Knitter’s Face and Knitting Nerves: 1917-1918


knitting for soldiersA

Knitting for Soldiers, Julian Alden Weir

In the wake of patriotic needle-work for the Great War, came a host of new ailments.


What is the strange expression worn by women these days? This puckered browed, pursed lipped, strained expression? Why, it is the knitter’s face, and it has lately become prevalent in Pittsburg. One sees it at club meetings, at the theatre, at the Red Cross room, and in the homes. Far from being a disfigurement, the knitting face is a badge of patriotism as unmistakable as a food pledge window card in one’s front window. It means that the party who is wearing it is working hard for the comfort and pleasure of our American boys in the army and navy. The silly young thing does not wear it as she clicks away on a pink and pale-blue sweater for her own graceful shoulders; it belongs only to the women and thoughtful young girls who, bending over a khaki sweater, dream of the warmth that will come to some far away boy when he slips it on over his half frozen body. The symptoms of the face are five, to-wit: Tensely knit brows, eyes cast thoughtfully downward, lips puckered anxiously, jaws fairly set and the general expression of rigidity. Not only does the face bear its testimony, but it has spread to the upper portion of the body, which is likely to be held at a stiff angle, arms close to the sides and muscles tense. At the Red Cross room it is seen daily for that is where members of those wearing it congregate. The Sun [Pittsburg KS] 15 November 1917: p. 4

A New Disease

Chicago reports the outbreak of a new disease which is spreading eastward. The epidemic, known as “knitter’s face,” afflicts not only women, but also some boys and men. The affliction is characterized by a tense facial expression. High fever and partial delirium are the first symptoms, the sufferer invariably muttering incoherent phrases in which the words, “knit sixteen, purl two,” “cast off” and “arm size” occur with frequency. Color blindness speedily follows, the patient evincing the keenest delight in the crudest combinations of tints. The advanced stages of the disease are marked by atrophy of all social emotions.— The Trained Nurse and Hospital Review 1918: p. 18


Appendicitis, tonsillitis and good old-fashioned grippe have got to take a back seat. There is a new epidemic in Montana. It is “knitting face,” which the name given by a clinic of physicians, who recently discussed its causes and effects. The malady is both contagious and infectious. It made its first appearance soon after war was declared, and it has been spreading with great rapidity. Husbands are worried, physicians, baffled, and even children notice a difference in the appearance of mothers and older sisters, as  result of its effects.

At the beginning there were only a few cases but it has spread now into homes, offices and schools and is especially noticeable around women’s clubs and society affairs.

It is easy to distinguish those afflicted. In the early stages it is most noticeable, by a look of great concentration, and constant moving of the lips, as if counting “one-two-three-four” with an occasional “one-two-three—darn” and a quick movement of the fingers as if unraveling something.

In the more pronounced cases the victim is constantly in a deep state of concentration, and while sitting in a street car rides two or three blocks past her corner without thinking to get off. Her face becomes set in stern lines, her mouth drawn and eyes narrowed leaving the impression that the victim is in physical pain. The Ronan [MT] Pioneer 9 November 1917: p. 6

The nerves of the patriotic knitters also suffered.


Margaret Harvey. The feminine contingent of Denver’s population is decidedly out of fashion. Knitting nerves have been in existence for more than two weeks in New York city and not one case of the malady has been discovered in Denver as yet. Which goes to show that the New York women are up-to-date in their ailments as well as in their occupations, fads and amusements.

Knitting nerves are like many other diseases which have been introduced into polite society after some fad has become especially popular throughout the country. For instance, the “tango foot” was a general ailment several years ago when the social world was busy tangoing. Then “fox trotitis” and “moviezootie” were discovered. After the craze for knitting nerves subsides, “Hooveritis” will, no doubt, find its way into society as a result of the stringent conservation regulations adopted by the women throughout the country. Whether the conservation disease will affect the brain or the stomach is a question that must be decided by the physician who originates it. It will become more general perhaps than knitting nerves, due to the fact that it will not be confined to the women who put the conservation ideas into practice, but may extend to every member of the family.

Stopping to consider the conservation question, some ingenious person might originate various maladies and blame them on the food administration. Instead of knitting nerves, they might have “Hooverized nerves” or “sweetless day nerves”; for, if the sugar shortage become much more pronounced in the East, it’s bound to affect those who eat large quantities of candy for the benefit of their nerves alone.

Conservation of coal is apt to bring on all kinds of rheumatism and influenza and grip, to which any resourceful person could attach elaborate names. Wheatless and meatless days will doubtless give some up-to-the-minute physician an opportunity to discover a new ailment, as everyone knows how necessary proteins are to the manual laborer and lighter foods to the thinker.

As for lightless nights, no end of unusual diseases might develop from this order of the government. Young people, no doubt, will be the most susceptible to any maladies resulting from dimly lighted parlors and theaters, one of which will surely be “spooneritis.” Many new diseases of the heart are apt to baffle medical authorities and these are bound to become contagious if the war continues much longer.

But to return to knitting nerves, it is perhaps due to the fact that the knitters of Denver are too much engrossed in their work to devote any of their time to being nervous that the disease has not made its appearance here. The majority of Denver women who knit are of the opinion that the occupation serves as a sedative for the nerves and many nervous women have taken up knitting principally for the purpose of benefiting their health. Dr. Louis R. Weizmiller of the New York Y.M.C.A., the originator of this 1918 style of maladies, says that knitting nerves are the result of overwork on war knitting. Denver women object to the disease, however, and demonstrate their absence of nerves by knitting as they read and study. Denver [CO] Rocky Mountain News 13 January 1918: p. 13

One newspaper fearlessly pooh-poohed the notion that knitting caused disease. 

The Knitting Habit.

Lowville Journal and Republican:

The “knitting face” and “knitting nerves” are being discovered by doctors who like to see their names in print. Oh, well, the brilliant medicos simply have to discover some new malady occasionally in order to keep pace with the new cures. Don’t mind ‘em, ladies! Go right ahead with your Red Cross work. The knitting habit isn’t a disease, anyway; it’s a remedy for bridge-whist-shattered nerves and it will prove a blessing and comfort to young men whom you may never see, but who will rise up and call you blessed. Watertown [NY] Daily Times 18 January 1918: p. 2

And others made dreadful puns on the subject:

“Knitting Face.”

From the Kansas City Star.

Another familiar sight due to the war, reported from Chicago, is the “knitting face.” Consisting, we presume, of the knitted brow, the off-cast eyes, the double-stitched chin and the purled teeth. The Washington [DC] Post 7 November 1917: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  As is often the way, a ladies’ affliction suddenly becomes a male problem:


Dr. L.A. W. Welzmiller, physical director, and Dr. C.P. Christensen, psychology society president, both of New York, announce that thousands of women are breaking down under “knitting nerves,” and that the spread of this new ailment is becoming very serious.

We are ready to believe it. Mother sits all hunched up, all day and all evening, and knits and knits as if there were only 3 instead of 365 days in the year, and her nerves collapse. We surely want the physical directors and psychologists to do all they can for her.

But aren’t the experts going to give one solitary thought to father’s knitting nerves? He’s got ‘em. He gets home from a day’s hard work and finds mother fiddling away with the pretty needles on a sweater. Daughter Susie is over in one corner working at a helmet. Son Willie is in another corner sawing out a wash rag. The odor of Bridget’s burning potatoes fills the sitting room, as Bridget’s soul goes out to a pair of wristlets. All father has to do is to sit down and consume the gladsome evening time by, for and of himself. Continue the situation about seven evenings the week, and the real, agonized patient for “knitting nerves” treatment is father. Everybody knits but father, and he just sits around lonesome and has “the nerves.” Miami [OK] District Daily News 2 January 1918: p. 4

The medical profession seemed to enjoy creating new maladies. Mrs Daffodil has previously examined The Telephone Face; Motor-car Face, and Tango Foot.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.





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