Mystery of the Woolly Bear Mitten

IN 1986, Robin Hansen got a visit from the Maine state folklorist, Amanda McQuiddy. ``Have I got some mittens to show you!'' she said, and handed Mrs. Hansen a cream-colored pair. They were plain, yet pleasantly thick. Peering inside, Hansen noticed hundreds of tiny ``shags'' or loops, which made the mitten incredibly warm. They had been painstakingly sewn in by hand.

``I'd never seen a mitten like that before,'' says Hansen. The artifact, owned by the Brick Store Museum in Kennebunk, Maine, probably dates back to the first half of the 19th century. ``It's very, very fine knit - about 12 stitches to the inch,'' says Hansen. Modern American needles do not permit a stitch so fine, in fact. Finer needles, called knitting ``wires,'' must have been used instead.

She concludes it must have been a woman's pair, ``because it's so elegantly made.'' To this day, Hansen has yet to find a duplicate. As a seasoned knitter, however, she was able to copy the pattern and called it ``Kennebunk Woolly Bear Mittens.'' Her instructions for them are in ``Homespun Handknit,'' by Linda Ligon (Interweave Press, Loveland, Colo.).

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