confused with extreme knitting. Extreme knitters knit while doing other things like running or riding a tandem. The world record for knitting a scarf while running a marathon is held by 55-year-old Susie Hewer; she also has the crotchet marathon record, and the one for knitting on the back of a tandem. She does it to raise money for Alzheimer’s research.

Knitting islands

The biggest knitted objects in the world are the 45 Uros Islands in Lake Titicaca in Peru. Knitted from local Totoro reeds, they are strong enough to hold several hundred people, buildings and boats. The surface is so springy the islanders have trouble walking on dry land.

Knitting clocks

The 365-day “knitting clock” uses nearly 1,500ft of yarn to show the passing of time and will leave you with a 6ft 7in scarf by the end of December. The 24-hour clock, created by designer Siren Elise Wilhelmsen, knits one stitch every half-hour, adding one new row every day.

Knitting shrouds

The Burying in Woollen Acts of 1666-80 were designed to promote the wool industry, but ended up stimulating the rise in newspaper circulation. People were generally buried in linen before 1666. The statute insisted everyone be buried in a woollen shroud of English manufacture or risk a fine of £5 (about £650 in today’s money). Newspapers were made from recycled cloth until 1870 (hence the use of the word “rag” as a term of derision). By demanding the use of wool, the Act saved £200,000 of linen rags, which were recycled into newsprint.

Culled from: telegraph.co.uk