During a recent trip to Bristol I visited an exhibition called ‘Parcels of Comfort’ in the Cathedral in the centre of town. This small display used textiles to illustrate the contents of parcels which were sent to British Army soldiers during World War I. Most remarkable was the way that much of the work on view was produced by GCSE students at a local secondary school in Cotham.
The exhibits illustrated the crucial role played by women and girls in the fabrication of garments for serving soldiers and how they plugged the gap left by a shortage of woollen garments. Magazines of the day provided patterns.
The most common items were gloves, socks and balaclavas. These were known as ‘comforts.’
Socks were deemed to be the most important items to send as a fresh supply of clean dry socks could prevent the onset of ‘trench foot’ which is a fungal infection that can lead to gangrene or even amputation. For me the eeriest item was the rifle glove pictured above. This has two significant apertures- one for the thumb and the other for the trigger finger. I can’t imagine what it must have been like knitting one of these for a close relative knowing that the hand that it is being made for may kill or that the person wearing it may die from a hand wearing a similar garment.
Blankets were also knitted for hospitals. During this war wool was in short supply and had to be imported from Australia, New Zealand and even South America. Women were encouraged to use subdued colours such as grey, khaki and brown but occasionally brighter coloured wool was used.
This exhibition was thought provoking for me. It made me consider the ways that women were unofficially used to assist the war effort. It is very hard to gauge their motivation without being there to judge the mood of the day. I have no doubt that patriotism was involved but surely by being emotionally attached to a loved one away fighting was reason enough to produce these ‘comforts.’