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#1 User is offline   Liz 

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Posted 29 November 2019 - 01:06 PM

The Wartime Spies Who Used Knitting As An Espionage Tool

Grandma was just making a sweater. Or was she?

Atlas Obscura
Natalie Zarrelli

This article was originally published on June 1, 2017, by Atlas Obscura, and is republished here with permission.

Excerpt:

During World War I, a grandmother in Belgium knitted at her window, watching the passing trains. As one train chugged by, she made a bumpy stitch in the fabric with her two needles. Another passed, and she dropped a stitch from the fabric, making an intentional hole. Later, she would risk her life by handing the fabric to a soldier—a fellow spy in the Belgian resistance, working to defeat the occupying German force.

Whether women knitted codes into fabric or used stereotypes of knitting women as a cover, there’s a history between knitting and espionage. “Spies have been known to work code messages into knitting, embroidery, hooked rugs, etc,” according to the 1942 book A Guide to Codes and Signals. During wartime, where there were knitters, there were often spies; a pair of eyes, watching between the click of two needles.

When knitters used knitting to encode messages, the message was a form of steganography, a way to hide a message physically (which includes, for example, hiding morse code somewhere on a postcard, or digitally disguising one image within another). If the message must be low-tech, knitting is great for this; every knitted garment is made of different combinations of just two stitches: a knit stitch, which is smooth and looks like a “v”, and a purl stitch, which looks like a horizontal line or a little bump. By making a specific combination of knits and purls in a predetermined pattern, spies could pass on a custom piece of fabric and read the secret message, buried in the innocent warmth of a scarf or hat.

Phyllis Latour Doyle, secret agent for Britain during World War II, spent the war years sneaking information to the British using knitting as a cover. She parachuted into occupied Normandy in 1944 and rode stashed bicycles to troops, chatting with German soldiers under the pretense of being helpful—then, she would return to her knitting kit, in which she hid a silk yarn ready to be filled with secret knotted messages, which she would translate using Morse Code equipment. “I always carried knitting because my codes were on a piece of silk—I had about 2000 I could use. When I used a code I would just pinprick it to indicate it had gone. I wrapped the piece of silk around a knitting needle and put it in a flat shoe lace which I used to tie my hair up,” she told New Zealand Army News in 2009.

A knitting pattern, to non-knitters, may look undecipherable, and not unlike a secret code to begin with. This could cause paranoia around what knitting patterns might mean. Lucy Adlington, in her book Stitches in Time, writes about one article that appeared in UK Pearson’s Magazine in October 1918, which reported that Germans were knitting whole sweaters to send messages—perhaps an exaggeration.

*snip*

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#2 User is offline   Howsithangin 

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Posted 29 November 2019 - 04:35 PM

Great tale!
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#3 User is offline   Liz 

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Posted 29 November 2019 - 05:32 PM

I don't know whether or not she knit, but a few years ago I learned that my mother's cousin spied for the British during World War II.
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#4 User is offline   Severian 

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Posted 29 November 2019 - 06:02 PM

My wife is an avid knitter, she loved this article! I tell her she'd make a good traditional Roman wife, they spun, she knits, all similar.
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#5 User is offline   Liz 

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Posted 29 November 2019 - 06:26 PM

View PostSeverian, on 29 November 2019 - 06:02 PM, said:

My wife is an avid knitter, she loved this article! I tell her she'd make a good traditional Roman wife, they spun, she knits, all similar.

My mother taught me to knit when I was 5 or 6 and I've been knitting ever since. My husband saw the article and sent it to me because he knew I'd be interested. As I'm sure your wife knows, it's a useful and relaxing hobby.
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#6 User is online   gravelrash 

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Posted 29 November 2019 - 06:59 PM

I quilt. I love quilting. And "secret messages" into the craft. The thousand stiches of kamikaze pilot headbands. Don't be get me started. It's going to be a scarf.

I quilt. I love quilting. And "secret messages" into the craft. The thousand stiches of kamikaze pilot headbands. Don't be get me started. It's going to be a scarf.
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#7 User is online   gravelrash 

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Posted 29 November 2019 - 07:03 PM

 Liz, on 29 November 2019 - 06:26 PM, said:

My mother taught me to knit when I was 5 or 6 and I've been knitting ever since. My husband saw the article and sent it to me because he knew I'd be interested. As I'm sure your wife knows, it's a useful and relaxing hobby.


It is too busy to work with the hands.
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#8 User is offline   Severian 

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Posted 29 November 2019 - 07:13 PM

View PostLiz, on 29 November 2019 - 06:26 PM, said:

My mother taught me to knit when I was 5 or 6 and I've been knitting ever since. My husband saw the article and sent it to me because he knew I'd be interested. As I'm sure your wife knows, it's a useful and relaxing hobby.

My wife picked it up seriously only about 8 years ago. She knew how from childhood, but only got seriously into it and the more advances stuff then. She's gotten quite talented at it.
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#9 User is offline   MrStain 

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Posted 29 November 2019 - 07:28 PM

Sharing this with my daughter who is a big knitter and who's husband just joined the Navy.
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#10 User is offline   Liz 

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Posted 29 November 2019 - 08:32 PM

View Postgravelrash, on 29 November 2019 - 06:59 PM, said:

I quilt. I love quilting. And "secret messages" into the craft. The thousand stiches of kamikaze pilot headbands. Don't be get me started. It's going to be a scarf.

I quilt. I love quilting. And "secret messages" into the craft. The thousand stiches of kamikaze pilot headbands. Don't be get me started. It's going to be a scarf.

I love the look of quilting but I hate to sew, so it's knitting and crocheting for me.

View PostMrStain, on 29 November 2019 - 07:28 PM, said:

Sharing this with my daughter who is a big knitter and who's husband just joined the Navy.

Ah, the Navy! My father was Coast Guard and my mother and grandfather, British Royal Navy. The preponderance of cousins and nephews and nieces are Navy and my husband was a Marine.
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#11 User is offline   Ticked@TinselTown 

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Posted 30 November 2019 - 07:10 AM

My grandmother tried to teach me to knit but I didn't get to do it often enough to really pick it up.

My grandma taught my mother to crochet and she taught me how to do that, and I had more practice at it but could only do the circles... but I could make lots of them and then my grandma's friend would put them together for blankets for other people who needed them, so it was a worthwhile hobby when I was young.

But, if it was wartime and someone was to give me any schidt, those knitting needles woulda been a great weapon!
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#12 User is offline   Severian 

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Posted 30 November 2019 - 10:14 AM

What amazes me is that, despite all the TSA hoopla and kabuki theater over airline security, you can take knitting needles onto airline flights! When we flew to Hawaii the first time my wife packed up her knitting into her take on bag. You'll never get that onboard, says I. No, she says, she looked it up and knitting needles are allowed. She was right (she's always right, I know, it makes life easier if I just admit it). Weird eh?
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#13 User is online   zurg 

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Posted 30 November 2019 - 10:36 AM

 Severian, on 30 November 2019 - 10:14 AM, said:

What amazes me is that, despite all the TSA hoopla and kabuki theater over airline security, you can take knitting needles onto airline flights! When we flew to Hawaii the first time my wife packed up her knitting into her take on bag. You'll never get that onboard, says I. No, she says, she looked it up and knitting needles are allowed. She was right (she's always right, I know, it makes life easier if I just admit it). Weird eh?

It’s not weird that she’s always right... :whistling:
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