Folklore in the Palm of Your Hand. MITTENS WITH A PAST
KENNEBUNK, MAINE — WHEN wet snow falls - the kind that's perfect for building snowmen - the mad search through drawers and closets begins. A good mitten is hard to find.
``I haven't found many good store-made wool mittens,'' says self-declared ``mitten folklorist'' Robin Hansen of Bath, Maine. Some are so thin you can see skin through the stitches.
And with time, she adds, ``they become stringy and get little balls all over them.''
But handknit wool mittens, based on traditional folk designs, are the perfect remedy for chilly fingers, says Mrs. Hansen. She aims to rescue some of the long-lost mitten patterns of the grandmothers and great-grandmothers of New England and Eastern Canada.
You feel warmer just hearing the names of the patterns: Flying Geese, Shepherd's Plaid, Mattie Owl's Patch, Partridge Chicky Feet.
A trademark of these mittens is their thick, wind-tight surface. Some are knit with double layers of wool, and some have fleece sewn inside or little shags of yarn that snuggle against the palm.
``There never were any written patterns,'' Hansen says. Designs were always passed down from mother to daughter by ``talking and copying.''
TALKING to people has been Hansen's chief source of information. Traveling across Maine, she met Nora Johnson, 82, who was willing to pass along her secrets.
``Nora remembers sitting on a stool in the kitchen and her mother teaching her how to knit on two skewers. She taught me my first three Maine patterns and showed me some techniques I'd never heard of before,'' says Hansen.
One design was Snowflake (or Salt and Pepper). Hansen says Mrs. Johnson makes it with white dots on a dark background, ``so it looks like snow falling very hard in the nighttime.''
Fox and Geese and Fences was another. ``Nora's grandmother told her there was a picture of fox and geese in the mitten itself. When you add a third color, that made the fences to keep the foxes away from the geese,'' Hansen explains.
She discovered that people make almost the same Fox and Geese pattern in Eastern Canada. And on a trip to Sweden, a Swedish museum curator told her ``Oh, this is everywhere!''
``I've decided there's a community of knitting tradition in the north Atlantic region,'' Hansen says. The double-knit mittens in her book ``Flying Geese & Partridge Feet'' (Down East Books, Camden, Maine) reflect ``the seagoing tradition of earlier centuries, the trade and codfishing links between all the north Atlantic communities.''
THE fishermen visited different ports, and the women traveled around, too, taking the knitting knowledge with them, says Hansen.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, she found mittens ``with a Norwegian influence, but also a funny Irish look to them.'' She cites the Shepherd's Plaid, a pattern of rows of diamonds with dots in the middle.
The tip of a mitten is often a tell-tale sign of its origin. Norwegian-style mitts have a pointed finish, like a housetop. Maine mitten tips are rounded, as are Nova Scotian ones, but each in a distinct way.
Hansen has boxes of mittens from all over - Labrador, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia. Some are originals, others are copies she made of ones in museums.
``A lot of mittens that remain to us are work mittens,'' says Hansen, opening a box full of Fishermen's Wet Mittens.
For hundreds of years, these floppy, off-white mittens were used off the coasts of Maine and Nova Scotia.
The wives made them up to a foot long to allow for shrinking. Out in their boats, the men would soak them in icy salt water, lay them on the deck, and stamp on them. Then they'd ``fry'' them on the engine manifold for a while, slosh them in icy water again, and stamp on them some more. The mittens shrank, became felted and wind tight.
`THE warm wool mittens had an amazing insulating quality - but only when wet,'' writes Hansen in her other how-to knitting book, ``Fox & Geese & Fences'' (also Down East Books).
Though insulated gloves are now worn by many fishermen, Wet Mittens are still worn year-round in Newfoundland. Hansen obtained directions for making them from a woman on Chebeague Island, Maine, who carefully analyzed the last remaining pair made by a woman named Minnie Doughty.
Though knitting mittens has traditionally been a woman's craft, Hansen's seagoing grandfather used to make his own. Men in lumber camps would often make their own double-knit mittens and cover them with a horsehide mitt.
Hansen's search for original mitten-making techniques has led her to pursue advanced studies at Boston University, where she's working on a dissertation on folk knitting traditions.
Yet her most important source continues to be knitters themselves. At craft fairs, museums, and tag sales, Hansen is always on the lookout for unusual mittens. But deciding whether a mitten is a true ``relic'' or not can be tricky.
``Sometimes I stumble on things that I think are lost forever,'' says Hansen, ``and when I do a workshop of something, someone will come up and say `I've made those all my life!'''