Monday, February 18, 2019

Spies and Knitting

Do you like to knit? Do you have the nerve to knit in the middle of an enemy stronghold and work messages into your knitting to pass on to your country’s armed forces? That is what the women featured in today’s blog did during war time. I salute them for their bravery and determination. Let’s take a look at what they accomplished and how they alerted their forces using their needlework.

Knit/Purl Stitches by WillowW
Wikimedia Commons
First, keep in mind how knitting is done. There are two basic stitches. The knit stitch looks like a “v” and the purl stitch makes a small bump. Also, dropped stitches were used to make a hole. That means these patterns could have been read by feel in low light if needed. Plus, women were encouraged to knit and make items to help soldiers, so nothing was thought about a woman sitting in her window or in public with her knitting needles clicking away. Little did the opposition realize that she didn’t have to focus on her work, but could be watching and listening to later report conversations and movements. A perfect spy!

Phyllis Latour Doyle

Phyllis joined the RAF in 1941 after a friend was killed by Nazi soldiers. She planned to train to be an airplane mechanic but others noted her potential. Because her father was French, Phyllis grew up speaking fluent French and would be valuable as a spy behind lines. She agreed to become a spy and was trained by a cat burglar to do things like cross a roof top undetected.

At the end of her training, Phyllis parachuted into Normandy. She pretended to
1904 Picture of
Woman Knitting
be a teenager to throw off suspicion. She traveled by bicycle and chatted with German soldiers. She would then go someplace secret, bring out her knitting and use one of her 2,000 codes to send a message. She would hide the knitted message by winding the strip around a knitting needle and inserting it in a hair tie. Each time she used one of the codes she’d been given she would mark the code, so she wouldn’t use it again.

Phyllis had to keep on the move. She would send her message and then go quickly before the Germans could trace the source of the message. They did not catch her. She often had to sleep on the forest floor unless she found some Allied sympathizers. She ate what food she could find and was often hungry, but she always had her knitting and her silk thread she used for her patterns.

In 2014, Phyllis was awarded the Legion of Honour, France’s highest decoration. She did not want to get this award but did it for her family. She was 93 at the time. Her family found out about her spy work in the late 1900’s when one of her sons read about her on the internet. She did not want to brag about the service she’d done for her country.

Madame Lavengle

WWI Ad for Knitting
By Marguerite Martyn
Wikimedia Commons
During WWI the Germans occupied her home putting her and her children at risk. Madame Lavengle did not quake in fear. Instead, she joined the resistance and used her knitting and her children to send coded messages right under the noses of the Germans in her home.

In an upper room, Lavengle sat at a window knitting. Every day she would sit there and knit. Such an innocent pastime, right? Meanwhile, she would tap her foot on the floor and her children below her would copy down the code she signaled with the tapping. The German Marshall in her home never suspected she was gathering and passing on information. Amazing.

Molly “Mom” Rinker

Molly Rinker owned a tavern during the Revolutionary War. She often had British soldiers in her town and in her tavern. She wanted to do something to help the Revolution, so she would go to the park and sit on a high hill or rock and knit. As she watched and listened, she would tie knots in her ball of yarn as a code. Then she would drop the yarn at a certain place for the Revolutionary soldiers to find. In this way, a woman in a lowly occupation, helped out her fledgling country. Thank you, Molly.

Binary Pattern by Kurt Pippen Fowler
Many people enjoy the art of knitting. With the onset of computer coding and languages, knitters learned to do patterns in binary language. When Morse code was invented, they used a variation of stitches to make the dot and dash for Morse code and sent messages that way. Knitting is so much more than making a pretty garment.

Do you knit? Do you do another type of needlework? Would you have been brave enough to be a spy? To be dropped behind enemy lines and send coded messages? Or to gather information right under the enemy’s noses? What a challenge and what amazing women.


Nancy J Farrier is an award-winning author who lives in Southern Arizona in the Sonoran Desert. She loves the Southwest with its interesting historical past. When Nancy isn’t writing, she loves to read, do needlecraft, play with her cats, and spend time with her family. Nancy is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of The Steve Laube Literary Agency. You can read more about Nancy and her books on her website: nancyjfarrier.com.

8 comments:

  1. Wow! What an interesting post. I didn't know about the knitting spies. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Interesting! Imagine the havoc a dropped stitch could cause!!!

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  3. Fascinating! Thank you for sharing!

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  4. What a fascinating post! I never heard of this before. Someone should use this in a novel - got any plans to do so?

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  5. I've never heard of women spies who used their sewing to pass messages before. That's so clever! I tried to learn to knit when I was a teen, but I'm left-handed, and the lady teaching me was right-handed. I never got the hang of it.
    I did later learn counted cross-stitch and have several pretty pictures I made.

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  6. Wow, Nancy, this was fascinating! Thank you for sharing this.

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  7. Thanks for writing this -- especially as so few people seem to know about the phenomenon. That you felt it necessary to begin with a basic explanation of the knitting process says quite a lot, as does the fact that only one comment (the 'dropped stitch' reference) seems to reflect any personal experience with the craft. Then again, I suppose it's the invisibility of and lack of respect for knitters that makes this possible as an undercover act of resistance. A classic double-bind (not to be confused with a K2Tog bind-off).

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