Lord John Grey’s Felted Wool Mittens
One of my favorite characters is Lord John, who is currently on the edge of Quebec (at least on my Kindle reader he is), in The Custom of the Army (Novella): An Outlander Novella…While Lord John isn’t fighting in the snow, the weather is soon to change on him, and New England, as I type this, is under a blanket of white.
Lord John is going to need felted wool mittens.
I rather thought Lord John would be a fancy carriage glove, but no.. he’s a very unassuming gray felted mitten.
Lord John’s time in Quebec, and the arrival of my last crop of fiber as spun yarn, inspired this pair of felted wool mittens sized for both men and women (of course). which may look plain and ordinary, but are actually nothing short of magic. Felting, or Fulling, of wool, the shrinking and packing of wool fiber into a dense material, was probably discovered by Neanderthal peoples picking shed fiber off pointy rocks and twigs. But the pattern and process of creating wet felted mittens was perfected along the coastline from Quebec to central Maine, where the knitting of wool mittens was a cottage industry.
We make, I think, some assumptions concerning Colonial life, one of which is that most families were self-sufficient. Plainly this is not the case in settled areas. On the frontiers, yes. On the frontiers entire attics were dedicated to the enormous volume of tools and materials necessary to make everything from rope to fine threads, building materials to baskets. But in the towns there were merchants, carpenters, and tradesmen of all types, along with a steady traffic of men who fished or worked the logging camps and charcoal kilns. All of which conspired to make a cottage industry out of that most lowly of winter clothing items: the wool mitten.
In a surprisingly short amount of time mittens from Quebec to Boston assumed similar characteristics. Coastal mitten knitters developed a mitten with a short ribbed cuff, which suggests the exterior mitten was designed to be worn over fingerless gloves or wristers, the short cuff making it easy to pop on and off. The mittens have a thumb gore, to facilitate hand movement, and a small gore, called a “fourchette,” where the thumb joins the webbing of the hand. Unlike the peasant thumb (which is simply stitches dropped to make a hole for the thumb) or a simple gore (which creates a V, thus more movement and comfort for the thumb) the fourchette takes the strain off the fabric where the thumb joint meets the hand, making for a longer wearing mitten, and a better fitting thumb. The writer Harriet Prescott Spofford, in her story “Knitting Sale Socks” (pub Atlantic Monthly Feb 1861) has one of her characters reciting a sale-mitten pattern, and likely this is exactly how these patterns were passed from place to place: the patterns are easy to memorize, and produce a consistent product, especially if the wearer wet felts the mitten to customize it.
It was a combination of Lord John’s time in Quebec, and his crossing of the Atlantic with Dolly, which led me to think that Lord John likely would have bought, or been given, a pair of these mittens.. and been suitably impressed by their usefulness he’d have kept them for ocean travel. Besides, this year’s wool came back a lovely natural gray. And since this is Lord John we’re talking about here, it isn’t amiss that the wool is 20% angora, a luxury fiber then as now. I modified a traditional pattern to fit the weight of a modern mill spun yarn, and lengthened the cuff to make it easier to keep on (instead of take off.. since Lord John wouldn’t be sharpening an ax, but keeping his mittens on). I retained the shaping which “arcs” the mitten around the hand, making it easy to grasp and hold things, and the rounded tip. The rounded tip is an important innovation for mittens intended for use at sea. When one side gets wet (from grasping the rail) you simply switch the mittens, so you’ve got dry palms again.
A wet felted mitten is knit large.. then felted down. The magic of felted mittens lies in physics: mass is conserved. These mittens (in a woman’s size) weigh a bit less than 2 oz (the skeins are 2 oz, 888 yards, and it takes one skein to make a woman’s pair). From a floppy, grossly oversized, useless mitten shaped thing, through the application of very hot water, soap, and the bottom of a cast iron bathtub, something useless is transformed into a nicely fitting flexible mitten with a fabric so dense wind barely penetrates it.
In fact, I own a pair of very expensive high tech mittens and plowing on the open tractor yesterday my hands were freezing. I came in, nestled a pair of fancy angora/merino lace mittens into the felted ones, went back out into the wind and cold.. and came back an hour later with warm hands. There are some things we haven’t been able to improve on, and wet felted mittens is one of them.
I’ve uploaded a video of the sound of magic. A cast iron tub rings, changing in pitch as the moisture is beaten out of the mittens. When the tub hits a certain pitch it is time to check the mitten for size and if necessary, add more hot water before starting the process of flinging it (with some force as you’ll see) to the bottom of the tub: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZYLRYajHgA&feature=youtu.be
The magic of simplicity if someone else wants to try it: (as an aside, the little loop is made by making a running chain out of the wool left over from casting on.. darn the loop into the ribbing) Lord John’s mittens:
women’s size M (mens’ size M): using US size 8 single point (5 st/inch gauge): Cast On 42(48). K2P1 across, turn K1P2 back. Transfer to double points (I use the magic loop method of knitting, either way works), rib
in round 3.75(4) inches. P1K2P1 then inc evenly spaced 6 st: 48(54). P1K2P1 K around 2 rows.
Using the P st as markers inc 1 st at the inside edge of the gore, 2 st. K2 rows. Inc 2 st in the thumb gore every 3 rows until you have 14(16) st in the thumb gore counting the P st. K2 rows.
Put 14(16) st on thread and cast 4 st over gap. K up 4″(5″).
Dec: k2 tog, K6, k2 tog around, K2 rounds. K2 tog K6 around, K 2 rounds.. continue to K2 tog K4 then K 1 round, K2 tog K3, and decrease without separating rounds until K2 tog around. Capture remaining st. and darn in. //
Thumb: pu 14(16), then PU 6 from cast on edge. K 1 round. K 15(17) K2 tog K1 K2tog (K2 tog, K3, K2 tog), k one round K15 k2 tog k to end (K17 k2tog K to end).. k 3″ up, K3.5″ up. Dec K2 K1 tog around, K1 K2 tog.. then K2 tog, gather ends, darn.
Felt by soaking in very hot water then dousing in dish soap. Throw with some force onto a hard surface. Keep mittens wet and hot… and they’ll magically start shrinking. Try them on and shape them to your hand. Hang to dry.
Kits from our wool (The Farm at Morrison Corner) are available as a women’s (one skein) and man’s (two skein) packaged with a bit of history, and a pattern. If you scant the cuff on the man’s pair a hair, and shorten the cuff of the women’s mitten’s by an inch you can squeeze a woman’s and a man’s pair out of two skeins.. eliminating that extra yarn in the stash issue!
You can also make Jocasta’s Bonnie Scotch Bonnet and a pair of Lord John’s Mittens from two skeins
20% German Angora / Icelandic Wool Blend Yarn on Square Market
We’ll be at the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival, and at the NY Sheep and Wool Festival in Rhinebeck NY, working in the Frelsi Farm booth.
A downloadable, foldable, version of the pattern is available here