Tale from the sea is a good yarn

(l-r) Chief Petty Officer Graham Street, Able Seaman Dan Smith and Chief Petty Officer Andy Dorricott during some knitting on board the HMS Victory.
(l-r) Chief Petty Officer Graham Street, Able Seaman Dan Smith and Chief Petty Officer Andy Dorricott during some knitting on board the HMS Victory.
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When those at home think of the sailors away at sea, the images that traditionally come to mind are of them hard at work and patrolling the seas.

Whether it be sinking to the deepest depths in a submarine or gliding across the surface in a ship, one image that doesn’t spring to mind is sat in their mess, finding ways to pass the time – and knitting.

Surprisingly, the traditional technique has been a popular pass-time with sailors for decades, and was a vital way to save money during the First and Second World Wars.

The National Museum of the Royal Navy in the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is trying to highlight the force’s long-standing history with knitting and has created a new community art project to get people involved.

With knitting needles at the ready, and working alongside Eastney’s Art Stops Cafe, the museum is asking visitors to get involved and create some knitting masterpieces for a ‘yarnscape’.

The community effort is part of the museum’s Storehouse 10: New Galleries Project, which will look at the modern history of the Royal Navy from 1900 onwards.

Jo Valentine, the community engagement officer at the museum, says: ‘After having a rummage in the library in our naval home, I came across an old knitting pattern from 1940.

‘It was really retro and said things like “we don’t want our chaps to get chilly on the boats!

‘We found all sorts of these strange and wonderful objects.’

The patterns were from The Department for Knitted Garments for the Royal Navy, along with wool pictures created by sailors in 1850s, embroidered slippers, naval collection of mascots and even toys made by the sailors themselves for their children.

Knitting patterns were even issued so that people could make items for the Army and Navy to wear in winter, such as balaclavas and gloves.

Jo explains: ‘We decided to set up or re-establish the department for Knitted Goods of the Royal Navy. There’s a real craft tradition, especially from the First and the Second World War.

‘Knitting and crafts were so important because if you had a hole in your sock when you were away at sea, no-one was going to fix it for you, you did it yourself. It’s the same with the army.’

Jo and the museum are hoping to build up a ‘yarnscape,’ a piece of art made of knitting, made from all the pieces that will be donated.

The aim is to have a finished piece for the Family Area at the National Museum of the Royal Navy and HMS Victory by January 2013.

Jo says: ‘We have a great big family centre with a massive wall, and we thought it would be nice to have a piece of art work up there because we wanted to connect the two together.

‘We will be doing the Southsea seafront, and people are making a knitted Clarence Pier and Spinnaker Tower.’

She adds: ‘There will also a be knitted HMS Victory and lots of different crafts, such as sewing, and felt will also be involved in making it.’

They have all sorts of different patterns which can be made into various creatures by the public.

Jo says: ‘We have got some patterns which we would like some people to knit up some shapes. We have sea horses and crabs and flowers and fish which we have patterns to which we want the community to get involved with.

‘The patterns have been really popular, as far as we can tell, and we are also trying to arrange something with Navy News so we can talk to the ships and get them to send things back like they did in the war.’

She adds: ‘I like the idea of the sailors making small things to keep and send back.’

The museum as teamed up with the Guerilla Knitters at the Arts Stop Cafe to bring the project together, and will use their expertise to bring the artwork together.

Jo explains: ‘We met the Arts Stop Cafe because we went along to a community roadshow in Eastne. We met Katrina Henderson (who runs it) and saw some of the bits they’d done.

‘They had jellyfish hanging up too. They were involved from there and we’ve been working together since.’

The museum wants the community to get involved with the project and is planning to host drop-ins for visitors. Jo is also going out to schools and local groups to encourage them to get knitting for the project.

Jo says: ‘We just want people in the community to get involved in the history of it.

‘We had old sailors talking about it and how they had to choose to not do the class. But when they were out at sea they wish they had done it because they couldn’t knit themselves and only a few could.

‘They would swap it for rum! Knitting would be done for them but only if they would them a few tots of their rum.’

The idea of knitting on board ships that are away at sea isn’t a new idea, but it can seem unusual to those who don’t know about it.

Jo says: ‘I think if you’re from the navy it’s not a surprise to know about this history side of it but otherwise it can be quite a surprising thing to learn about.

‘I think it’s fantastic, especially as various art groups can join in.’

For Jo, the project is about showing this hidden history to visitors and locals of the city.

She says: ‘We want to get school children and women involved. It’s just getting people interested in the history.

‘There’s always something to tell about the navy, and knitting is one of them.’


The National Museum for the Royal Navy is welcoming members of the public to get involved and help create some knitted creatures for the yarnscape.

Go to royalnavalmuseum.org and click on the Learning tab. On the left hand bar go to Adult and Community, and scroll down before you reach the ‘To Take Part’ section. Visitors to the site can download instructions to make a little fish or a little sea horse.

Once finished, it needs to be posted to Jo Valentine, National Museum of the Royal Navy, HM Naval Base (PP66), Portsmouth, Hampshire, PO1 3NH.

For more information about the project go to royalnavalmuseum.org or email jo.valentine@nmrn.org.uk/ katrina@20eleven.co.uk.