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Published on July 27th, 2014 | by Merion

18 comments

Kitchener stitch, a history.

“The sock, the First World War, and how they changed one another”

a guest post from Beth from the Knitting Needle and the Damage done blog

There’s a type of historical documentation and analysis known as the “microhistory”. The microhistory looks at small things and asks larger questions; it’s an intensive and far-reaching investigation of a small and precise aspect of history, such as the story of a single battle, one person, or a resource or product. Of course as a knitter I feel the long and rich history of knitting shouldn’t be without its fair share of microhistories, and I have a subject to suggest: the humble sock. In the microhistory of the sock at least one whole chapter could be written about the hand-knitted sock and the role it has played in various wars. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, and it seems like an opportune time to look at what the history of the hand-knitted sock can tell us about WWI.

As many knitters know, British, Canadian and American knitters were exhorted by their governments and officially sanctioned organizations such as the Red Cross to knit for the war effort during both World Wars, and the call was readily answered. Knitting was a way for those at home to feel they were actively and materially helping their loved ones at the front, and also helped to soothe the knitters’ anxieties over the dangers faced by their men at the front as well as cope with more generalized worries over the progress of the war.

Knitting played such a role in the war effort that it got referenced in many a wartime song and story.  Canadian author L.M. Montgomery (best known for her book Anne of Green Gables), was both a knitter and personally obsessed by WWI, and knitting figures largely in both her personal journals during the war years and in her 1920 novel Rilla of Ingleside, which is the story of Anne’s daughter Rilla and her role in the war effort on the home front. Teenage Rilla Blythe learns to knit socks and writes in her  diary that she learned to set the heels of the socks she made because she felt it was “shirking” to get someone else to do it for her, and Susan Baker, the maid-of-all-work at Ingleside, announces that a “sock a day is her allowance”. All the women of Ingleside knit fervently when especially anxious over the war news. At one point Susan Baker even goes so far as to knit on a Sunday, though she feels it’s a transgression against the fourth biblical commandment, and one occasion Anne knits four inches past the point where she should have turned the heel on her sock because her mind was preoccupied with whether the Canadian government would be able to bring conscription legislation into force.

Kitchener stitch - Loveknitting blogNot only did knitted socks play a role in World War I, but conversely, World War I has had a lasting impact on the knitted sock. Until World War I socks typically had seamed toes, and these seams caused great discomfort for soldiers on forced marches and in the wet and muddy trenches, where those seams rubbed the men’s toes raw, which in turn could result in dangerous infections. The British Secretary of State for War, Horatio Herbert Kitchener, associated himself with the Red Cross drive to urge women to knit “comforts” or items for the men in the military, particularly mittens, socks and scarves. He was concerned about the foot problems the sock seams caused and personally contributed a pattern for socks which included a seamless grafting technique that would come to be known as the “Kitchener stitch”.

The Kitchener stitch is still widely used today. Knitty.com has a tutorial on how to work the Kitchener stitch, and there are a number of YouTube videos that demonstrate it, such as this one.

Lord Kitchener is credited with inventing this technique himself, but I’m skeptical as to whether he actually did. Apparently there is no real evidence of it, and I think it much more likely that, at most, he recognized the need for a seamless sock toe, asked a knitter of his acquaintance to figure out a way to create one, and then took the credit in order to use his famous (and, at the time, revered) name to promote it.

I learned the Kitchener stitch method of closing sock toes myself at about thirteen or fourteen when I knitted my very first pair of socks as a Christmas present for my father, although the pattern called it “grafting” and it would be many years before I learned of the method’s historical significance. Now that I do know the story of how the technique came into existence, I doubt I’ll ever again use it without a thought for how my stitches echo the stitches taken by those who knitted socks for soldiers during both world wars, and without wondering what I’m not seeing about my own role in history.

 

 

 


About the Author

Merion admits that her stash is wildly out of control, but has many projects in dream-form! She loves knitting, crochet, Shire horses, cake and garden swing-seats.


Last updated: July 23rd, 2014.

18 Responses to Kitchener stitch, a history.

  1. Rachel says:

    This is great! I had always wondered if there was a connection.

  2. Celia says:

    I am dubious about the Kitchener story for two reasons:
    1. This method of joining toes is not called Kitchener stitch in the UK, it is called grafting. If Kitchener truly had been responsible for popularising it in the UK, wouldn’t we have known it by that name, rather than US knitters?
    2. Grafting was well enough known in the UK to appear in books published in the19th century, well before WW1. I own a book dating from about 1894 which describes the technique. The book was written for needlework teachers, so the technique would have been taught in schools and would not have been unknown in 1914-18.

  3. Anita says:

    What a wonderful story though I agree with Celia that grafting was done long before Kitchener arrived on earth. I must do some research into the cardigan (after Lord Cardigan in the Crimean War) and the balaclava (Battle of ?). One correction though, the Australian and New Zealand women were also sock knitters during the First World War. The European and Pacific nations of course always spelled, and still spell, these items socks, not sox.

  4. Ellen says:

    I have The Canadian Red Cross Society Knitting Instructions for War Work booklet (amazing what you can find at Church Bazaars) I’m thinking it’s for WWII and it features a “Kitchener Toe” which takes you down to 10 stitches and then the final instruction is labeled “Grafting” It then features an instructions for an “Alternate Toe.

    Over the years I could see this way of grafting the toe getting the Kitchener name attached
    I’d guess you’d have to consult the British Red Cross as to Lord Kitchener’s connection. I’m sure they would attach his name to make it “Official” to get knitters on board with changing how they did a toe.

  5. Barbara Knowles says:

    Can you believe it? As I was merrily “kitchening” this past weekend I was wondering who thought it up and how it got the name kitchener. I had never heard of the british secretary of war, although i knew socks were knitted for the troops in WWI and WWII … It makes sense to me that even if the man didn’t sit down and mechanically close a sock toe, he was shown how a sock could be closed without having an irritating seam to put blisters on the toes and began promoting the method for the socks for soldiers … that endorsement of the method resulted in it being called a kitchener stitch … course i still don’t know who came up with the actual mechanics of the method but so much of knitted history is lost as no one considered it important when they tried something and it worked and they passed it along to their neighbor … enjoyed the blog …

  6. Judy says:

    Lovely look back into knitting history. Thank you. I got hooked on knitting history when I read the book No Idle Hands by Anne L. Macdonald. Although it’s a “social history of American knitting” it does reference bits of English knitting history as well. Will have to have another look and see if the origin of the Kitchener stitch is mentioned.

  7. Kim Isner says:

    Whether or not Kitchener “invented” this toe closure for socks, it’s nice to know where its origins came from – the same also for Lord Cardigan. I also read in a knitting magazine that in medieval times, it was men who did the knitting.

  8. Pat Calderone says:

    I found an article in a Piecework magazine about women knitting socks for the soldiers
    in WWl and WWll where they knit tube socks, one sock inside the other at the same time.
    I’ve knitted a couple of pairs and I love the rythmn of going from one sock to the other.
    It’s done on double pointed needles and you cast on stitches with yarn from two different
    balls. When you start knitting the outside sock is knitted and the inside sock is purled.
    You get a really nice rhythm going.
    I also love the Kitchner stitch.

  9. delilah says:

    I would like to know more on the tube socks.
    Do yu end up with two socks, or one sock double thickness??

    • Jesslin says:

      Hi Delilah. Properly done, you end up with two different socks – you knit the outer sock with one ball of yarn, the inner sock with a second ball, and the stitches of the socks are alternated on your needles so you knit outer-inner-outer-inner, etc. I sometimes hold the two different yarns in two different hands (I knit both picking and throwing styles), but many people hold both yarns in the same hand and just alternate which yarn they use – it’s like color work. If you mess up and knit the wrong stitch with the wrong yarn you will lock your socks together in that place, which is a royal pain to fix! (just ask how I know 😀 ) Personally, I also find it easier to purl the outside sock and knit the inner so my working needle doesn’t have to move as much, but like most things it is all about what works for the knitter.

  10. Christine Stringer says:

    This story has bought a tear to my eye! My mum knitted socks for servicemen overseas during the Second World War. A local RAF serviceman who was in receipt of her socks came to thank her when he was on home leave . They married in 1945 and were together for 53 years.

  11. marjorie says:

    Thank you for this interesting post! During the first world war, the demand for socks for soldiers fighting in trenches was so great that the Red Cross provided circular sock knitting machines to women and trained them to use them. A pair of socks could be made on the machine in a few hours, whereas hand knitting took much longer, even if one were a fast knitter. A group of women cranking the machines could make a lot of pairs of socks in a day. I understand that commercially made socks weren’t yet available during the first great war, so the women with their machines were very needed. I have one of those machines and it still works like a charm. I look at it and wonder if it too provided socks for soldier’s feet.

  12. Alan Ball says:

    Re Kim Isner’s comments: I have a history of knitting which avers, in relation fishermen, eg the Isle of Aran and the like, that the men did the knitting far later than mediaeval times. The fishermen did all their own knitting, it tells us, and the pattern of the sweater could be used to identify the wearer. As late as the end of the 19th century “the men would not trust the women with their knitting.”

  13. Mary OConnell says:

    I love all these stories and really don’t care how true any of them are. History is really built on years of telling and retelling. How true can it be?! As long as the toe gets closed and is comfortable that’s all that counts. Unless your Kitchener!

  14. Andrea says:

    The Rowan Magazine 56 has an article about knitting in WW1. It says that a pattern was published in July 1918 in Vogue called The Kitchener Heelless Sock. It included instructions for creating a smooth join. These became known as Kitchener stitch. Machine made socks for soldiers were being mass produced as tubes which were then sewn up at the toes by hand. The hand sewn seam was chafing and uncomfortable. Clearly not everyone knew how to graft. What puzzles me about this explanation is that Kitchener died in 1916.

  15. ElyseKnox says:

    I thought I’d heard that Kitchener held a contest to find an alternative to seamed toes but can’t remember that to be the case for sure. One thing about knitting is that it is hard to claim anything new. It is essentially a simple procedure and what one person “comes up with” it is easy to think that many others have come up with the same concept many times before.

    As to the connection between men and knitting, I read once quite some time ago that Teamsters (the ones actually driving teams of oxen cross country) knitted during the long calm stretches of their journeys. The same article went on to say that they jealously guarded their knitting knowledge and would not share it with any women. It has been a long, long time since I saw that bit of knitting lore but would love to see it again if anyone knows anything about it.

  16. Our group is doing an “honouring our own” tribute to ww1(local)
    I wondered if we could have permission to use bits and pieces of your sock history-as our red cross was very active. Thanks.Frances

  17. Lucy Neatby says:

    Thanks for the history. Here’s another method of tackling grafting that your readers may find helpful. https://youtu.be/C2medIqFNaw

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