When a biting nor'easter blows, Mainers reach for their warmest double-knit mittens - when they can get their hands on them. ''There aren't many women left who knit them,'' says Robin Hansen, who has researched traditional mittens in Maine and the Canadian Maritimes.
Maine double-knit mittens are knit with two strands of yarn in striking two-color patterns. The double thickness of wool gives exceptional warmth but does not have the bulk of two mittens worn together or a mitten within a mitten, joined at the cuff. ''I haven't found any evidence of these being knit in other parts of the country,'' says Mrs. Hansen.
She lives on a small nonworking farm in West Bath, ''with a few goats and a horse.'' She first discovered a pair of these distinctive mittens in a general store how long ago?. Her interest grew as she went to craft fairs, talked to native Maine knitters, and uncovered traditional patterns in old yarn catalogs.
''My younger kids like the Fox and Geese pattern because of the story that goes with it,'' says Mrs. Hansen, whose four children range in age from 7 to 16. The Canadian Maritime version of the pattern resembles the crossed circles stamped into the snow used as part of a children's chasing game called ''Fox and Geese.'' The crossed circles also appear in a handmade ''Fox and Geese'' board game from the Maritime provinces.
Salt and pepper, a simple alternating pattern using two colors, is the most common double-knit pattern. It is usually knit with a dark or dull color emphasized and a glowing warm or red underneath.
While the salt and pepper pattern is found all over the Maine and Maritimes area, many of the patterns are regional.
The checkerboard pattern, for example, is knit in central and northern Maine. Checkerboard mittens, which are knit with a heavier yarn, are especially ''thick , luscious, and puffy,'' says Mrs. Hansen. They were originally worn under leather mittens by woodsmen in northern Aroostook County.
Other traditional designs include the sawtooth pattern with rows of triangular ''teeth'' (knit in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick), the spruce pattern , which resembles a fir twig when knit in green and white, and the dramatic striped pattern.
''Most of the mittens probably came over with English-speaking settlers,'' says Mrs. Hansen, who also uncovered some unusual exceptions. One of her special finds was a crocheted mitten made by an elderly man living near Livermore Falls. He used a special needle that made ''an enormously thick mitten.'' Later Mrs. Hansen discovered that the mittens he made were identical to a type of folk mitten made in Sweden.
Mrs. Hansen has included some of the traditional patterns and their knitting instructions in a book called ''Fox, Geese, and Fences: A Collection of Traditional Maine Mittens.'' The book also includes instructions for fishermen's mittens (made to be worn wet), fleece-stuffed mittens, and adaptations of the traditional patterns for babies and young children. ''Fox, Geese, and Fences'' is available at bookstores or direct from the publisher: Down East Books, PO Box 679, Camden, Maine 04843. Cost is $6.95 per copy plus $1.25 for postage and handling.m