In August 1914, New Zealand readied itself for war. Men were mobilised for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. The home front also mobilised - traditional domestic tasks such as knitting and sewing were suddenly seen as essential wartime work.
Organising the home front
As soon as war was declared the Minister of Defence, James Allen, began recruiting men for the army.
At the same time, Lady Annette Liverpool, the wife of New Zealand's governor, called on women to make comforts for the troops.
"At this moment of our Empire's needs I appeal to the women of New Zealand to assist me in trying to provide any necessaries which may be required for … the citizen army …. My suggestion would be to start a fund in every centre under a small committee of ladies."Lady Annette Liverpool, August 1914
In response to Lady Liverpool's appeal, the production of "necessaries" for the men became a national effort - operating at central, provincial and district levels. In Auckland the production was led by the Auckland Women's Patriotic League and the Mayoress - initially Ethel Parr, then Jessie Gunson.
By the end of the war, more than 900 women's organisations had mobilised to make garments and gifts, and to fundraise for varying causes.
Women also made clothes for Belgian refugees and for the poor in Britain and France.
"In Auckland a movement was initiated on Monday with the project to provide clothing for the women and children of the poorer classes in London…. A token of New Zealand's love and loyalty to Britain."Poverty Bay Herald, 20 August 1914, Page 4
The women wait - and knit
From August 1914, there was an urgent demand for knitters. With 8500 men in the Main Body to be outfitted immediately, women and school children throughout the country turned their hand to knitting.
Not everyone knew how to knit but instruction was provided - the Auckland Women’s Patriotic League set up a "Knitting Instruction committee". Lady Liverpool published a book of patterns for soldiers, Her Excellency's Knitting Book. Despite these initiatives, garments occasionally had to be re-worked before they were sent away.
Knitting could be a sociable activity; women knitted together at fundraising teas, at church, and when they travelled. The activity put women in touch with each other, with their loved ones (the recipients of the knitting), and with women throughout the empire who were also knitting away.
But this demand for wool created a shortage, and the shortage sent the price soaring upwards. Wool was also needed for soldier's uniforms. The price became almost prohibitive - costing about 6s for enough wool to knit a pair of socks.
Then in 1917 the Minister of Munitions advised that wool supplied to organisations such as the Lady Liverpool Scheme and the Red Cross would be reduced from 8s 11d per lb to 4/6d per lb. However, there was still a shortage of wool for New Zealand's vast army of knitters. In some areas women began spinning their own wool (Manawatu Times, 17 October 1918).
Sewing hussifs and holdalls
The hussif or housewife was a sewing kit, containing all that a soldier would require to make basic repairs to his clothing. They contained items such as wool, thread, spare pair boot laces, safety pins, pins, needles, buttons and wire nails. Initially made from suede or leather, after 1916 most were made of drab khaki drill.
It was explained that soldiers find the nails useful for "attaching the brace to the trousers".
Each region was called on to provide a quota of hussifs for the Defence Department. Auckland's monthly quota was 750 hussifs and 750 holdalls.
The number of hussifs produced by region was deemed newsworthy; the Evening Post (9 February 1916, p. 9) reported contributions of hussifs: "Auckland 750, Palmerston North 100, Mangaituroa via Raetihi 50, Paihiatua 50, Foxton 24, Waitara 24 ...".
Holdalls were small bags, which contained items such as a toothbrush, shaving kit and cutlery. The holdall was described by the Northern Advocate (21 May 1918) as "an ingenious contrivance".
Many of the 750 holdalls a month supplied by residents of Auckland were filled by the girls of the sixth and seventh standards in the public schools.
Hospital bags, referred to in New Zealand as "treasure bags", were used by soldiers for keeping their small personal belongings when in hospital. Thousands were sent away each month by the Red Cross, each containing a writing pad and envelopes, pencil, handkerchief, boot laces, shaving soap and toilet soap, tooth brush and tooth powder.
Two Christmas schemes - the Xmas Billy Scheme and the Dominion Gift Scheme - organised gifts to be sent to the soldiers.
'Lady Liverpool Great War Story', (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Apr-2015
Cite this article
Two plain, purl two: Comforts for the men. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 1 July 2016. Updated: 8 August 2016.