Revisiting grafting and its common ‘namesake’

By far, the most viewed posts on my humble blog are those that I’ve called the ‘Historic Knits.’ The Sontag, the World War Socks, and the post I wrote about Lord Kitchener and the so-called Kitchener Stitch.

That post didn’t go far enough into his history and omits why he is an extremely problematic figure. I messed up. Mea culpa. I will be editing the original post to include links to this one.

Admittedly, I don’t know much about the South African (Boer) War. I know Canada participated in this conflict (and it was one of many issues which faced PM Laurier where he had to seek compromise between English and French Canada). I know that it was a conflict in southern Africa around the turn of the 20th Century.

And that is all I know off the top of my head.

However, I’ve recently learned that Lord Kitchener, the British military general who died during WWI, was involved in the Boer War. Kitchener instituted internment/concentration camps, and these became the template for what Nazi Germany would use 40 years later.

As summarized by the Canadian War Museum,

Imperial forces attempted to deny the Boers the food, water and lodging afforded by sympathetic farmers. Britain’s grim strategy took the war to the civilian population. Canadian troops burned Boer houses and farms, and moved civilians to internment camps. In these filthy camps, an estimated 28,000 prisoners died of disease, most of them women, children, and black workers. Civilian deaths provoked outrage in Britain and in Canada. This harsh strategy eventually defeated the Boers.

During WWI, Kitchener was the public face of the British enlistment. He was inextricably linked with the British war effort. Heck, when he died, his name was chosen as a patriotic symbol for renaming Berlin, Ontario. Since 1916, this city has been known as Kitchener.

Historians need to be able to critically examine the past and question the actions of individuals.

Like most historical figures (strike that, like most regular people), Kitchener is a complex individual who isn’t without flaws and controversy. He is problematic knowing his policies directly led to thousands of civilians’ deaths at the time and later to thousands upon thousands more.

Knowing that ‘grafting’ has been known as the Kitchener Stitch for well over 100 years, it likely isn’t going to leave the vernacular any time soon. I, myself, will try to avoid calling it anything other than grafting if I can. But, perhaps, next time you go to ‘kitchener the toe’ of a sock, you might remember the man and the untold numbers of lives he directly or indirectly affected with his ‘scorched earth’ war tactics.

The Earl Kitchener and His Stitch

Hey! If you’re reading this after 2022, I’ve written a post talking about the more problematic aspects of Kitchener as a historical figure. I would highly encourage you to read that post along with the one below.

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.


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).