Wars tear apart relationships, destroy homes and damage society yet stitching during World War II provided protection, comfort, camouflage and shelter. Sewing is the process of joining and during wartime this craft not only kept up morale but joined strangers in bonds of comradeship..
Embroidery settled nerves during bombings and helped healed the minds of servicemen.
Huge amounts of embroidery was needed for the organisation of troops and civilian defence. Millions of embroidered badges, stripes and insignia were produced in factories and in the homes of out workers. These small pieces were worn with pride on uniforms across the ranks.
Sweetheart Badges such as the wings of pilot fighters were embroidered onto the clothing of girlfriends and wives.
The Royal School of Needlework designed a series of 132 badges based on those of the British and Canadian Forces including the Canadian Maple Leaf. They were sold in kits or transfers.
By 1940 the production of embroidery materials had ceased as they were deemed inessential by the Government, supplies had been exhausted and embroiderers had to become inventive.
Parachute fabric, recycled clothes, dish cloths, sacking, parachute cords, anything that could be unravelled, washed and dyed was used.
With paper in short supply patterns were no longer available and stitchers had to be creative. Many a tea cup or coin was used to trace circles.
The Embroiderers’ Guild was utilized to teach in hospitals to aid occupational therapists. Stitching helped with the rehabilitation of hand injuries and the treadle of a sewing machine for knee and ankle injuries.
The Guild also made up embroidery kits for wounded servicemen and prisoners of war. The kits were in such demand that the Red Cross took over distribution for prisoners of war.
The kits included fabric, design, threads, scissors, thimble and needles.
Eustace Wood used her embroidery to leave a poignant message reminding us of the hardship which followed the joyous end to war in 1945. Unfolded, her embroidered book can be viewed from both sides, revealing a tableau of intricately stitched pictures and patterns.
The years after the war brought an end to the mass popularity of embroidery in England. War time shortages had forced embroiders to become more creative and inventive working with new materials, colours, techniques and design. For those who continued to embroider a new and exciting era was about to begin.
Deadly Needles – A Secret Weapon
Whilst researching “Embroidery in Wartime” we came across information that didn’t warrant an article in itself but was too interesting to overlook.
British biological warfare scientists developed a poisoned dart to rain down on enemy troops during the second world war and used sewing machine needles to make prototypes.
At first, scientists used a few needles bought at a branch of the Singer sewing machine company but soon realised that local stocks would not be sufficient.
In January 1942 the man leading Britain’s wartime chemical weapons programme, Dr Paul Fildes, made a direct approach to the sewing company. His letter opened with: “It is a little difficult to explain what I want sewing machine needles for … ”
W Bellamy, of Singer’s head office, replied: “From your remarks it would seem the needles are required for some purpose other than sewing machines. In any case, we should like to help you, if at all possible.”
The Porton Down memorandum on the project describes the poisoned darts as “an entirely novel chemical weapon making use of agents which are lethal in very small doses”.
The scientists admitted that, once used, people would quickly learn that light cover – such as trees, aircraft and lorries – would give almost complete protection against the darts and the plan was abandoned.
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