I’m quoting my bestie when I asked her what she wanted for Christmas. “Mittens! I’m smitten with mittens!” I had just cast on a Fair Isle that morning, so the timing was perfect. My mom and I used to make mittens all the time using a classic pattern in one of the Jack Frost books. It was the only one we used and I still have it somewhere, very tattered but readable. It’s how I learned (at a rather young age) to use double pointed needles.
As a knitter and a writer it’s always been on my bucket-list to write a book rich in the history of knitting. I often fed my curiosity and dove into what people had on their own needles throughout the years. When I was the curator of our small historical society, I did a display on WWII. I found call-to-action war posters all over the internet aimed at the women back home: “Our Boys Need Socks…Knit Your Bit” and “Remember Pearl Harbor….Purl Harder”. Knitting for family members was discouraged, as the time and supplies should be aimed towards the soldiers. Google them, they are really cool. It’s where my fascination with wartime knitting was kindled.
I found myself wondering why so few people know how to knit in today’s society. If our ancestors didn’t leave the house without yarn and needles, how did it come to be that a few generations later it was so rarely done. I understand the role of the textile manufacturers coupled with the lack of time and increase in income, but why wasn’t it taught as a past-time, as a hobby, as a post apocalyptic life skill? Why did the needles get tucked away and forgotten?
The more I researched, the more I began to think they were just damned sick of knitting. After all the demand on their time (and fingers), could you blame them? I know after a holiday season of knitting a million presents, I don’t want to look at another pattern for months.
But this mindset of knitting as a living or a necessity (you needed to keep warm) wasn’t new. Not by a long shot. I took my research back in time and focused on the islands of Shetland. I was taken in by the colorful patterns and the rich designs. I remember my grandmother knitting one for me and a lot of the patterns I inherited were rich in stranded knitting. Furthermore, I loved the crisp white star against the navy for the Norwegian beauties. Armed with several books from the library, it didn’t take me long to find the sentiment I suspected. In Ann Feitelson’s The Art of Fair Isle Knitting: History, Technique, Color and Patterns, she quotes one woman; “We HAD to do it…Knitters were up half the night, and not for the love of it…I always vowed I’d never knit for anyone.” I can understand the sentiment. It wasn’t fun. It was work.
Today more and more people are using their rare knitting abilities to make money again. There are Etsy sites full of homemade items. Everything from dishcloths to wedding dresses (yup) can be found for sale. Ravelry.com is the go-to for crafters with thousands and thousands of patterns, many free and downloadable. It’s certainly one of my favorite hangout places! But it’s a different world for most of us. We don’t have to sell our products, we choose to. For most of us, it’s not a matter of whether our family eats or not (while I’m sure for way too many that is the case, especially outside America).
What does this have to do with mittens? Why, everything! As part of the research for my latest novel I decided to make a few pair of mittens: Fair Isle, plain using a 1940’s wartime pattern, and a pair of Selbuvotter mittens, the iconic Norwegian beauties. I wanted to knit from patterns they used. Understand what they did. Now I want to know how the hell they did them in the dark and from memory!
The first pair I made, the ones on the needles when the BFF asked for mittens (yes, they are hers) is from a free pattern on Ravelry.com called Fair Isle Sticky Mitts. I used sport weight yarn in colors I had hanging around and am super happy with them. I won’t lie, they were a bitch at times and I ripped out a lot of stitches due to one misplaced color. I found quickly that you couldn’t let your mind wander knitting these babies! The second one was a little easier once I had the pattern under my belt at least once. They are thinner than the others, but I bet they are still very warm.
The middle pair are from a wartime 1940s pattern simply called Mittens No. 211 also found on Ravelry for free. The classic pattern is similar to the one my mom and I used except the thumb is a bit different. I bought the gorgeous pink worsted weight yarn on sale at a local shop. They were a nice change from the complex Fair Isles! These were certainly a lot easier when daydreaming of a warm beach somewhere! Being a heavy yarn on small needles, the knit is tight and warm.
I’m still working on the Selbuvotter Norwegian Star and the pattern is found in the book, Folk Mittens: Techniques and Patterns for Handknitted Mittens by Marcia Lewandowski. I can already tell these babies are WARM! I used basic Paton’s Classic Wool in navy and cream. This was one of the books I picked up at the library but you can find quite a few free patterns on Ravelry. Still, this book will need to be added to my collection at some point! I’ve never done a thumb gusset like this one, so I’ll let you know how it goes!
The writing and research is going well and hopefully a novel surrounding WWII on the Shetland Mainland will be forthcoming this year, but in the meantime, I too, am pretty smitten on [making] mittens!