How to Knit a WW1 Trench Cap
Updated: Sep 10, 2021
I have always had a penchant for historical dress. While this has often resulted in costume, I've recently started to do some research on historical knitting and crochet. Click here to skip to the modern version of the pattern.
I stumbled upon the Khaki knitting book (Allied Special Aid, 1917) which you can page through in the embedded version below or access here on the Internet Archives. This book is an interesting page out of history (pun intended) for a few reasons.
First and most obvious, this book was published a mere 6 months after the USA joined the Great War. Second, it includes a wide variety of knitting patterns which are unusual for the time period. That is, it includes many patterns for men.
Most historical knitting books or patterns are items for women and children. While they do often include common items for men such as night caps or socks, it's unusual to find a book with such a variety of patterns designed to fit men. I do find it interesting, however, that even though the patterns in the book were intended to be made and sent to the boys on the front line, the Khaki Knitting Book still includes several patterns for woman and a good number of patterns for children. To me, this says something about who was expected to wear handmade items at the time (women and children).
The pattern I chose to reproduce (the first of several, I think) is the Men's Trench Caps (courtesy of Mrs. Horace Leeds) on page 27. I chose the pattern because it's simple, practical, and doesn't have any odd bits that need historical to modern translations. Unfortunately, the original pattern does not include a photo.
Modern knitted hats are not dissimilar to to the Trench Cap pattern. Many hats begin with 2x2 ribbing and then move into a decreasing section towards the crown. A notable difference is that the decreasing section of the trench cap pattern is done in only 3 sections where many modern patterns prefer to use 5 or 6 which creates a rounder cap and a quicker decrease.
At some point, I want to also make the Seamen's Helmet shown on page 24 for obvious reasons and also because it looks like it would be warm for winter walks.
Knit Your Bit: Knitting during WW1
For every war there is propaganda. Wars beginning in the 19th century onward often included a care package aspect for those remaining on the home front. This trend has continued into the modern age - charities such as the Eagle's Watch Foundation and Operation Gratitude are some examples (see a list of modern reputable charities here).
Historically, supporting the war effort from home meant rationing food and goods, and sending comfort items to the troops abroad. Commonly sent items were letters, trinkets, photos, and handmade clothing such as socks, hats, and mittens.
In the photo to the left, you can see a soldier in the trenches reading a letter from home. Note that he wears a cloth cap similar to the trench cap pattern.
The concept of supporting the war(s) from afar lead to home front propaganda campaigns. While there were many posters urging young men to enlist in the service and others urging women to enter the workforce in their absence, there were also those that encouraged women to "knit your bit."
The Khaki Knitting Book is an example of this. A side note that the book also includes some crochet patterns, but I guess "crochet your way" wasn't catchy enough.
The trend of supporting the troops with handmade items continued strongly through WW1 and into WW2 as the men continued to need warm socks, hats, and mittens that the army struggled to supply.
There are many images in various archives of troops wearing hats similar to the ones included in the Khaki Knitting Book - the one shown here depicts soldiers of the Royal Irish Fusiliers in the trenches on the southern section of Gallipoli Peninsula during World War I. There is a man 3 soldiers back who has removed his helmet, showing the knit hat underneath. Trench caps were an important article of clothing and made wearing the hard helmets more comfortable. Do also note the shape of his cap - it has fewer decreasing sections than a modern knit design, resulting in a paper bag type of shape.
The final image I will share of the troops is this one from the Christmas Truce which features British and German soldiers together. The man on the center left is wearing a knit balaclava similar to the Seaman's Helmet I mentioned above. While it does not go over his face like a modern balaclava, it would cushion his helmet while also keeping warm his ears and neck with no gaps between the cap and his coat.
These campaigns were very successful. Too successful, some said. An interesting article by Gertrude S. Matthews was published in the September 1917 issue of Good Housekeeping, "Tell Them to Knit," includes some quotes from people who bemoan the amount of knitting being sent overseas. The article does conclude that socks are still most wanted by soldiers, but to be sure that they are well made and you know how to knit them so as to not inadvertently cause blistered heels with twisted stitches.
Everyone was encouraged to knit (and crochet) for the troops - everyone. Women, children, even men who were unable to enlist. And they did, in droves, on all fronts, including those of the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria, Hungary, and their allies). In the image to the right, you can see an early war effort in Berlin as a room packed full of people knit fervently for the war effort.
Men who were wounded and sent home were taught the craft in convalescent homes, thus continuing their contributions to the war effort. This particular photo was taken at Lafayette House in New York City.
As a result of these (successful) campaigns, many pattern books like the Khaki Knitting Book were produced and many people learned the craft.
For me, knitting historical patterns (something I hope to do more regularly) provides a connection to those people who are no longer with us and a connection to a time period about which I was taught little. The war itself may have driven the social dynamics of the time, but the social history is so much larger than the battles that were fought.
Trench Cap Knitting Pattern in Modern Terms
The original pattern is quite simple, but does not include a gauge, which I have added, and could be a tad clearer on method, which I have also added. The pattern is mostly done in 2x2 ribbing which allows the hat to stretch to fit the wearer. The gauge I ended up with below will stretch to fit a large head (mine is 23 inches in circumference).
Note that the historical pattern uses double pointed needles (dpns), but there is no reason this couldn't be worked with magic loop method. To use magic loop, simply divide the stitches onto two needles (48 sts each) and place a marker every 32 sts to align with the 3 dpns used in the pattern.
12 sts = 2 inches in stockinette
Vertical gauge is unimportant.
Worsted weight yarn in gray or khaki
I used Wool of the Andes in Mink Heather from Knit Picks - 1 skein was enough
4 dpns, size US 4 (3.5 mm) or whatever size is needed to meet the gauge
CO - cast on
k - knit
p - purl
k2tog - knit 2 together
sts - stitches
CO 96 sts and divide onto 3 dpns (32 sts each).
K2, p2 around until the cap measures 8 1/2 inches from the CO.
Decrease: [p1, k2tog, k to end of needle] on each needle around.
Repeat the decrease round until 6 sts remain on each needle (18 sts total).
DO NOT BIND OFF.
Cut the yarn, leaving a long tail for sewing. Using a tapestry needle, pass the yarn through the loops of all remaining stitches. Remove the needles from the stitches and pull tight to close.
Pass the needle through the center to the inside of the cap. Weave in all ends.
That's all for now, friends! Thank you for joining me this week as we explored a bit of knitting history!
If you make this pattern, remember to tag me in your photos @Craftematics on Instagram and Facebook - I love to see what you create!