Terminology: Why We Call It “Grafting” Instead of That Other Name

8 March 2023

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This week, we’re publishing the first part of a fantastic tutorial, by Kathleen Sperling, on a different way to create a grafted seam. Grafting is a way of joining two sets of live stitches. It’s most commonly encountered when closing up sock toes. This first installment covers grafting two stockinette stitch fabrics together by knitting rather than sewing the stitches that make up the join. (A future tutorial will cover joining fabrics with different stitch patterns.)

You might have encountered the sewn version of a grafted seam under a different name: Kitchener Stitch. The name comes from Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener (1850–1916), a very senior commander in the British military in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s unlikely he invented the technique—there is evidence that the technique predated him and there is no evidence he knew how to knit.

The reason that this man’s name became so strongly associated with this type of seaming is because of his vocal support of a Red Cross initiative to encourage British, American, and Canadian women to knit “comforts”—like mittens, scarves, and socks—for men in the trenches. A booklet of patterns was distributed, and the included sock pattern featured a grafted toe, which was apparently a novelty at the time. In 1918, Vogue magazine published a sock pattern with this toe, calling it the “Kitchener Sock.”

At Digits & Threads, we do not use his name for the technique, for a number of reasons.

First, because a more descriptive name exists: grafting. Grafting is a better term, as it applies to the technique for all types of stitch patterns, not just stockinette stitch fabrics. And given that Kitchener probably didn’t invent it, I don’t know that it’s really appropriate that his name be attached to the technique.

But there’s a more important reason that we won’t use his name: Kitchener was commander-in-chief of the British Army during the latter part of the South African (Boer) War (1899-1902), a time when the British and Canadian Militaries were committing well-documented atrocities against the Boers.

From the Canadian War Museum website:

“The 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.”

Although he was considered a hero at the time—and by some, still is—his internment camps became the model for the Nazis’ concentration camps.

Further reading on the man and his military tactics can be found here, here and here.

At Nine Ten Publications and Digits & Threads, we are committed to avoiding harmful language and terminology, and we are committed to raising awareness when harmful language or nomenclature intersect with craft.

Image by Kathleen Sperling.

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