Thursday, 6 April 2017

A Night of Make Do and Mend

Last month, I was invited by the Cultural Vulture to attend a historical discussion, on Make Do and Mend during the First World War at Gateshead Central Library. 

The night was a brought alive by the passionate and wonderful Meridith Towne

The discussion celebrated the forgotten contributions of women in the home, and these women kept the home fires burning, morale going and even the country operating, while their menfolk fought in the trenches.  It seems only fitting since it was International Women's Day that week. 

Like many, I am aware of the concept of Make Do Mend and how the British Government endorsed it during the Second World War. Also, any good Victorian Lady never wasted anything. And of course, the Social classes reused everything because of a lack of money. I was surprised to learn about how prevalent Make Do and Mend was practised in the First World War.   

The lights dimmed, and Meredith entered, greeting all the audience and introducing the topic. She asked the group whether anyone was a knitter and sewer many of us nodded and raised our hands. She explained it was every women's duty to the contribute to the war effort. Ladies were expected either knit items for the army and sewers would make uniforms. 


Meredith highlighted how dismissive the British Government's attitudes were of women In the case of Dr Elsie Maud Inglis, who went to the Miltary offering her services and supplies ready to establish a field hospital; She asked the military where would they like her to go, and they responded "go home and sit still". Elise was shocked, and refused to stay at home; she offered her services to the Belgium Government, who were only too happy for the assistance.

We were taught at that time women had a limited education, which focused on learning domestic skills. Often, they would produce a sample book of their work to show to potential employers. The only occupations open to women at that time was dress making, sectoral work or service. 

The first part looked at the contribution knitting played in the war effort. Before this discussion, I would never have considered the importance of the humble knitted garments had on morale. Women originally began knitting items to send their to menfolk, while in the trenches, as the war continued, supplies started to run out. 

The Red Cross and Army asked women to knit in the military colours. Pamphlets were published on how to knit particular items like rifle mittens, hoods and amputee covers. Women were knitting at every opportunity during meetings, churches and even on public transport with the vast amounts of knitting being produced lead to women organising sorting groups. 

Many of the knitted items varied in quality which lead to odd socks and mittens needing to be paired together and removing ineffective items. This lead to knitting groups being established to teach women how to improve their knitting skills.  Often women were mocked by the media but in reality, the simple items meant the difference between life and death for the soldiers in the trenches. 

Meredith read some examples of personal letters from the soldiers, who received these care packages. Each letter had a sweet charm describing their appreciation for the packages 
which, offered great comfort and morale knowing ladies were thinking of them. 

The was a dress from 1914
Next, the discussion celebrated the contributions of women and their sewing skills. I personally found this part most interesting, since I'm a sewer. 

An interesting point was how the Red Cross and women were fighting for sphagnum moss, known for its absorbency properties. Like knitting, The Red Cross issued books instructing ladies to make bandages and basic night shirts for soldiers, that even the most basic sewers could complete.

Meredith explained that many seamstresses lost their jobs as dressmakers and had to resort to other means to make an income, with many women becoming prostitutes. As the war progressed the country started to become almost bankrupt and the Government started to encourage women to shop, which meant seamstresses found work, again, Many women adopted a make do and mend ethos.  During the 1914's dress hems were slim and narrow and they expanded, as a consequence of many women up-cycling their Granny's Victorian dresses.

 At the beginning of the war, soldiers uniforms were of higher quality as the war progressed and subscriptions were introduced the quality deteriorated. As the war progressed many of the uniforms were reused and the job was left to rag women who sorted out the uniforms since soldiers were issued them. Meredith vividly described the horrors the women encountered dealing with the uniforms; some were covered in bodily fluids, holes from bullets, metal shrapnel, some record even accounting for limbs still being attached. She emphasised at this period nobody knew what was happening, BUT, these women knew exactly what was happening. The were working long days and were paid very small amount of money for their efforts. Meredith explained offers bought their own uniforms and often were sent back to their families. One personal account describes the personal stories of one mother had the uniform burnt.           

After the historical talk,  Meredith invited the audience to look closer at the items. Personally, I was mostly fascinated about the Edwardian clothing that had survived for over a century. My favourite was the old Victorian gown that was converted into a dress which still retaining the bodice jacket.  

I even learnt a new skill of combining knitting and clipping matting, consists of knitting scrap fabric together to create a rug,  Meredith's  mother made the skill look incredibly easy but I found arduous. 

Meredith brought the night alive with horror and humour to give the audience a sense the realities at the time. The touching personal letters, antidotes of women involved, contemporary artefacts of clothing and manuals from the period enhanced the human elements often lost in academia. For me Personally, it is wonderful to see younger generation becoming enthralled in history saw these memories can be carried on for the next generations. 


  1. Lovely review Sarah. I'm lucky enough to have seen Merry as part of History Wardrobe and she's brilliant. She's doing a talk in Killingworth on the 11th July that I'm going to - Nell Gwynn: More than a Mistress. The shows are such a treat.

  2. Thank you that's so sweet. She absolutely fabulous as presenter, she has knowledge, passion and knows how to deliver it. OOO, that sound interesting. I might have to considered it.

  3. In WW2, my grandmother did not know how to knit, only embroider which was useless for the war effort, lol! So she scraped and saved money in order to hire another lady to knit for her so she could produce her allotted number of socks for the Canadian military. Her son (my father) was serving in the Italian campaign and once when "socks from home" were distributed, he received a pair with a note from his mother in the toe -- small world!

  4. Really that's fascinating.I didn't know they implenting that in WW2.I certainty wouldnt be any good at knitting socks. My Grandad served in WW 2 and he was captured by the Nazi and marched across the North Africa. He became a prisoner of War. My Gran was an amazing she sewed, knitted, crocheted and even baked. She knew how to cook. She and all her friends went down to Birmingham in the UK. She worked as Gun turner in ammunations factory.

  5. This is so interesting! I love learning all about history! And, I agree, I think it's wonderful hearing that the younger people were there!! I loved reading you and Debra's comments!

  6. Thanks, I am glad you enjoyed reading it. I am a huge history buff myself. I love hearing about people's social and family history. I've been meaning to do my family history at some point and learnt stuff not even my Mam knew about both my grandparents/

  7. That seems fascinating, as history almost always does :) I love Edwardian gowns, and stories of people's efforts during war surely are interesting.

    1. It's a really interesting part of history I found it fascinating and loved all the Edwardian gowns. It's shame never took a decent photograph of the Victorian with it's jacket that was made into a more modern gown.

      I love the stories of the social history.

  8. That sounds like a wonderful event to have been able to attend, Sarah! I'm always fascinated by these types of things - sad and horrific at times, but so interesting. I might have to give that last knitting technique a try - goodness knows I have lots of scrap fabric laying around!

    1. It was an amazing experience and learning about the contribution of the ladies of the first world war.

      I think I am going to give the scrap knitting another go as I want new rugs and I have tonnes of the scraps to uses, so I need to give it ago.

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Life Update.

Hi, it's been a very long hiatus, not to say the least. Since my last post, a lot happened in October. I had a death in the family ...