The Earl Kitchener and His Stitch

If you’re a sock knitter, or at least have made a pair or two, you may be familiar with the Kitchener Stitch, a common form of grafting, creating a seamless toe.  To a novice knitter, the Kitchener stitch may appear to be challenging, but once you get the hang of it, the Kitchener stitch is fairly straight forward.  I actually like doing the Kitchener stitch – call me strange, but I find it relaxing and somewhat gratifying. Knit, purl, purl, knit, repeating over and over until the sock is complete.

I had honestly never given any thought to the name, but really, why would I have?  That’s the technique, and it creates a lovely finish to my sock.  But a few weeks ago, I followed a link from the Knitty Blog to a YouTube video, the Secret History of Knitting, where they discuss knitting and World War I.  Well, wasn’t my mind blown when the connection was made – it’s the Kitchener stitch after Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener. *insert sound effect of mind being blown*

Who is the Earl Kitchener?

Born in 1850 in Ireland, Horatio Herbert Kitchener would go on to become a high ranking official in the British army, seeing action in the Franco-Prussian War, the Mahdist War, the Second Boer War, and the First World War.  His image has become a piece of propaganda history as his face was immortalized on the “Your Country Needs You” poster.

30a_Sammlung_Eybl_Großbritannien._Alfred_Leete_(1882–1933)_Britons_(Kitchener)_wants_you_(Briten_Kitchener_braucht_Euch)._1914_(Nachdruck),_74_x_50_cm._(Slg.Nr._552)

He died in 1916 when the HMS Hampshire, a ship he was sailing on, was sunk by a German mine off the Orkneys (near the Northern Isles of Scotland).

Aspects around Kitchener’s involvement with his ‘stitch’ remain uncertain.  Some claim that Kitchener himself helped to design a sock pattern that included a new seamless method of grafting the toe, however, others say that Kitchener’s actual involvement is rooted more in lore than fact.  Indeed, knitting historian Richard Rutt claims that this grafting technique (known commonly as Kitchener Stitch) was invented around 1880.  Later, in 1918, Vogue magazine published a sock pattern with a grafted toe and called it the Kitchener sock, crediting Lord Kitchener for being a war effort champion, but Vogue did not claim he was the pattern ‘designer.’

I do have to ponder, why would a senior officer in the British army invent a knitting stitch?  One would think he would have more to occupy his time with, what with the largest conflict to date raging on. Kitchener was a strong advocate for the Red Cross and the homefront initiatives, including knitting, and he was concerned that having a seam at the toe could contribute to or worsen soldiers’ foot issues.

Whether he actually invented the stitch or not, sock knitters everywhere are grateful for the stitch that bears his name, the perfect way to finish off your sock.


*Did You Know: Kitchener, Ontario was named in honour of Earl Kitchener.  He died at a time when anti-German sentiments were at a peak in the then-named City of Berlin.  To try to dispel these sentiments, the city was renamed in honour of the popular and recently fallen Field Marshal.


Thanks to Knitty for sharing this video and getting me thinking about the Kitchener Stitch – the article that sparked this thinking is HERE.

There was a fantastic discussion on Ravelry outlining basic info on Kitchener, his comparison to Uncle Sam, and, of course, the ‘Stitch’ and that can be read HERE.

The BBC has a short yet succinct bio of Horatio Herbert Kitchener where can be read HERE.

Finally, other bloggers have looked into Kitchener and his namesake stitch, and you could read about it HERE and HERE (to share only a few of the many sites out there).

8 thoughts on “The Earl Kitchener and His Stitch”

      1. Actually? You’re wrong. That history has NOT been pinned down for sure. I refer you to this: https://string-or-nothing.com/2005/06/21/kitchener-stitch/

        KITCHENER STITCH
        By kbsalazar on June 21, 2005
        I’m working (albeit in the background) on a project to get “Kitchener
        Stitch” and “to Kitchener” into the Oxford English Dictionary.
        I’ve already corresponded with an OED committee member and he is
        fascinated by the historical connection. Should we find
        sufficient documentation he would be glad to nominate the term for
        inclusion.

        I’ve gone on? about this before – mostly noting that until
        knitters on both sides of the Atlantic began talking to another via the
        ‘Net, no one really noticed that that this term for grafting
        (especially in sock toes) was far more common in the U.S. and Canada
        than it was in the U.K.

        This is in spite of the fact that Earl Horatio Herbert Kitchener was a
        prominent British military figure in WWI, and a pre-1900 hero of the
        Sudan Wars. He’s also the guy after whom the Sirdar yarn company
        was named (a pal of his owned it and named it after Kitchener’s title
        during his tenure in the Sudan). You’ve all seen Kitchener’s
        picture, he’s the guy in the major league mustache who figured so
        prominently in British WWI recruitment posters.

        So far research has turned up some tantalizing facts:

        Just before and in the early part of WWI, Lord Kitchener was in charge
        of updating the British military kit, and oversaw the development of
        standards for all items of battle dress and equipment, including
        socks. Whether or not he (or his staff) issued military
        specifications for socks that included seamless toes is still a tidbit
        we have not pinned down.

        Grafting as a technique to close up sock toes appears to not have been
        widespread before the 1920s, and with very, very few exceptions is not
        documented before 1920. We are still looking for exact,
        research-grade citations for the earliest specific mention of grafting
        (with a technique description) to close up sock toes. We’ve got
        some anecdotal references, but nothing we can take to the committee.

        The term “Kitchener Stitch” or “Kitchener Grafting” is still not pegged
        down, although other sources lead me to believe that it was first used
        in a socks-for-the-troops pamphlet issued by the Canadian Red Cross
        circa 1916 – possibly from Kitchener, Ontario. This theorized
        pamphlet has not yet been found. One pebble in the gears of this
        theory is that Kitchener, Ontario was only named in 1916. (It
        changed its name from “Berlin” at that time as part of the general
        anti-German sentiment common during the War.). ?? Again, any
        leads on this (with research grade citations) are most welcome.
        We’ve got one from around 1923 or so as our earliest.

        Jean Miles in Edinburgh is investigating another theory – that Lord
        Kitchener (or someone acting in his name) either endorsed or submitted
        a sock pattern? to those knitting for British Expeditionary Forces
        at the outset of WWI. Again she’s got no true citations, and is
        looking for leads.

        As far as the technique of grafting in general – it appears to be rare
        before 1920, if in fact it was done at all. Socks of that era
        usually had round toes of some kind, and were terminated with a simple
        draw the yarn end through the last several stitches type closure.
        Some used variants of the three-needle bind off, but grafting (under
        any name) is absent in museum samples before 1920 or so. Deborah
        Pulliam wrote to me to say that in the course of her research she has
        examined hundreds of pre-1900 and post-1900 socks and stockings, plus
        hundreds of early knitting manuals and instruction sheets, and she has
        not yet found a grafted toe prior to 1920. She also states that
        flat toes were extremely rare prior to 1910, and are totally
        unrepresented in socks and stockings prior to 1850.

        There is another style of sock, I believe it is a full sole re-footable
        one that was called a Kitchener Sock sometime around the late teens,
        early 1920s, but it does not resemble the socks common today, nor has
        the use of any grafting to make that sock been noted. Once more,
        a good citation is lacking.

        By research grade citations, I mean full annotation – name of author,
        name of publication, date and place of publication, page number of the
        citation, and a quotation of the paragraph in which the term appears.

        So if you’ve got access to a local research library or Red Cross
        archive and have nothing better to do, please poke around and let me
        know the result. You might be the person responsible for
        correcting this grievous oversight and getting Kitchener into the OED.

        Like

  1. Wow, you learn something new every day. Thanks! I have to agree with those who feel that the usage of his name came from lore. It’s hard to imagine that warmonger sitting down and thinking up sock designs!

    Like

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