Since we were heading off to Lake Tahoe after Christmas, and the snow last year was over people's heads in places, I decided to make some mittens. Of course I had been intrigued by the late-mediaeval mittens in the January/February 2010 issue of Piecework magazine, and so I decided to make those. The patterns was written up by Susan Strawn from a mitten in the Museum of London, dated to the 1500s. It is different from the usual (modern) method of mitten knitting in that you start from the tip of the fingers and work down to the thumb, then start the thumb separately, also from the tip, attach half of that by a three-needle bind-off, then pick up the rest of the thumb stitches as you continue down to the cuff. The cast-on is a variation of the one used quite often by Elizabeth Zimmermann, which she called Emily Ocker's cast-on -- this variation does not use a crochet hook but starts the stitches directly on the first knitting needle.
This wool is some leftover Lamb's Pride worsted in bright red, with a bit of Lion Brand superwash in black for the patterned band.
I made a few small modifications to the pattern. It seemed to me that having a clever way of starting the thumb and still using a relatively clumsy way of casting on the hand didn't make sense, and so I started both the hand and the thumb with the circular cast-on method given in the article; I started with 9 sts for the hand (an odd number to avoid that slippery second-loop), then knit 1 round, increased to 16 sts, knit 2 rounds, increased to 32, and carried on with the pattern as written from there. I don't think you need to turn both the mitten and the thumb inside-out, as the pattern says -- only the mitten -- you just need right-sides together.
I had some trouble with attaching the thumb, and didn't get the stitch count right either time, so had to fudge it a bit, because I was unusually impatient that day for some reason and couldn't be bothered to pick out the 3-needle bind-off and do it again correctly. I also worked 9 rounds after the colored band, for a little extra length.
Do leave a long tail when joining the wool back after adding the thumb, as the holes left by this method are significant!
Here is the original mitten (of course there is only one, it's a child's mitten!) at the Museum of London:
"Small knitted woollen mitten. The wool is pale brown. There is a line of black wool decoration around the wrist. Date: 1500s. Knitting appears to have become common only in the 1500s, but then it rapidly increased in popularity. It was a new activity in working people's lives and soon also became a valuable source of income for many. This knitted child's mitten is a rare survival. It is knitted from the top of the finger-pouch in the direction of the wrist and decorated with three rows of black wool in a simple pattern around the wrist. Poorer people could find a bargain at the second hand clothes dealers ('fripperers') in Houndsditch, but many relied on home-knitted woollen clothes. This garment offers an insight into how children were protected from the cold. Place of collection: Hill Street, Finsbury, London [Islington] Measurements: L 130 mm; W (including thumb piece) 70 mm."
There is some discussion about this mitten on the HistoricKnit list, including a different redaction of the pattern. The gauge of the original is approximately 8.5 sts per inch. One lister notes about the color, "It is soft white wool, stained brownish by iron salts and peat acids, and has a very simple color-pattern band which is probably of natural-colored black wool," and another lister adds, about the identification of the pattern band color as black, "This keeps getting repeated, which is unfortunate. If you look at it under magnification, it's actually purple, and appears to have been lichen-dyed."
And this got me intrigued enough to work another pair to the second pattern, this time in some Paton's Classic wool. I dyed a few arm's-lengths in grape-flavored Kool-Aid to use for the patterned band. Since the wool was originally this oatmeal color, the purple tends to look a bit brown in most lights, but has a pleasing purpliness at times.
The gauge on the Paton's was different enough to allow more shaping in this mitten than in the other pair. I did modify this pattern a bit as well, as I really liked the other cast-on. This one does a more familiar waste-yarn thumb-hole, then working the thumb up from there to the point.
Alas, though, there is not a speck of snow where we are, and the ski runs are all man-made stuff, so that I could not pose the mittens on an impressive snow-bank, but there was a bit of frost on the dock this morning, enough to make it sparkle very pleasingly in the dawn light.
And here is the sunrise this morning off of our balcony --