I discovered the true language of knitting when I was reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. I was ten or eleven years old at the time, and I had been knitting for a few years. My father had bought me a collection of classic books, which I devoured and discussed with my grandmother as we knitted together. She had read them all, remembered all the stories, and had so many insights about both the facts and the fiction.
“This woman, Madame Defarge,” my grandmother said to me one day as she knit a bedcover for her goddaughter’s wedding. “Do you really believe she existed and encoded in her knitting the names of the aristocrats who were beheaded?” Of course I believed it—Charles Dickens, one of my favorite authors, had said it was so! My grandmother shook her head. “To what purpose?” she continued. “For revenge,” I said, “because the French aristocracy had oppressed the people for so long, had abused its powers, and the Revolution brought justice to the masses.”
“Madame Defarge is a fictional character created to symbolize the brutality of the Revolution, of any revolution, through the dehumanization of those involved in it,” my grandmother said. “It does not tell you the real story of the tricoteuses, the Frenchwomen who sat and knit in front of the guillotine.” Wow, I thought in excitement, there is more to the story than I have read.
And so she began one of her master history lessons.
In the second half of the 18th century, she told me, market women in Paris were the backbone of society. They worked, traded, administered their husbands’ meager salaries, looked after the kids, clothed their families with their knitting and sewing, and made ends meet. They were the barometers of social stability. When they realized they had no more bread to feed their families, they rebelled. They marched on Versailles, demanding bread because they were hungry. That was the spark that started the French Revolution.
My grandmother continued the knitting history lesson. Soon, she said, the revolutionary government felt threatened by these women, by their political role, rising power, and popularity within the Revolution.
Years later, while taking a course on the French Revolution at university, I discovered that those women had become heroines in the people’s eyes. They created groups, presided over by women such as Reine Audu, Agnès Lefevre, Marie Louise Bouju, and Rose Lacombe, similar to the Jacobin Club, which was one of the most radical movements of the Revolution, headed by Robespierre. These courageous women walked the streets of Paris insulting whoever they thought was wealthy and encouraging the revolutionaries to arrest them. They were invited to observe the National Convention, the first assembly to govern France during the Revolution, which formally abolished the monarchy.
My grandmother continued the knitting history lesson. Soon, she said, the revolutionary government felt threatened by these women, by their political role, rising power, and popularity within the Revolution. The market women may have been the spark of the Revolution, but its management was firmly in the hands of men, men who became increasingly authoritarian. So it was decided that the women could not sit in the gallery during meetings of the National Convention, and eventually they were forbidden to participate in any political assembly. But the women did not give up on being part of this process they had started. Some of them moved to the Place de la Révolution (today known as the Place de la Concorde), where the executions took place. They brought chairs from their market stalls and miserable homes and placed them around the guillotine, then sat all day watching their enemies getting their heads severed from their bodies. And they brought their knitting.
The revolutionary government was helpless to stop them. The square was a public place, and people were encouraged to witness the executions, so no one could ask the market women to move. Being accustomed to trade, the women started to sell their seats to people who wanted to watch the executions of specific individuals. They also knit various garments, socks, mittens, and scarfs, which they sold after the executions. But mostly they knit the red bonnets de la Liberté (“Liberty caps”) that became one of the symbols of the French Revolution, worn by everyone in Paris. Renting the chairs and selling the items they knit proved to be a good business for the market women, even more profitable than their traditional trade. This was a blessing, because during the Revolution, it was harder for people to make even a meager living. Remarkably, the market women were able to support their families with their knitting.
The Liberty cap, I discovered in school, is a copy of an ancient hat, the Phrygian cap, which originated in Anatolia. Marianne, the symbolic figure who embodies “liberty, equality, and fraternity”—the motto of the French Revolution—is always depicted as wearing a red Phrygian cap (see pattern at the end of the book).
As usual, my grandmother’s interpretation of historical events, especially when knitting was involved, had a unique twist. Dickens wrote that the market women knit as a substitute for eating and drinking, a totally nonsensical conclusion, according to her. When you are almost starving, as the people of Paris were at the end of the 18th century, nothing can replace a loaf of bread, not even knitting.
It was my grandmother who explained to me why knitting came to be linked with the beheading of the French aristocrats.
I must confess that as a child, I found the idea that the tricoteuses knit while watching people die deeply disturbing. Associating knitting with a violent act was not possible; it did not make any sense. It was my grandmother who explained to me why knitting came to be linked with the beheading of the French aristocrats. The market women knit during meetings of the assembly, she said, and they knit as the heads of the aristocrats rolled into the basket at their feet all for a simple reason: they always knit. Knitting was a part of their lives, just like breathing and working; it was a required activity. The tricoteuses had to keep busy all the time. Even when they were entertaining themselves with their revenge over the aristocrats, they had to be productive. “And by the way,” she added, “none of them knew how to read or write.” So they could not have encoded the names of the executed aristocrats in their knitting, as Dickens claimed they had.
My grandmother was brought up in a similar fashion, raised to be constantly productive. She was the first daughter of twelve children. Her mother died in childbirth when my grandmother was ten, and her father remarried her aunt, her mother’s sister, and had another six children. Though the family was modestly wealthy, my grandmother looked after her brothers and sisters, sewed and knitted most of their clothes, and helped her mother and then her stepmother to run the household. Every day she woke up at four thirty in the morning and attended to her daily tasks before going to school. Reading was her only pleasure; at the end of the day, when she had finished her work, she sat in the kitchen losing herself in any book she could get ahold of.
“Dickens was right in one thing,” she said. “Knitting is a language that only knitters understand. You can knit anything into your pattern: a name, a story, a prayer, or a poem.” Then she showed me how she had knit her wisdom about marriage into the wedding blanket she was making for her goddaughter. She took my finger and guided it over the purls and stitches in a corner of the blanket and read out the words hidden there: “Love is a daily victory and a lifetime treasure.”
Have I failed to follow her guidance, to live according to those knitted words I felt underneath my fingers as a child? As my mind goes back to those magic years of wool, yarn, needles, storytelling, and history and compares them with my present anguish, I can see many holes in the pattern of my life. I have done my best to keep that life’s treasure safe, but I have failed. Is it my fault? Sometimes love vanishes for reasons beyond our control, and sometimes life plays nasty tricks on us. One spring morning, my grandmother kissed her beloved husband and wished him a good day on his way to work; a few hours later, his heart stopped and hers broke. But she carried on; somehow, she did. I am at a similar junction: my husband, my caring, loving companion of more than thirty years, has vanished, and my heart is broken, but I must carry on. As in the very, very difficult sequence of the stitches of war, I cannot give up, I cannot skip one single move, I have to tackle each one with courage and determination until I reach the end.
As my mind goes back to those magic years of wool, yarn, needles, storytelling, and history and compares them with my present anguish, I can see many holes in the pattern of my life.
Courage, I need it so desperately. The same courage of the knitting spies, the men and women who during two World Wars spied for the Allies using knitting as their covert messaging system.
Knitting is ideal for hiding messages, like Morse code, because it is binary: there are only two stitches, knit and purl. Positions of troops, numbers of weapons, movements of trains—everything can be hidden in a simple hat, in a pair of mittens, in a scarf. For the non-knitter, it is impossible to read the codes; even knitting patterns themselves appear to be written in a secret code. This explains why during World War II, the British government banned all printed knitting patterns out of fear that they could be used to communicate information to the Germans.
British intelligence made great use of their knitting spies, but so did the Germans. Unverified reports published in the 1940s in the British periodical Pearson’s Magazine claimed that German spies knit entire sweaters with yarn full of knots, which, once unraveled and placed in a frame containing the letters of the alphabet, revealed secret messages. But the most exciting true stories of knitting spies come from occupied Europe during the two World Wars.
During World War I, in Roubaix, near Lille, a region of France under German occupation, Madame Levengle, a woman who lived in a house overlooking the loading yard of the Roubaix railway station, was a knitting spy. Louise de Bettignies, a truly remarkable woman, had recruited Levengle into the Alice Network, a group of spies and allies who operated in Northern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, gathering and passing on intelligence about the Germans to the British. Madame Levengle sat knitting in front of a window on the first floor of her house overlooking the loading yard. Each time she saw something to report, she tapped out the information on the floor in code. Her children, pretending to do their homework on the floor below, wrote down the codes. To understand the courage of this woman and her children, one has also to know that they did this dangerous work even as a German field marshal lived in their home.
During World War II, the Belgian Resistance enrolled older women who, like Madame Levengle, lived near train lines and loading yards and could watch the German movements as they knit. These women reported messages in their knitting using codes that were rather simple but very effective: a dropped stitch, which produced a hole, for example, signified the passing of one type of train; purling on a field of knit stitches, which forms a bump in the fabric, referred to another type of train. The finished knitted fabrics were then handed over to fellow spies in the Belgian Resistance.
Unverified reports published in the 1940s in the British periodical Pearson’s Magazine claimed that German spies knit entire sweaters with yarn full of knots, which, once unraveled and placed in a frame containing the letters of the alphabet, revealed secret messages.
Although both sides used knitting spies, knitting proved to be an excellent cover for those spying for the Allies. Elizabeth Bentley, an American, carried clandestine material from the US government to Soviet agents inside her knitting bag. She hid microfilms, memos, and coded documents in a basket full of balls of wool, needles, patterns, and fabric. After the war, when people referred to her as the “Red Spy Queen,” she replied that a better name would have been the “Communist June Cleaver”—the ultimate dutiful housewife character of the popular 1950s show. The absurdity of this image illustrates why knitting was such a successful cover: in the collective imagination of the first half of the 20th century, a woman knitting was the antithesis of a spy.
Phyllis “Pippa” Latour Doyle was one of the knitting spies who proved this stereotype wrong. Her amazing life story could easily have come from my grandmother’s lips. It is a hidden gem from a time of heroism, self-sacrifice, and courage, but it also is a testimony to the modesty of those who were motivated by a strong sense of duty and honor to fight Nazism. Pippa did not reveal her spying activity to anyone, keeping it secret even from her own children, until several decades after the war ended. Only then was her heroism praised and her story published in the New Zealand Herald. One of the forty women members of the Special Operations Executive, the secret force that Winston Churchill wanted to use to “set Europe ablaze,” her code name was Genevieve.
At the age of twenty-three, Latour, perfectly fluent in French, was trained to become a British spy inside occupied France. On a cold winter night, she was parachuted into the darkness of war, behind enemy lines, with her precious communication code encrypted in a length of silk yarn that she wore as a ribbon in her hair.
Genevieve cycled across occupied France, reporting on the position and movements of the Germans, carrying her knitting in her basket. She recorded her discoveries, purling and stitching in the coded message and then transmitting the information via radio from different locations. A few times she was stopped and searched by the Germans and narrowly escaped being discovered. Once, a female police officer asked her to strip naked on the suspicion that she was hiding something underneath her clothes. The officer even untied the silk yarn that held her hair back, and Pippa shook her head to prove that there was nothing hidden in her hair.
Knitting for the Revolution, knitting for the resistance, knitting for spying: the stories I learned through my childhood, adolescence, and youth have all enriched my life, and I like to think that they helped me become a better adult and have guided me through my present ordeal. My grandmother was my first guru, but she was not the only one.
From The Power of Knitting by Loretta Napoleoni, published by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Loretta Napoleoni.