Before 1914, socks generally were finished at the toes with a seam. During “The Great War,” however, life in the trenches meant illnesses such as “trench foot”, an infection that could end up with the foot needing amputation; one way to avoid this was to keep feet dry and change one’s socks several times a day. How was the army to keep up with the consequent demand for socks? Civilians were thus encouraged to "knit their bit” for the soldiers, with Horatio Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War, contributing a sock pattern with a grafted toe. No one knows if the man actually invented the technique, but in North America, this method of closing a sock has become known as the “Kitchener Stitch.”
In order to use this technique, one needs a double line of knitting with matched stitches. Usually, this means an otherwise completed sock with stitches on two different needles. Cut the yarn so that there is enough yarn to complete a row of knitting and also weave in the remaining tail. Thread the yarn onto a tapestry needle. The procedure begins by slipping the tapestry needle and yarn through the back stitch from the left to the right, and then through the front stitch from the right to the left. The first two stitches are now halfway done.
Take the tapestry needle back to the same back stitch and insert the needle from right to left. This stitch is now complete and can be dropped off the knitting needle. Move to the next back stitch and pass the needle through from left to right, but keep it on the knitting needle. Take the tapestry needle and move it to the front stitch, threading it from right to left. This stitch is now complete and can be dropped off the knitting needle. Go to the next front stitch, and pass the tapestry needle through it from right to left. Once again, there are two stitches that are halfway done.
At this point, one continues following the above pattern: finish the back stitch, start a new back stitch, finish the front stitch, start a new front stitch. When the last pair of stitches is finished, the toe is grafted and the yarn needs to be sewn to the other side and then woven into the fabric. The toe is then finished (and probably the sock as well).
One way to visualize this procedure is to look at what one is creating. Each pass of the tapestry needle makes half a knit stitch. One starts by creating the front of the back stitch and the back of the front stitch. After that, one finishes a stitch and creates a new half before moving to the other part of the sock. The last row of knitting is thus woven into the rest of the sock.
Kitchener Stitch is a learned technique, and it may be helpful to watch a demonstration either on YouTube or in person if it’s difficult to visualize the movements from reading. Once practiced, it’s a relatively easy technique, albeit one that contributes to the mystique of the magical knitter who can produce seamless items with just two needles and a ball of yarn. Those who prefer knitting socks from the top down will quickly become proficient after a few pairs of socks, although after some time a quick review is always useful.
The relationship of the Kitchener Stitch to World War I means that any knitter can connect with the past, even if just a little bit, by creating a pair of socks. Note how they protect the feet from damp, blisters, and infection. Be thankful that loved ones aren’t spending time in a trench, and that their feet (or your own) are warm and comfortable inside those knitted socks!