Skip to content

I hate the phrase “Not your grandmother’s knitting” with the fire of a thousand suns. It manages to insult generations of excellent stitchers while fostering the stereotype that all knitters (and grandmothers) are dowdy, behind the times and have wool for brains.

Which is why I absolutely adore learning about knitting spies. Think all knitters are clueless crones fluttering over their baby blankets? Be careful—you might overlook a badass like Molly Rinker, tavern keeper, sock knitter and revolutionary spy. 

Old Mom Rinker, local legend goes, served British officers and soldiers in her Philadelphia tavern. A hearty ale often loosens even stiff upper lips. Rinker eavesdropped on her customers, listening for information about troop movements and strategy that would help the Continental Army.

Later, she jotted the information on slips of paper, wrapped the paper around a small rock, then wound yarn around it. When she overheard a juicy bit, Old Mom Rinker went to a particular rock by the Wissahickon Creek and knit socks.

If a ball of yarn stuffed with intelligence happened to fall from the rock and roll into the hands of Washington’s troops below, well, she couldn’t help that, could she? 

Infamous American Elizabeth Bentley also used society’s propensity to ignore knitters to her advantage. Bentley passed information to the Soviet Union during World War II by transporting it in her knitting bag.

Mingled among the skeins of yarn, needles, and patterns were microfilms and classified documents. According to one biographer, Bentley would travel to Washington, D.C., to pick up stolen materials, conceal them in her knitting basket, then ride the train back to New York. Dubbed “the Red Spy Queen,” she said a better name would be “the Communist June Cleaver.”

Bentley’s clandestine activities ended in 1944 when she outed herself to the FBI, perhaps fearing that she would be forced to defect to the USSR. (Ironic, eh?)

While some secret agents hid messages in their knitting accoutrements, others went full-on Madame Defarge and worked codes into their knitting. (Dickens’s fictional character gleefully used her coded knitting to track nobles slated for execution. Defarge is based on the real tricoteuses—women who knitted while sitting in revolutionary councils and, later, while watching executions by guillotine.)

During World War I, a Belgian knitter sat knitting a scarf while she watched trains come and go on the local line. She worked one type of stitch for a certain kind of train, dropped a stitch for a different kind, and so on. Her scarves carried valuable information to Allied intelligence while (one assumes) keeping the necks of Resistance workers warm.

Another World War I knitter, Madame Levengle, knit by her upstairs window—which happened to overlook the loading yard of a railway station near Lille, France. In the room beneath her, her children busily worked on their school lessons. Using her knitting as camouflage (“Non, non, monsieur, no spies up here, only ze knitter!”), Mme. Levengle tapped her feet in code, sending messages about troop movements to her children below. The children copied down the information which then made its way to the Allies.

Perhaps the GOAT of espion-knitters is a British spy named Phyllis Latour Doyle. Doyle was only twenty when she started flight mechanic training in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. The British agency SOE, impressed with her fluent French and keen intelligence, offered her a job as a spy.

Doyle was highly motivated—a dear family friend had been shot by the Nazis—and she began training right away. Doyle later described how grueling her training was, from encryption and surveillance, physical workouts, even sessions taught by a cat burglar on how to shinny up drainpipes and clamber over roofs.

One of her most dangerous missions took place in spring 1944. Doyle parachuted into occupied Normandy behind enemy lines. Her mission was to gather info on Nazi positions in preparation for D-Day. We’re talking knitting balls of brass: all her (male) predecessors had been caught and executed, and the Nazis were intent on discovering and executing anyone sent in their place.

Doyle, who was in her early twenties, pretended to be a 14-year-old girl selling soap from her bicycle to avoid suspicion. She engaged German soldiers in chitchat, then translated relevant information into Morse code. “I always carried knitting because my codes were on a piece of silk—I had about 2,000 I could use,” she told an interviewer. “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.”

Doyle had many close escapes during her time in the field. When a group of German soldiers became suspicious of her, she pretended to have scarlet fever, which dissuaded the men from searching her suitcase (where they would have found an incriminating radio set).

Another close call: Doyle was questioned and strip-searched by Nazi police. In her skivvies, Doyle coolly unknotted the lace that tied back her hair and shook her head to show there was nothing there—the lace held the coded information. Doyle was so modest that she told her children nothing about her wartime service for decades. She received high honors from the UK and French governments and as of 2022, was still alive at the ripe old age of 101.

Modesty like Phyllis Doyle’s may be a virtue, but sadly, it means that many stories of incredibly brave women aren’t widely known. Think of the women prisoners at the World War II camp Ravensbruck who were forced to knit socks for their captors; the women purposely shaped narrow heels so that the wearer would get blisters.

Another, more fanciful anecdote describes sweaters knit in yarn with strategically placed knots. Supposedly these sweaters would be unraveled and the yarn wound around frames marked with letters of the alphabet so that the code could be read.

By 1942, London authorities became so concerned with knitting espionage that packages containing knitted items required special handling given that “enemy agents used hand-knitted garments to convey . . . vital military and naval intelligence by means of cunningly worked codes knitted into the material during the last war.”

Not your grandmother’s knitting, my eye.

Love this article? We love bringing it to you! MDK’s free daily content is made possible by your purchases from the MDK Shop. Take a look around. Thank you!

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons, Library of Congress, and

About The Author

Carol J. Sulcoski is an attorney by day and a knitter by night. She’s been part of the knitting industry for over fourteen years, beginning as a blogger in the glory days of the early 2000s. Since then, she’s also been a hand dyer, author, teacher, and designer.


  • What a great read! I really enjoyed it, I’d read of some of these, but learned about some new super knitters too.

    • Great article.

  • Wonderful article. More, please!

  • Fascinating. I’d love to have references to source materials.

    • I just finished Eyes Turned Skyward by Alena Dillion which is a fictional but rather accurate account of the women who joined the WASP group of pilots. These women were used to fly planes to various places to free the male pilots to engage in combat. It is a wonderful book and very informative but also sad because the women were denied the right to join the military and be recognized for what they were doing. I’m sure there are other good books out there about this subject. I have a Kindle and get most of my books from Amazon Kindle Dept. They have tons of books on the WWII era and the people engaged in it.

    • Yes, please!

  • Loved reading that!

  • i love this article – and others like it. I send them to my knitting group which is very innocently called the Wool Gatherers! If only they knew what we’re capable of!

  • love this!

  • What a great read! Thanks!

    • Enjoyed reading how knitting contributes in history. Another well written and researched article from Carol. Look forward to more.

  • I love these stories! On behalf of knitting grandmothers everywhere, thank you!

    • There is a book I’ve wanted to buy. A Guide to Codes and Signals – Knitting as Codes and Cover WWI, 1942. It’s out of print but somewhere online I found a used copy. When I checked again, it was no longer available.

      • It’s on eBay!

    • Pennie, we are kick-a$$ knitting grandmothers.

      • Loved this. My daughter is working on a dissertation for her post grad and is focussing on the history of knitting. I sent her this article and she asked if there were any articles on the history of knitting patterns?

  • That is absolutely fascinating. I wonder if vital info was actually transmitted this way. There needs to be more research and a book written about this sort of like the code breaking women during WWII.

    • Frankie, were you aware there was a USS Leftwich? It was a US Naval destroyer ( now decommissioned). The number was DD984, I think. Home port was Pearl Harbor, Hawaii ( my ex was on it).

    • A British historian named Helen Fry has a book coming out in September called “Women In Intelligence” focusing on WW1 and WW2. The author’s website describes it as: “The book provides an incredible account of the efforts of women across two world wars, with tales of bravery and heroism. Many new stories are told for the first time, shining a light on the hidden legacy of women in intelligence from World War One to World War Two.” (I have mine pre-ordered!)

      • I’m going to look this up, thanks for sharing!

      • Thank you so much for enlightening the readership at large about knitting and spying and the quite recent history (WW2 is “recent” for me). These few factoids give everyone some food for thought and a view to a different reality beyond what meets the eye.
        Also, I am taking a note of the book you are mentioning too!

  • Thank you for sharing, MDK! I’d heard of knitting codes into garments to send hidden messages but this article mentions more various ways that knitting was used as spying techniques.
    Last year I knitted a message in my son’s scarf using Morse code. It’s not as easy as it seems & my initial message had to be shortened to accommodate the limited scarf width. I have a new appreciation for the women spies’ …. Their skills & creativity with how to share vital information.

  • This was fabulous! Thank you for this article ;-D

  • Thank you for this, Carol! Our grandmothers were badasses. Whether or not they were spies, their knitting is most definitely worth emulating.

    Now don’t get me started about the media and popular culture unable to tell knitting and crochet apart… I came across that in a book I read recently (Remarkably Bright Creatures). Now there’s an idea for a future article… 🙂

  • Best read yet! Thanks!

    • This was a really wonderful article. Women are smart, clever, and very brave. We have a lot to live up to but we can do it! Keep calm and knit on!

  • Love it! Very interesting article 🙂

  • I have never heard of this. Fantastic history lesson. These women do not get the credit they deserve. Thank you for researching and writing this story.

  • Knitters got it done ! A very interesting read for sure. Thank you for sharing their amazing stories!

  • Such a great article! And if you want to learn more about the history of knitting, check out this podcast:

    • Definitely saving this, thank you!

  • Wonderful read! We need more historical yarn.

  • Really great read.

  • Fascinating. Thank you for sharing this.

  • More details than I already knew about, thank you Carol!

  • Oh! I wanted this to be a whole book! Thank you.

    • I second that! This is a fascinating read, and I’m excited for the recommended book too.

  • What a fascinating article! Thank you.

  • What a wonderful article! Maybe “Knitters in History” should be a regular feature.

    • Yes, please!

  • Excellent article, Carol! I love the info from the Wilkes Barre paper! I wish I could remember where i read about a woman who smuggled cash out of Germany into France by winding it up in balls of wool!

  • Wow! Thank you so much for sharing these stories. Incredibly interesting and entertaining.

  • Redefining bravery, cleverness & gumption! I can’t begin to imagine what they endured.

  • I love this post and am thrilled that these stories are slowly coming to light. I just wrote a novel about knitting espionage during WWI. Fingers crossed, please will read it!

  • Thank you for an excellent article! I also appreciate the further links in the comments to a book and podcast with more history. Way to go, knitters!

  • Great article! I’ve always hated that phrase, it’s so demeaning. Knit on, spies!

  • Awesome! I did not know any of this! Thank you.

  • Carol Sulcoski, I want to give a shout out for your book, “Yarn Substitution Made Easy”. I learned so much about yarn and why a particular yarn is good in certain type of use in a particular pattern. I’ve saved the price of that book many times over just by making better choices of yarn for my projects. Thank you!

  • Amazing!

    • Great fun. Just finished teaching a class on Women and War, wish I’d had this, but it will still be useful in the fall for my class on Fiber to Fashion!
      Thank you!

      • Eleanor Roosevelt is one of my heroins. She was very instrumental in getting women to help in various ways during WWII. . She knitted socks for the military and had other women knitting them too. I love to see the pictures of her knitting while talking to some official about things. Another very important lady was Jacqueline Cochran who helped get the women pilots in action in the WASP and helped get it off the ground.

    • This is amazing information. Thank you.

  • Wonderful article. I also would wish for more about the history of knitting. Thankyou

  • Do not forget Madame DeFarge in Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities.

    She was inscrutable on her stool behind the bar knitting day after day. She was knitting “secret messages.” Perhaps Madame Defarge was the inspiration for for the real-life knitting spies??

  • Brilliant as always

  • Love this article ❤️

  • This is excellent!! Thank you!!!

  • What fun to learn about more knitting spies. I love stories of how women helped war efforts by being invisible in plain sight.

  • Yay!! Keep on clickin’

  • Thanks for sharing. That was very interesting

  • To elaborate on my earlier comment. Madame Defarge and her husband were revolutionaries in the French Revolution in Dickens’ very popular novel. They are fictional characters in A Tale of Two Cities based on real people. Madame Defarge knit names of people to be killed into an endless scarf she was always working on—she even knit when she was sitting beside the guillotine as it chopped off heads of those she had named in her knitting—a ruthless character indeed.

    Surely I am not the only knitter to remember Madame Defarge and her knitting.

    • The famous Madame Defarge does get a mention in the piece! Who could forget her and the tricoteuses of the French Revolution!

      • Sorry to admit that I completely missed the mention of Madam Defarge in the interesting
        article — I guess I need to read more slowly and carefully!

  • Knitting is binary…..perfect for code. Very cool history!

  • Enjoy all the tidbits! This was very interesting information. Thanks!

  • Titanic!

    • Oops, wrong article!

  • An inspirational book about WWII’s most celebrated spy who happened to be a woman is titled Code Name: Lise. At the end of the war and book, after living through unthinkable situations, she proclaims that all she ever wanted to do was knit. An all-time favorite book. It is also a romance.

  • What a wonderful read! Thank you from this granny!

  • I love this; what a fascinating read! Thank you, and more please!

  • Thank you for this knitterly history, and the wonderful images that accompany these tales of bravery, Carol! I do look forward to reading more.

  • The fire of a thousand suns! Loved it all. Thank you!

  • I don’t knit quickly enough to send anyone codes messages. These women were amazing.

  • just did a walking tour of the french resistance in Paris under nazi occupation, but never heard of these incredible women. Thank you.

  • Thank you for the article. I did not know the ladies were using their crafty talents in that way. Grandmas with brains!!

  • Wow! Very interesting and brave ladies. Thanks for making me aware of knitting spies.

  • These stories from WWII were not shared until recently because people involved in code-breaking or spying or espionage for the British government signed the secrets act which prevented them from saying anything to anyone outside their circle. Even husbands did not know what their “secretary” wives really did during the war.

  • Loved this❣️

  • Never underestimate the power of a smart woman who knits!

  • Thank you for an amazing article. I love your site.

  • Fascinating article.

  • Loved this, Carol! My kind of history. Often so telling. And not always found on the Internet. Diaries, obscure newspapers, etc. often are buried in Library locked “Rare Books” cases, attics and letters. As a library lover and History major I feel compelled to point this out. Chloe.

  • My husband’s grandmother attended a women’s college during WWII. The students were required to attend church on Sundays and were required to knit items to be donated to the troops at the same time. If a speaker said anything they didn’t like during the sermon, they would click their knitting needles loudly to drown him out.

  • What a fascinating article! I don’t suppose there’s a book that includes the histories of these and/or similar spy knitters? I’d love to read it!

  • Who says that knitting has no place in politics?!

  • Great article, there a few stories here that I hadn’t read about. Always fun to learn something new to pass along to others

  • Amazing women came before us. Thanks for the history lesson we don’t often hear


  • Fantastic article, Carol! Not that I’m surprised given how much I learned from and LOVED your blog back in the day.

  • Absolutely wonderful. So great.

  • Love this history!

  • Fascinating Wouldn’t this be a good movie?

  • I have been a knitter for a lifetime! So love this srticke

  • I found this article very fascinating.

  • Loved this article on spies using knitting. Ingenious!

  • This was a marvelous read and so interesting. I love the innovation and chutzpah of these knitting Mata Haris!

  • Wow, this is fascinating!

  • Bravo!! I loved this!!!

  • What a great read! Thanks for highlighting these amazing women.

  • Enjoyed this article from beginning to end. Thx

  • Great article! My Mom was a WW2 war bride that came from England and married my Dad who was a American GI

  • Thank you for this interesting article!

  • Loved this!!!

  • Great piece of history, so interesting

  • WOW I never know any of this! Very informative I learned so much from reading your article thank you so much for posting it. What these brave woman did is amazing I was never that good when it came to learning in school all my years. But at 64 I am learning so much and so grateful that I read this.

  • That was fascinating and really wonderful writing.

Come Shop With Us

My Cart0
There are no products in the cart!
Continue shopping