By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
In a workshop that’s a refuge from the world, Dorothea Campbell uses her hands. Her right hand turns a crank, or manipulates dozens of needles arranged in a circle. With her left, she holds tightly to a sock in the making.
Her hands do some of the work. But when she turns that crank, there’s a mechanical whirring sound. And quicker — so much quicker — than a hand knitter with two needles can finish a few rows, a sock takes shape from the bottom of Campbell’s antique machine.
More than a sock maker, Campbell, 66, is an avid collector and restorer of circular sock-knitting machines, which were manufactured in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She is also becoming an historian, sharing the patriotic role home knitters with sock-making machines played during World War I.
“During the First World War, soldiers were losing their feet. They needed wool socks,” said Campbell, whose workshop is next to her Oso home.
Through research, she learned that the hand-cranked machines, many made in Canada, were given to women in the United States during World War I. They could keep the machines if they met quotas for making socks for the war effort.
It’s a little known war story detailed in “The Wonderful Knitting Machine,” a documentary written and produced by Margaret Thornberry, with support from California’s Fremont Cultural Arts Council.
The film shows grainy photos of World War I troops slogging through watery trenches, followed by graphic pictures of their decayed feet — some with toes amputated. Soldiers in the Great War, which began 100 years ago in 1914, were susceptible to a condition known as trench foot, which could turn to gangrene.
Prevention didn’t come from medicine bottles, but from dry, wool socks. The circular sock-knitting machine, which the film said “looks like a tin can with a crank,” helped win what was once known as the war to end all wars.
Although commercial sock manufacturing had started by 1904, it couldn’t keep up with wartime demand. According to the HistoryLink website, the American Red Cross by 1917 had put out an urgent call for knitted goods due to the hardships of trench warfare. The Red Cross acquired sock-knitting machines for home knitters.
“This was huge during World War I,” Campbell said. “If women made 30 pairs in 90 days, they could keep the machines.”
While it may take a fast hand knitter a week to make a pair of socks, a circular sock-knitting machine can cut that job down to 40 minutes.
On Wednesday, Campbell demonstrated a complex process that involved counting rows as she cranked, weighting the completed part of the sock from below, lifting and lowering needles, and opening and closing tiny hatches. Heels, toes and hems are trickier to knit than the rest of the sock. Toes are closed by hand, using a kitchener stitch.
Everything has its place in Campbell’s tidy workshop. She spent nearly 30 years working for the Boeing Co., as a mechanic and later in management. “I learned to put things back where they belong,” she said.
She has long been a basket weaver, and her workshop also has those supplies. After retiring, she bought her first antique circular sock-knitting machine from Pat Fly, who has a business in Tenino called Angora Valley Fibers.
“I bought this blue one not knowing a thing about them,” Campbell said. That was four years ago. Now, she is adept at sock-making and is learning more about the machines each day.
She keeps notes about each pair of socks she makes, attaching snips of yarn and writing down what went well and what didn’t. Sometimes, her notes are simple: “Good day today spending time in my shop.”
Restored and powder coated, her blue machine is a 1908 model from P.T. Legare, a company in Quebec, Canada.
She also has an 1898 Auto Knitter machine made in England, a vintage model from the Erlbacher Gearhart Knitting Machine Company with its original instruction book, and other machines in different stages of restoration.
Neither her sock-making nor her collection is for profit, although some of her machines are worth more than $2,000.
She is happy to teach others about the craft. She loves bringing the century-old contraptions — with their cast-iron parts, gears, weights, springs and needles — back to useful life. Her beautiful socks are mostly for family and friends.
On Wednesday, she was getting ready to make socks for a niece in the Air Force. Campbell attends several retreats a year, and keeps up with a community of circular sock-knitting enthusiasts online.
With sure hands, she looks like an expert as she cranks out another unique sock. “I’m basically self-taught on my machines,” she said. Still, there is more to learn. “I’m a newbie,” she said.
Campbell and her husband Tony live west of the roadblock that has shut Highway 530 since the devastating March 22 mudslide. Close to so much loss, she finds joy in quiet work — the same work that helped soldiers in the trenches 100 years ago.
The mudslide, she said, “touches everybody’s life out here.”
“After all the sadness, this is a happy, peaceful place,” she said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Circular Sock Knitting Machine Society has information, including history and instructions, about hand-cranked knitting machines: http://cskms.org
A Facebook page devoted to antique sock machines is at: www.facebook.com/sockknittingmachines
To contact Dorothea Campbell, email: email@example.com