Nova Scotia

Cole Harbour man uses replica of sock machine that helped win WWI

Socks made by these machines helped keep feet dry and prevent fungus and trench foot, which could kill a soldier.

The machine produced wool socks that helped soldiers avoid life-threatening trench foot

The machine, which looks like a tin can with a crank, can be mounted on a flat surface like a table. (Phlis McGregor/CBC)

Blake Harris' hand crank sock machine clicks and bangs as he churns out colourful works.

"As fast as I can crank the handle, it can knit for me," Harris told CBC's Information Morning.

Harris makes socks with a replica of the machine that made history during the First World War, and the Second World War.

The Gearhart circular sock making machine was first developed in the 1800s and evolved through the First and Second World Wars. (Phlis McGregor/CBC)

Socks made by these machines, and knitted by hand, helped keep feet dry and prevent fungus and trench foot, which could kill a soldier.

There were 20,000 casualties from trench foot in the British Army alone during the First World War, Harris said.

"This machine is said to have won the First World War."

Red Cross knitting effort

The Red Cross gave away hundreds of thousands of these Gearhart circular sock making machines in Canada and the United States during the First World War, Harris said.

Families would get the machine, plus 10 pounds of wool, which would make 30 pairs of socks.

The Red Cross distributed thousands of sock machines to volunteers across the United States and Canada. (Phlis McGregor/CBC)

If they made the socks, the machine was theirs to own. That asset would subsidize the family income, Harris said.

The Red Cross also gave away wool for people to knit by hand. Knitters had 21 days to make a pair of socks, Harris said, or they would have to give the wool back. A good knitter could knit a pair in a week, he said.

On the Gearhart reproduction, it takes Harris 40 minutes.

The sock machine was developed during the 1800s. The year and date of this photo is unknown. (Phlis McGregor/CBC )

The program was so successful it came back during the Second World War.

But the machines were sent to the melting pot halfway through. 

"It turned out that the metal that machines were made of was more important for guns, bombs and boats," Harris said.

Socks Made on 88

Now, Harris uses the same technology to make socks in Cole Harbour.

His company is called Socks Made on 88, an ode to the fact that he owns the 88th reproduction of a 1924 Gearhart machine. It's manufactured by the Erlbacher Gearhart Knitting Machine Company in Missouri.

Harris loved the socks his mother used to hand-knit, but he wasn't motivated enough to spend a week knitting and purling to make a pair.

Blake Harris sells socks at the Halifax's Historic Farmers' Market alternating Saturdays. (Phlis McGregor/CBC)

He saw an ad for the Missouri company on the internet one day and called them up.

"It was the best phone call I ever made," he said.

This isn't how he imagined how he would spend his retirement, after spending years fixing trains for CN and ViaRail.

He had plans to travel the world.

'It's peaceful' 

But Socks Made on 88 seems to be a good fit for Harris.

"The satisfaction of accomplishing something with a machine is great for me," he said.

But it's more than that.

The machine's sound reminds him of days spent travelling on a train with his wife.

"You hear the sounds of the joints on the tracks clicking and banging," Harris said. "It's peaceful."

With files from CBC's Information Morning, Phlis McGregor