Your Grandma May be Smarter than You Think... Find Out How Knitting Served As a Cunning Tool for Espionage During Wartimes

Source Atlas Obscura

You may already know about the truly mischievous and commonplace tools spies would use to send messages in the past. The Tom Hanks movie Bridge of Spies  demonstrates the use of hollow coins to send messages. Some spies were known to stuff animal corpses with messages, and then there is the classic slight of hand where two passerbys on the street decide on a rendezvous point and subtle exchanging information.

But what if you were to find out that the innocent looking women knitting clothes were also embedding morse code in their stitching. This might have been one of the most clever way messages were passed since a women knitting clothing is nothing suspicious. To the eye it just appears like a normal garment but if you know what to look for you may start to notice inconstancies, holes, random knots. Women would risk their lives passing these threads to soldiers.

“Spies have been known to work code messages into knitting, embroidery, hooked rugs, etc,” according to the 1942 book A Guide to Codes and Signals.

Eventually this form of passing secret messages was compromised and where there were knitters, there were spies carefully eyeing the clicks between the needles. Some regions even banned knitting out of fear of letting in these coded pieces.

Knitters encoded messages through a form of steganography, a way to hide a message physically. Every knitted garment is made of different combinations of just two stitches: a knit stitch, which is smooth and looks like a “v”, and a purl stitch, which looks like a horizontal line or a little bump. A specific combination of knits and purls would be made into a predetermined pattern and spies could pass on a custom piece of fabric and read the secret message that is buried in the innocent warmth of a scarf or sweater.


An American Red Cross knitting class during World War One.
An American Red Cross knitting class during World War One. NATIONAL ARCHIVES/20802186


Phyllis Latour Doyle, secret agent for Britain during World War II, shares her story as a 23 year old women who parachuted behind enemy lines in 1944 disguised as a 14 year old French girl.

She was one of a handful of female agents working for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), set up to spy upon and sabotage Nazi-occupied Europe. She decided to do this out a revenge for the loss of a family friend taken by German Nazis.

She rode bicycles to troops, passing information through coded messages while using knitting as a coverup. The messages would take half an hour to send and the Germans an hour and a half to trace the signal. She would have just enough time to send her message and move on before being discovered. By chatting with German soldiers she was under the pretense of being helpful—then, she would return to her knitting kit, in which she hid a silk yarn ready to be filled with secret knotted messages, which she would translate using Morse Code equipment. “I always carried knitting because my codes were on a piece of silk—I had about 2000 I could use. When I used a code I would just pinprick it to indicate it had gone. I wrapped the piece of silk around a knitting needle and put it in a flat shoe lace which I used to tie my hair up,” she told New Zealand Army News in 2009.

At 93 years old she received France’s highest award for her courage, 70 years after parachuting behind enemy lines in preparation for D-Day.

Women in Berlin knitting for soliders, 1914. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/LC-DIG-GGBAIN-18341

She was one of many marvelous citizens that got away with espionage. Madame Levengle was a woman, who “would sit in front of her window knitting, while tapping signals with her heels to her children in the room below,” writes Kathryn Atwood in Women Heroes of World War I. Her kids, pretending to do schoolwork, wrote down the codes she tapped, all while a German marshal stayed in their home. The Alice Network, a collection of spies and allies in Europe who were experts in chemistry, radio, photography and more, employed “ordinary people who discovered unusual but extremely effective ways to collect information,” Atwood explains.

In a time and place where even a neighbor or close friend could turn you in due to suspicion, people had to be equally cunning and clever by appearing to go about their regular daily lives all whilst communicating top secret messages in the hope to end this war. Our grandparents may be a lot smarter and more interesting than we have been raised to believe but like Mrs. Doyle, being a war spy is not something she wished to share with her children until many years into their adulthood. Why not ask your elders who lived through this time period if they took risks towards ending the war and saving others, or possibly the other way around…

Danielle Graves

Danielle Graves

Lead Contributor at MCXV. ENFP, Lifehacker, fitness enthusiast. I crave thought-provoking conversation and disrupting the current education system. Read about how I hack life and my journeys across the globe. Check out my website lucidactivewear.com for workout videos and the hottest activewear styles.