What is a Kitchener Stitch?

Grafting's other name has military roots

Why is grafting also known as Kitchener stitch in knitting?
When Kitchener stitch is done well, you can't really see (or feel) the seam. © Sarah E. White, licensed

Sock knitters and fans of smooth knit seams with less bulk than a three-needle bind off are probably familiar with the seaming technique known as Kitchener stitch. Also called grafting, Kitchener stitch is a way of working two sets of live stitches off their respective needles with the help of yarn and a sewing needle. The result is a smooth joint that looks just like knitting.

The steps to perform Kitchener stitch are notoriously difficult to remember, prompting notions companies to print them on key chains and dog tags. Some knitters rely on muttering the Kitchener stitch mnemonic, "knit off, purl on; purl off, knit on," under their breaths to remember the basic motions.

Calling this maneuver grafting makes sense because the two pieces of knitting are melded together into a whole where the seam is virtually imperceptible (if you do it well). But why Kitchener?

Origin of the Kitchener Name

Was there a person named Kitchener who developed the method? The answer: Maybe. There was a person named Horatio Herbert Kitchener, to be precise, who was born in 1850 and died in 1916, was a field marshal in the British Army and served or commanded troops in the Mahdist War, the Second Boer War, the Franco-Prussian War, and World War I. He also served as commander-in-chief in India from 1902-1909 and, as the Secretary of State for War, was instrumental in the recruitment of soldiers for World War I, even being featured in a famous and widely copied poster.

Fun Fact

Lore has it that Kitchener developed a sock pattern for British and American women to use in the war knitting effort. In contrast to the typical socks of the day, which used a seam on the toe, Kitchener's sock had a grafted toe. The technique used to close the toe became known as Kitchener stitch, which it is still called to this day.

Like many origin stories, there's not a lot of evidence this tale is true, but it's as good a theory as any about why we close the toe of a sock with the Kitchener stitch. Although it's strange, this is not the only knitting term said to have derived from the name of a British military man—raglan and cardigan both have origins in military history as well.

How to Do a Kitchener Stitch

Whether you call it grafting or Kitchener stitch, this method of closing up knitting is an easy, effective way to finish your knitting without the bulk.

  1. Arrange your stitches on two needles, with the same number on each, with the purl sides facing each other and the points of the needles on the right side.
  2. Thread the tail onto a tapestry needle. Then, using the needle in the front, pull the tapestry need through the first stitch as if you are going to purl, but don't pull the stitch off the needle.
  3. Go through the first stitch with the needle in the back, if you were going to knit. Again, keep the stitch on the needle.
  4. On the front needle, go through the first stitch as if you were going to knit. This time, pull the stitch off the needle. On the same needle, go through a new first stitch as if to purl, and keep the stitch on the needle.
  5. On the back needle, go through the first stitch as if you were going to purl. This time, pull the stitch off the needle. On the same needle, go through a new first stitch as if to knit, and keep the stitch on the needle.
  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 until there's just one stitch left on each needle. Then, do step 2 and then step 4.
  7. Adjust the tension of the row by pulling up the right side of the stitch and then the left.