What a crazy two weeks it has been. As you know I decided to do the 100 days of art challenge AND make a video each day as well. That is a major undertaking, but it has gone well. It is funny, I initially was wondering what the heck I could do each day. Now, the list is growing, and I add things to it each day. I get to bigger fine art projects and commissions during the weekends like always and some fun smaller things during the week. I will put a few of the YT vids at the bottom. I wanted to write about some cool art history. I have long known about the fascinating connection between the CIA and modern art. I will write about that later. This week I want to go a bit further back. This is cool.
In the midst of World War I, a Belgian grandmother engaged in a unique form of resistance. Perched at her window, she would knit while observing the trains that passed by her home. Each train's passage was marked distinctly in her knitting: a bumpy stitch for one, a deliberate hole for another. These were not mere errors in her craft, but a secret language of espionage. She was part of the Belgian resistance, using her knitting skills to convey messages to fellow spies, all under the guise of a simple, harmless activity.
Photo provided by Midjourney prompt
Knitting has a surprisingly intertwined history with the world of espionage. As noted in the 1942 publication "A Guide to Codes and Signals," spies have long used crafts like knitting, embroidery, and rug hooking to encode secret messages. During times of war, a knitter was often more than just a creator of warm garments; they were also keen observers and messengers, their needles clicking away as they kept watch.
The art of encoding messages in knitting is a form of steganography, a technique for hiding information in plain sight. Knitting, with its simple binary system of knit and purl stitches, lends itself well to this purpose. A knit stitch, smooth and resembling a 'v', contrasts with the bumpy, horizontal purl stitch. Spies could create a hidden message within a piece of fabric by following a specific pattern of these stitches, embedding secrets in an innocuous scarf or hat.
One notable figure in this clandestine world was Phyllis Latour Doyle, a secret agent for Britain during World War II. She bravely parachuted into occupied Normandy in 1944, gathering intelligence while posing as a harmless civilian. Her knitting kit was her secret weapon, concealing silk yarn encoded with knotted messages, which she would later translate using Morse Code equipment. As she recounted in a 2009 interview with New Zealand Army News, her knitting was always a cover for her espionage activities. (There is a ton written about Phyliss)
Photo provided by Midjourney prompt
The complexity of knitting patterns can make them appear as cryptic as any secret code, a fact that has not gone unnoticed in the world of espionage. Lucy Adlington, in her book "Stitches in Time," discusses a 1918 article from the UK's Pearson’s Magazine. The article speculated, perhaps with some exaggeration, that Germans were using entire sweaters as encoded messages. The story detailed how unraveling the sweater revealed a wool thread dotted with knots, which could then be deciphered using an alphabet-marked door frame.
This intersection of knitting and spying was not limited to World War II. During the American Civil War and both World Wars, women were encouraged to knit for soldiers, making the craft a common and unassuming sight. Gyles Daubeney Brandreth and Peter Stevenson, in their book "Writing Secret Codes and Sending Hidden Messages," note that Morse Code was particularly well-suited to be encoded in yarn, with different types of knots representing the dots and dashes.
Fiction, too, has drawn on this connection. In Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities," Madame Defarge infamously knits the names of doomed French nobles. However, as Jacqueline Witkowski points out in the journal InVisible Culture, the use of knitting in espionage has real historical roots. During World War I, the UK even banned knitting patterns, fearing they contained hidden messages. Spies, posing as ordinary citizens, would use knitting as a cover for their surveillance activities.
The role of knitting in espionage continued into World War II. In Belgium, the resistance used knitting to track enemy movements, with different stitches representing different types of trains. This practice led to the Office of Censorship's ban on posting knitting patterns during the war, as they might contain coded messages. Elizabeth Bently, an American spy for the Soviet Union, later turned US informant, used her knitting bag to smuggle out early plans for the B-29 bombs and aircraft manufacturing secrets.
The stereotype of knitting as an old woman's pastime also played into the hands of female spies during the American Revolutionary War. Molly "Old Mom" Rinker, a spy for George Washington, would knit atop a hill, using her position to observe British movements. She cleverly concealed messages in balls of yarn, which she would then casually drop to soldiers waiting below.
Today, the legacy of knitting in espionage has inspired modern knitters to create their own secret codes. From the Dewey Decimal system to Morse code and binary computer language, knitters are turning their craft into a medium for hidden messages, continuing a tradition that blends the art of knitting with the intrigue of spying.
I love how the arts has typically has some sort of play during wartime. Creatives always find a way.
Stitches in Time: The Story of the Clothes We Wear
Great War Fashion: Tales from the History Wardrobe
Fashion: Women in World War One
Women's Lives and Clothes in WW2: Ready for Action
Here are some of the weeks videos. Have an amazing week!
Ink Aid Precoat/Photoprinting on tagboard/Mixed Media
Mixed Media Doodle Dog Part 2/Mixed Media Art/Art Vlog
Ink Aid ImageTransfer/Resin Obsession/Wildlife Art
Momigami Japanese Kneaded Paper/Mixed Media/Art Journal