May we talk about mittens?

For me, Robin, mittens are a wonderful thing. When I was little and walked the half-hour trek to school in winter with the mittens my grandmother knit me (doubled up to ward off the freezing wind), my hands felt toasty warm upon my arrival. If I needed another pair, my grandmother would happily knit them for me. From the very beginning, mittens represented love and warmth. For my son’s first winter, I ensured he had hand-knit mittens. I even used the same Paton’s pattern my grandmother must have used! That first pair are still around and bring back fond memories.

The first hat and mittens I knit for my son’s first winter.

Around 1990, I bought a book called Latvian Mittens: Traditional Designs and Techniques, by Lizbeth Upitis. It has been republished since then and I think it is a real treasure. It immediately captured me with the strong cultural significance of mittens in Latvian weddings and therefore life, really. A girl would start to knit mittens when she was young because she would not only have to show off her skill, but have enough made to give to all of her future wedding guests which was basically the entire village in which she lived. In short, a very large number of mittens.  I think another aspect I loved about this story was the addition of necessity. I had mittens made for me by my mum and grandmother as an expression of love as well as a practical thing but it was possible, and common to some, to buy such items from a store. I was reminded that knitting mittens was not just a hobby but a necessary activity to provide appropriate winter clothing. I liked the value that was placed on this underappreciated skill.

The wool for these children’s mittens came from my own sheep. I dyed and spun the yarn to knit this pattern from Lizbeth Upitis’ book, Latvian Mittens.

It seems that first book started my collection of mitten books. Next up were Fox and Geese and Fences by Robin Hansen and Flying Geese and Partridge Feet by Robin Hansen and Janetta Dexter. These two books provided mitten designs that were from the east coast of Canada and the United States. Beautiful, practical mittens but I felt my heart was still captured by the tradition of the Latvian mittens.

This can be seen by my collection of Latvian mitten knitting books, many of which are in that language and one is from Latvia during the Soviet occupation and has text in Latvian, Russian, German, English. This last book was a wonderful and unexpected gift. I found out that a co-worker was of Latvian descent, his grandmother still living there. My inner knitting nerd came out and I excitedly talked to him about the mittens as his eyes glazed over. He had no interest but told his grandmother how this crazy Canadian woman knew about the Latvian mitten tradition. She is the one who sent me this book via her grandson. I knit her a pair of mittens designed in Scotland as a thank you but it feels insufficient in comparison to my gratitude for this book.

Speaking of gratitude and amazingly generous people, a few years ago, I had befriended a Lithuanian woman through Ravelry. Sonata is an incredible knitter. Really, she does the most amazing work. Somehow it happened that we ended up exchanging boxes of our region’s items such as local wool yarn and chocolate and tea. Knowing my love of mittens and their inherent culture, she sent me a few books of Lithuanian mittens over the next three or four years. I treasure these books and have knit a few of the patterns as gifts. Unfortunately for me, the books are written in Lithuanian so I am unable to learn of any cultural significance from them but the patterns are charted and if one understands gauge, they are easy to knit up.

Another knitting tradition that is making a surge on the international front, are Norwegian mittens. With Arne and Carlos, Elie from Skeindeer Knits, and Patricia from Knitography, it seems that everyone knows about and are knitting Norwegian mittens. I first learnt of these mittens from the work of Terri Shea and her book on Selbuvotter. Skeindeer has made these mittens more accessible to more people by charting simpler patterns in many gauges whereas Knitography sticks to the tradition of these beautiful mittens and allows anyone to knit along with her as she teaches the historical and cultural details in her on-line Selbuvotter class.

What are Canadian traditions? Canada is made up of many peoples from all over the world. We immigrants practice and share our heritage but do we have any mitten traditions of our own? Did anything, besides the desire for warmth, grow organically in Canada? Or are our traditions more like a local slang, an adaptation of the original mitten patterns?

Within the last two years, Canadians Christine Legrow and Shirley A. Scott, have interviewed people and conducted research on the mitten patterns of Newfoundland & Labrador. They have published three books called Saltwater Mittens, Saltwater Classics, and Saltwater Gifts in which they talk about the possible origin of some of the patterns. These books are wonderful. They are full of stories and poems. They include colour inspiration for these beautiful patterns for mittens, hats, and household accessories. One of the best parts of the books? They were designed using the wonderful, affordable, and mostly overlooked Briggs and Little yarns. This woollen mill produces one of my all-time favourite yarns and the ones I intend to showcase by knitting mittens of Latvian, Lithuanian, Norwegian, and Shetland traditions as well as those of  Newfoundland & Labrador. After all, we Canadians* are all immigrants, are we not? Whether we hail from France or the Ukraine, from Japan or Nigeria, we would use local wool to knit our traditional patterns and not, I think, send away for our mitten yarn from overseas.

When I see all of these amazing patterns and read about their development and significance and their integral part of an area’s culture, I want to knit them all. I want to continue in my grandmother’s footsteps and knit for school children and the homeless. Canada’s winters are cold. Everyone needs protection from the bitter wind and freezing temperatures. Why not share the love and warmth with a gift of hand-knit mittens? Briggs and Little Woolen Mill makes this an affordable option. I hope you will join me in this mitten knitting adventure and comment on what it is you are making.

*We are all immigrants in Canada. It’s just that some of us were here much, much before any colonizing countries moved in and took over.

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