Hedgehog Knits

Adventures in knitting from the eastern edge of Canada.

Monday, November 20, 2006

A heritage project

I've been reading quite a bit lately about historical knitting patterns. Even the Yarn Harlot was talking about historical sock knitting in a recent post. I got to thinking about my own knitting heritage and wondering why I couldn't find much information about Newfoundland patterns.

Newfoundland, for those who might be unfamiliar, is the easternmost part of Canada, a large island, that together with Labrador, makes up the youngest Canadian province. We only joined Canada in 1949, and though most of the island is now fully modernized, the place was pretty isolated even in the days of my parents' childhood. I left the island in 1996 to go to university on "the mainland", and well, ten years later, I'm still in school!

My personal knitting heritage derived from my grandmother and my aunt, who taught me to knit when I was a very little girl. I'm pretty sure I was starting to knit, sitting on a little humpty beside Nan's recliner, before I was old enough to read. They were both incredibly patient with a little girl who liked to increase unintentionally by splitting a stitch, and then just knitting the second half of the stitch separately. And I knit so tight that my aunt would have to take it from me and knit a couple of loose rows just so I wouldn't injure myself trying to force the needles. I used to have two different coloured small dpn's - one green and one red - so that I could easily see which way I was going and remember to
switch hands at the end of the row. I knit many a "blanket" and skirt for my Barbies, and scarves for my Cabbage Patch Dolls. I remember my grandmother once told me that her father taught her to knit. In later years at Nan's house, I learned to do "fancy work" (embroidery) and much later, crochet. But from the beginning, I wanted to knit like most of the women in my life.

Some of you may recognize this type of thrummed mitten as a Newfoundland mitten:

When you search "Newfoundland mitten" on Google, this is what comes up. They've even been featured in Interweave Knits. (I made these last winter). Now, I don't doubt that these do originate on the island, but I definitely remember the first time that I saw them, and it wasn't until I was in high school. And I remember some older ladies in my family remarking on them - they had obviously never seen them before. So if these are truly Newfoundland mittens, I suspect they might have originated in the central or western part (I come from Conception Bay, close to St. John's.)

I've also found Maggi's pattern for Newfoundland Mitts, but I've never seen these before. Again, they might be a regional thing that I haven't come across. They're certainly not common in the St. John's region.

But this, this is what I recognize as a Newfoundland traditional mitt, or "cuff" as some of the older crowd likes to call them. The two-colour double knit is nice and warm, and the tighter it's knit the better. For a people who spend so much of their time on the water or in the woods, tight-knit, wind-proof mitts are important. I have one great aunt who is well know in my home town as a very good and fast knitter, and I remember my father commenting on how "close" (tight-knit) her mitts are. (As an aside, she was also knitting toe-up socks long before that became the thing to do.)

Now in my childhood, these mitts were always knit out of acrylic worsted - Red Heart and the like. This is probably because it was the cheapest and most easily available stuff around. I'm sure that in the old days they were
made from handspun, and I've often wondered if they would have had dark and light fleece spun to do the contrast colours, or whether light yarn would be dyed black for this purpose. Nowadays, I'm starting to see wool mitts again, especially for sale in the tourist shops. More authentic that way, I guess. The acrylic version always sold for $8 a pair at the church Fall Fair in the 1980's, although I'm sure tourists can expect to pay upwards of $20 in a gift shop now.

The pattern, or course, is as varied as the women who knit it. This black and white diamond pattern that I've shown is probably the most popular, but I've seen variations on geometric patterns, and even pictoral designs like poinsettias. And proficient knitters could copy a pattern just by borrowing a mitt and copying it as they went. My husband has a pair with a white horse head on
a dark green background, that I will photograph as soon as I can find them! I've even seen ones with puffins (the provincial bird) for sale in the tourist shop at Signal Hill National Historic Site. The colours are usually white and a dark shade, although I remember Nan making me a pair each of mint-green-and-white and lavender-and-white when I was a pre-teen, on special request. Why the one finger, you ask? Commonly known as "three-fingered mitts" or "trigger mitts", this configuration allows a person a bit more dexterity to deal with fishing gear or to pull the trigger of a shotgun while keeping three fingers together for warmth. Of course, you're just as likely to see full fingered gloves:

or, less commonly, regular mittens:

This last pair, I'm pretty sure, was knit by my Nan, probably one of the last pairs that she ever made for me. They're tattered and no longer very white, but I can't bear to part with them.

I read somewhere that this style of knitting is a blend of Scandanavian folk patterns and traditional British patterns. This makes perfect sense, since most people on the island share British or Irish heritage, and the port of St. John's was a very common stop-over for foreign fishermen. Up until the 1960's it wouldn't be at all uncommon to see Icelandic or Norwegian fishmen strolling the downtown streets (so I'm told), so borrowing from their warm, double-stranded, geometric patterns seems like a sensible thing to do. These days, every now and again I see a pair of these of the chilly streets of Ottawa, and they always make me smile. On occasion, I've asked a complete stranger, "Are you from Newfoundland, or did you just get your gloves there?". It's like a secret handshake to identify those away from home.

Anyway, seeing as I have been unable to find any written pattern for these mitts, which are such a hallmark of Newfoundland culture, and there is very little reference to them anywhere on the internet (other than a few museum shops on the island who sell them), I have decided to take this on as a bit of a project. In just over a month, I'm heading home for a bit of an extended Christmas holiday, and I intend to try to photograph as many of these mitts as possible, to talk to some of the folks who've been knitting them for more years than I've been around, and to finally produce a pattern for them. Surely, with the recent resurgence in knitting popularity, I am not the only young Newfoundlander out there who wants a chance to knit these with nobody locally to show me. So stay tuned for more news on the gloves in the upcoming weeks.


Blogger Chris (mombie) said...

Thanks for the birthday greetings.

Interesting blog. I'm jealous of your knitting skills. I once tried to knit a pair of mittens but only got halfway through one hand before I had to give up. I'm not what you'd call crafty to say the least.

10:02 p.m.  
Blogger Glenna C said...

Awesome post on the mitts!
I have not yet made a thrummed mitten pattern or a fair isle mitten like those, but I'd sure like to eventually.

12:02 a.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great Christmas project and so important to keep the local knitting heritage alive. I love the vision of the generations of your family all knitting together.

Reading back through your posts you may be able to help me with my sock search as I think you must have checked out all the patterns out there! I'm just looking for a beginner's guide/pattern - they feel like quite a jump from scarves but all the gorgeous socks on the blogs are just too inspiring to not have a go.

Isn't blog land great? I'm so amazed and delighted by the online community of knitters. I'll be sure to stop by again soon.

12:39 p.m.  
Blogger Kelly said...

Hi to all of you!

Yes, Chris, I remember that you were officially deemed "craft challenged". Hey, I can't act, and am not much of a writer - you can't do it all. Thanks for stopping by.

Crazy lady (can I call you crazy lady? lol!) the thrummed mitts are the warmest thing I've ever put on my hands. Highly recommended for Ontario winters. Mine have horrible ladders as you can see in the photo, but I like to think I've improved that in the last year or so.

Sarah - I left you a bit of a suggestion for a sock book on your blog. Thanks for the encouragement - I'm looking forward to the mitten research. I think I may have located a Folklore thesis on Newfoundland knitting - who knew?!

4:45 p.m.  
Anonymous lori z said...

hi -- i was just googling about newfoundland trigger mitts as I'm about to try knitting myself a pair. my current pair that I purchased before I started knitting have started wearing out! Have you had any luck with the pattern thus far? I haven't tried yet -- I'm just thinking about it in my head.

12:41 p.m.  
Blogger Kelly said...

Hi Lori. Welcome!

I haven't tackled that project yet. I'm a fulltime student and this time of year is pretty crazy. I'm going to work on it over Christmas and hopefully have a pattern ready to pot here by early January. I'd love to hear how it works out for you though!

7:09 p.m.  
Blogger Denise S said...


I have recently discovered the written pattern for "trigger mitts" on a trip to Newfoundland. They are available for purchase from www.wooltrends.ca. There is a chart for the traditional diamonds as well as a moose and puffin. Good Luck!

2:13 p.m.  
Anonymous JustSusan said...

Hi Denise,
Can't seem to find the Trigger Mitt pattern on Wooltrends.ca. I knit my children Trigger mitts from a modified glove pattern but would love an actual pattern. My husband is requesting some since all the thumbs are being chewed out by a 9mth old Portuguese water dog. Do you have the pattern by chance? Thanks.

1:03 p.m.  
Blogger Jay said...

Am looking for a pattern for Newfoundland socks and the type yarn that was used. Any help given thank you

10:17 a.m.  
Blogger alaskagirl said...

Hi Kelly- I was just googling warm mittens from Newfoundland and found your blog- Did you ever find a pattern from your Family? I sure would be interested as Alaska is a little chily too. Plus I like the idea of keeping up traditions. Thanks for your blog-

11:56 a.m.  

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