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.
Not 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”.
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.
Last updated: July 23rd, 2014.