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2017 marks the 70th anniversary of the creation of Women’s Home Industries, which was started in 1947 to support the national export drive following the end of the Second World War. Sponsored by the WVS, Women’s Home Industries’ objectives were “Earning dollars for this country by producing home made articles for export to Canada and the United States” and “Giving work to those who are not able to leave their homes, but who would like to use their skill to add to production”. The idea of ‘Knit for dollars’ came from a 70 year-old bedridden Yorkshire woman, who wanted to contribute to the export drive but was unable to, and mentioned this to Lady Reading. Lady Reading showed samples of women’s work to American and Canadian buyers, and their delighted reaction encouraged her to pursue the idea.
On 1 October 1947 WVS Centres were sent a leaflet about Women’s Home Industries, with the organisation being officially launched in a press conference the following day. WVS members were instructed to send a sample of their knitwear, needlepoint or quilting to Women’s Home Industries Limited, giving an idea of the number or orders they could undertake and an approximate time for delivery. Women whose work was selected as suitable were paid at standard industrial rates and sent the necessary materials. This was made possible by an agreement between Lady Reading and the Board of Trade that raw materials would be supplied to Women’s Home Industries coupon free – rationing of course continued in one form or another in Britain until 1954. Indeed, as Lady Reading stated in a newspaper article, many women working for Women’s Home Industries found a “thrill in having once again lovely materials to work with and retaining the skills of their fingers”.
Women of all social classes contributed to Women’s Home Industries. Even Queen Mary sent them six embroidered floral chair seats, which were sold in New York for $10,000 with proceeds donated to the Queen’s Institute of District Nursing. Queen Mary’s needlework later generated even more money for the nation when her carpet was exhibited across the USA and Canada. You can read more about Queen’s Mary’s carpet here
Women’s Home Industries was a huge success, and by 1953 had “developed into a well-established business, executing wholesale orders for the most fashionable stores in the United States and Canada”. Whilst the association between Women’s Home Industries and the WVS had ended by 1958, Lady Reading remained Chair of both. Women’s Home Industries is yet another example of the role the WVS played in the social and economic life of Britain during and after the Second World War. Without the initial sponsorship of WVS, Women’s Home Industries almost certainly would not have existed and the beautiful handiwork of women across the country would have remained unknown.