Poetry Mittens: Useful Beauty (and patterns)

September 16, 2013 in Creating The 18th Century, Outlander Inspired Knitting Patterns by M C

“They will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful and insist the beautiful be useful.”   Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation on New Englanders.

mittenPoetry mittens, designed to show a young woman’s skill in needlework, her piety, and her ability to read, appear at the end of the 18th and early 19th century.  I like to think of them as the practical girl’s answer to the embroidered sampler, which, while refining a girl’s needlework skills (and displaying her piety and literacy), didn’t produce something of practical use.  Mittens, even mittens with bit of moralizing doggrel on them, are at least useful.

Patterns for short inscriptions and dates in knitting began appearing in penny papers as early as the late 18th century, the Smithsonian has an early example in their collection, the poem “Trouble” reads “One thing you must not borrow nor never give away X For he who borrows trouble will have it every day X But if you have a plenty and more then you can bear X It will not lighten yours XX if others have a share X You must learn to be contented then will your trouble cease X And then you may be certain that you will live in peace X For a contented mind is a continual feast.”  The X is used in the pattern to delineate the poems lines, which wrap around the mitten from wrist to tip in one continuos flow of text.

It isn’t just art New Englander’s preferred to be useful.  The role of a woman in 18th century Colonial New England was rigidly defined, by law, church, and tradition, but while a woman could not own property outright she could, and was expected to, act as a proxy for her husband in matters of business when he was unavailable.   This tradition of the “proxy wife” was both convenience and necessity, given that much of Colonial New England was comprised of coastal commerce and fishing communities.  A woman was called on, more often than not, to settle matters of trade and business in her husband’s stead. A pious young woman, skilled in needlework, who could read, would have had considerably more value as a wife than a woman who could not read. No matter how pious or skilled in needlework.

Poetry mittens were popular for a relatively short period of time and there aren’t many examples readily available for the layman to study.  This art form might have been all but forgotten but for an article which came out in Piecework Magazine in 2008: Unraveling Poetry Mittens by Veronica Patterson, and just like that, poetry mittens were popular again.

Traditional poetry mittens wrap the poem around the mitten from wrist to tip, the text facing away from the wearer. While this is traditional, if you’d like to show off your poem you have to practically twist your arm off to rotate the mittens around and around as you display your verse.  And, since the text runs around the mittens instead of vertically, the mittens don’t actually make a whole lot of sense when you glance at them.

In short, maybe it isn’t so surprising traditional poetry mittens fell out of favor.  The concept is good, but the execution leaves something to be desired.  Still, the idea of poetry or inspiration knit into a mitten is nothing short of charming.  The concept just needs a little updating and improving.

RobertFrost1I introduced the Robert Frost mittens three years ago, and they remain wildly popular, even at Rhinebeck’s NY Sheep and Wool Festival, which is an annual orgy of creativity and fiber at the peak of October foliage at the Dutchess County Fairground.  I resisted putting up the pattern chart for two years, pointing out to anyone who asked that the whole point of a poetry mitten is its reflection of your skill, passion, and creativity.. not someone else’s.  Mitten math is fairly simple: on a size 2-3 needle a woman’s mitten knit in a light sport weight is roughly 70 stitches around, so 35 stitches per side.  Leave a 2 stitch margin on either side (or your letters are hard to see) and I do three plain rows between each line (again, making it easier to read).  That’s all you really need to know to chart your way to happy mitten glory.

Nobody cared.  In the two years I spent resisting printing the chart only one woman went away declaring she would design her own mittens, and with her own poem firmly in mind.  Everyone else was disappointed.  I put the mitten pattern up as a chart.. and disappointed even more people (if that’s possible) because the chart is a sketch, not line by line instructions.  It assumes that if you need a smaller mitten you’ll know to cut off the plain sections on either side until you’ve got a mitten chart which meets you needs.

The Robert Frost Mitten Chart remains a sketch, a suggestion for how letters and design can be laid out.. trim it down to fit your needs, pick a palm pattern which you think matches the verse, and do your thumb as you like.  When I started these mittens I’d never heard of a fourchette.. this year the new mittens are appearing with a fourchette because I’ve become hopelessly enamored of the design.

cauldblaws1But the Robert Frost Mittens are not true poetry mittens in that the design is limited to one side (the back).  Nor can we say they have a much resonance with Outlander.  So this past year I worked up two Outlander Inspired poetry mittens: Up in the Morning Early (By Robert Burns) and Yan Tan Tethera.  Both mittens for shepherds and anyone else out tending stock on a winter’s day.

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