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

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.

5 responses

  1. I’d be really interested in hearing if you’ve had any success from this project, especially as I live in the Kitchener, ON area.

  2. I have found newspaper articles from the era that talk of the “new Kitchener toe.” One from 1918 states that the Canadian Red Cross was the first to use this toe. Another from 1917 mentions Canada again, and then goes on to say which of the Red Cross offices in the western US states began using the Kitchener toe first. Also, an item from a newspaper in Vancouver (Feb 1916, before Kitchener died), calling on women to bring their knitting and see a demonstration of the new Kitchener toe. Finally, I found an odd little mention in the Gove County Advocate (Kansas, of all places) in Sept 2015 that states Mrs Matilda Cox has been knitting socks of her own design that have been getting notice in the British papers, and that she named her design the “Kitchener sock.” (Miss Cox, it then says, owns income property in England.) No other papers carried this item that I could find, and no mention of Mrs Cox in any British paper. Naming a sock after Kitchener is not the same as a sock that includes a grafted toe. I’m having trouble finding any British Red Cross patterns other than the 1914 booklet that might indicate when the British Red Cross started using the grafted toe. Oh, also, I found an 1852 Finchley Manual (for a British industrial school) that instructs how to sew, mend, knit, etc. and the section on knitting includes two methods of grafting (but implies that this is a technique for mending socks, not closing toes). The first grafting method is mind-blowingly straightforward, so much easier than the Kitchener process. Weldon’s Practical STocking Knitter, First Series (1885) includes 9 different toe treatments. One is the wedge toe commonly used today (called the “flat toe” and another is similar with a couple of differences, and is called the “wide toe”). Both call for 3NBO closure. I started a conversation about this in the Historical Knitting Ravelry group, which includes images of the newspaper articles, if you’re still interested, 15 years after this blog post was published. 🙂

    1. YES! You are on the track! I am still interested. I have long thought that KS was of new world origin, specifically Canadian, and the Kitchener himself inventing or specifying it was an urban legend. Excellent ferret work on your behalf. Thank you!

      1. I can send you the complete articles I have found, if you’d like them. There are several from 1917 that include the instructions for grafting. You can PM me your email addy on Ravelry, if you’d like. I am Rox on Ravelry.

        1. I am at Kbsalazar on Rav. Thanks!

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