Warning! Mitten Knitting Can Be Addictive!
In many ways, mittens are an ideal knitting project. They’re small enough to carry everywhere. They’re easy enough that you can invent designs as you go along. They don’t have to be as light and seamless as socks, so you can use blunt-tipped plastic needles and blanket-type yarn if you like. They use up just one or two skeins of yarn. They knit up fast; you can make two or three pairs a day. They don’t have to be a perfect fit to be used and appreciated. One can see why entire knitting communities concentrated so much attention on mittens that they hardly developed any tradition of knitting anything else.
7 General Tips for Mitten Knitting
- Mittens can be made out of anything. Cheap, colorful acrylic blanket-weight yarn from the dime store makes warm and attractive mittens. Soft, thick, pretty cotton makes ideal kitchen mitts. For serious interaction with rain and snow, however, nothing beats wool. Wool mittens shrink to a perfect custom fit when they’re wet instead of stretching and drooping; that prickly feeling that can irritate your skin in a warm room keeps your hands warm on the ski slops. Many people who think they’re allergic to wool are actually allergic to chemicals used to process wool. If they try less thoroughly processed, perhaps undyed wool, especially soft types like Shetland, Merino, or Icelandic wool, they will be pleasantly surprised.
- Undyed wool is not necessarily white. There are endangered minority groups of sheep whose wool is naturally brown or gray. Shetland sheep come in any of nine distinct natural colors, including a brownish “red,” a grayish “blue,” and a dark gray called “Shetland Black.” Thus it’s possible to knit the famous “nine-color Fair Isle” color designs without using any dyed yarn.
- Mittens need to hold their shape, rather than flowing over the body like a sweater or cuddling around the shoulders like a shawl. You don’t always absolutely have to knit mittens on needles two or three sizes smaller than you’d use to knit a sweater or afghan with the same yarn, or pack at least one more stitch and one more row into every square inch, but that’s the way the most serviceable mittens are made. You want a thick, stiff fabric with no room to shrink.
- Mittens can be knitted on two needles (or even on a frame) in one piece, with seams around the edges. However, traditional knitting patterns call for four or five double-pointed needles, which makes mittens seamless and therefore more artistic.
- The best way to learn to knit mittens intuitively is to knit a few from patterns and see how patterns work. If you don’t already have a pattern you want to use, look for a published pattern. Some good basic patterns for knitted mittens are found in Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Knitting Without Tears and Knitting Workshop and in Mildred Graves Ryan’s Knitting for Pleasure. (A few of the other patterns in Knitting for Pleasure contain typographical errors, but the pattern for basic mittens that can be knitted on two needles, in blanket-type yarn, is flawless.)
- There are several good books dedicated exclusively to mitten patterns. Lizbeth Upitis’ Latvian Mittens and Anna Zilboorg’s Magnificent Mittens are beautiful, classic collections. My nomination for the title of Best Mitten Pattern Book Ever is Marcia Lewandowski’s Folk Mittens. It contains dozens of traditional and traditional-inspired patterns, uses a full range of knitting techniques and yarn types, and begins with a basic mitten pattern beginners can make with inexpensive yarn.
- Mittens are worn in pairs. Children’s mittens should, however, be knitted in sets of three. Mitten loss is sometimes caused by machine washing, during which one mitten can be trapped in the works. To prevent damage to machines as well as mittens, pin mittens (and socks and underwear) inside a pillow case before washing.
Knitting After Mittens
To break the mitten habit before it becomes addictive, you may want to reflect on this knitting fact: One mitten generally equals half a hat; or, if you repeat any traditional mitten pattern twice on double the number of stitches, for the same number of rows, ignoring the thumbs, you have a matching hat.