New England's Fisherman Mittens
Before the advent of insulated rubber mittens, the wives of New England & Canadian Maritime fishermen knit specialized, water proof mittens for their husbands. Made of fiber still greased with lanolin, the fishermen would dip the gloves into hot water before exposing them to frigid winter air; the resulting freeze would close any gaps in the yarn, fully insulating the mittens and keeping the wearers' hands so warm that they would steam when the gloves were removed at the end of the day.
Such mittens fell out of favor when modern materials were said to have made them obsolete, yet the fishermen who tried to adjust to changing times found newer synthetic gloves too bulky, too delicate and too clumsy to work with in comparison to the old garments. Nevertheless, as hand knit textiles became more hobby than industry and the old knitters passed away, New England's fisherman mittens became increasingly scarce - and the art of making them was nearly lost entirely.
This art was rescued just a few years ago on Chebeague Island, off of Portland. Minnie Doughty, the one woman on the island that maintained the craft, passed away. Most of her mittens had long been lost, but a single pair were held onto by her daughters as a family keepsake.
This pair was studied by the Chebeague Island Methodist Church Ladies Aid knitters and one among them - Elizabeth Bergh - counted stitches, measured, found a loose end to determine the thickness of the yarn, and put together instructions for fishermen’s mittens. The Ladies Aid knitters tried out the instructions, then continued knitting until they had a small pile of mittens. They “sold like hotcakes” at their fair, Miss Bergh recalled.
Here are Elizabeth Bergh’s instructions, based on Minnie Doughty’s mittens. They are probably the only instructions in print anywhere for this kind of mitten. But beware! They make a huge mitten that must be shrunk in salt water, and really can be used only in the traditional way:
BOILED WOOL MITTEN PATTERN DIRECTIONS
Yarn: Two skeins Bartlett yarns, 2- or 3-ply fisherman yarn, or other worsted-weight wool with lanolin, used singly.
Equipment: Four number 4 double-pointed needles, or size needed to knit correct gauge.
Gauge: Five stitches equal one inch.
On size four double-pointed needles, cast on 12, 15, and 15 stitches, a total of 42 stitches on three needles. Knit two, purl one until wristband measures four inches.
Then, first round: place last purl stitch on first needle. Purl one, knit two, purl one. Knit rest of round, increasing two stitches on each needle for a total of 48 stitches.
Second round: start thumb gore. Purl one, increasing one stitch in each of the next two stitches, purl one. Knit around, and knit rounds three, four, and five, maintaining the two purl stitches as a marker.
Sixth round: purl one, increase in the next stitch, knit two, increase in the next stitch, purl one (eight stitches, including two purls). Knit around. Knit three more rounds.
Continue to increase this way every fourth row until you have 14 stitches for the thumb gore, including the two purl stitches. Knit three more rounds and place the 14 stitches on a string.
Cast on 10 stitches to bridge the gap and divide the stitches 18 to a needle (total 54 stitches). Knit up 4 to 4-1/2 inches from thumb for the hand.
Begin decreasing in next round:
Knit two together, knit seven. Repeat around. Knit two rounds. Knit two together, knit six, and repeat around. Knit two rounds. Knit two together, knit five, and repeat around. Knit two rounds. Knit two together, knit four, and repeat around. Knit one round. Knit two together, knit three, and repeat around. Knit one round. Knit two together around. Break the yarn and draw up the remaining stitches on the tail, using a yarn needle. Darn the tail back and forth across the tip of the mitten. Thumb: Pick up from thumb gore seven stitches on each of two needles and one stitch from each side of the thumbhole, a total of 16 stitches on two needles. Pick up the 10 stitches from the palm side of the thumbhole on a third needle. Knit two rounds. Next round, decrease one stitch on each end of the third needle. There are now eight stitches on each needle. Knit 2 to 2-1/2 inches.
Next round, decrease: knit two together, knit two, and repeat around. Knit one round. Next round, knit two together, knit one, and repeat around. Break yarn and draw up remaining stitches on the tall, using a yarn needle. Darn the end into the tip of the thumb. Work all other loose ends into the fabric of the mitten.
Crochet a loop at the edge of the cuff for hanging the mitten to dry. Use the tail left from casting on, if possible. To shrink: soak the mittens in boiling hot water, squeeze them out and dry them on a radiator. I shrink mine in the drier on the hot setting, but this takes out some of the oil. Some men say to dry them in the freezer. This takes a long, long time. Some claim they soak their mittens in fish gore, then wash them in hot water. However you choose to shrink your mittens, the first shrinking will not complete the trick, but the mittens will continue to shrink in use. Don’t give up.