New England Boiled Wool Mittens | Classic Yankee Article

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The art of knitting these rugged boiled wool mittens, the choice of fishermen for hundreds of years, was in danger of being lost. That is, until the enterprising women of the Chebeague Island Methodist Church Ladies Aid got together…

boiled wool mittens

Time was that when a man went out in his boat in winter, he took his wool mittens off a nail on board, dipped them in the warm water from the engine, wrung them out, and put them on wet. Then he clapped and beat his hands and swung his arms until his fingers were so red they stung. After that he could work all day, hauling traps from the frigid salt water, working with sloppy, half-frozen bait, or even clamming, and his hands would stay warm.

When he peeled his mittens off at the end of his day, his hands were red and so warm they steamed in the cold air. He hung the mittens up again by little loops on their cuffs and went ashore.

The boiled wool mittens had an amazing insulating quality when wet. They may have been knit by his wife, or he may have bought them — handknit — from the same store that sold him his trap stock, boots, netting shuttles, and other gear. Wherever he got them, they were big, maybe a third bigger than his hand, and made of oily, cream-colored yarn. Some men took them home and soaked them in hot water; others put them in the bilge of their boats and walked on them all day while doing other work. And they shrank. The wool became thicker, the stitches tighter than can be knit, and as the fisherman wore them, wetting them each time in salt water, they shrank and matted even more until they were shaped to his hands and quite stiff when dry.

Fishermen wore mittens like these in New England and the Canadian Maritime Provinces for hundreds of years. Some still do, when they can get them.

The downfall of the fishermen’s boiled wool mittens came with the rise of the insulated glove, which on the surface sounds a lot more reasonable. Bulky and rubbery, the insulated glove is warm enough, but doesn’t permit much fine finger movement or any feeling through its layers. Some fishermen use them only for the prickly work of handling bait, complaining that they “can’t work in them.”

In many fishing communities, the art of knitting fishermen’s mittens has been lost, and even those women who wanted to knit them for their husbands couldn’t. There were no mittens left to measure, and no women left who knew how to make them.

This was the case on Chebeague Island, off Portland, until a few years ago. Minnie Doughty, the one woman who had maintained the skill, died, taking her knowledge with her. Like many other coastal women, Mrs. Doughty had had a difficult life and had lost several of her six sons to the sea. In her lifetime she had knitted a great many pairs of fishermen’s mittens — so many that when she died, the single remaining new pair was treasured as a keepsake by her daughters.

One of the expert knitters of the Chebeague Island Methodist Church Ladies Aid, Elizabeth Bergh, took these old mittens, counted stitches, measured, found a loose end to determine the thickness of the yarn, and put together instructions for fishermen’s mittens. The Ladies Aid knitters tried out the instructions, then continued knitting until they had a small pile of mittens. They “sold like hotcakes” at their fair, Miss Bergh recalled.

If you have a fisherman in the family, or if you spend much of the winter by the sea, try knitting a pair of these remarkably warm, thick, almost water-repellent mittens for someone in your family.

Here are Elizabeth Bergh’s instructions, based on Minnie Doughty’s mittens. They are probably the only instructions in print anywhere for this kind of mitten. But beware! They make a huge mitten that must be shrunk in salt water, and really can be used only in the traditional way.

The yarn traditionally used for these mittens on Chebeague Island is cream-colored, 3-ply natural Fisherman Yarn from Bartlett yarns in Harmony, Maine. This is half again as heavy as worsted weight yarn and makes an astoundingly dense mitten. Some women use Bartlett yarns 2-ply Fisherman Yarn, a worsted-weight, oiled, wool yarn, which is easier to knit and makes a lighter, more flexible mitten. The pattern is the same for the two weights of yarn. Any oiled fisherman yarn in these weights can be substituted for the Bartlett yarns Fisherman Yarn.

Instructions are for a man’s medium-sized mitten. To knit a child’s size, find a mitten pattern for worsted-weight yarn and knit a full size larger—for example, a size eight for a six-year-old—then shrink the mittens. Wool mittens shrink anyway, but few patterns take this into account.

Fisherman’s Wet Mitten Directions

Yarn: Two skeins Bartlett yarns, 2- or 3-ply fisherman yarn, or other worsted-weight wool with lanolin, used singly.

Equipment: Four number 4 double-pointed needles, or size needed to knit correct gauge.

Gauge: Five stitches equal one inch.

On size four double-pointed needles, cast on 12, 15, and 15 stitches, a total of 42 stitches on three needles. Knit two, purl one until wristband measures four inches.

Then, first round: place last purl stitch on first needle. Purl one, knit two, purl one. Knit rest of round, increasing two stitches on each needle for a total of 48 stitches.

Second round: start thumb gore. Purl one, increasing one stitch in each of the next two stitches, purl one. Knit around, and knit rounds three, four, and five, maintaining the two purl stitches as a marker.

Sixth round: purl one, increase in the next stitch, knit two, increase in the next stitch, purl one (eight stitches, including two purls). Knit around. Knit three more rounds.

Continue to increase this way every fourth row until you have 14 stitches for the thumb gore, including the two purl stitches. Knit three more rounds and place the 14 stitches on a string.

Cast on 10 stitches to bridge the gap and divide the stitches 18 to a needle (total 54 stitches). Knit up 4 to 4-1/2 inches from thumb for the hand.

Begin decreasing in next round:

Knit two together, knit seven. Repeat around. Knit two rounds. Knit two together, knit six, and repeat around. Knit two rounds. Knit two together, knit five, and repeat around. Knit two rounds. Knit two together, knit four, and repeat around. Knit one round. Knit two together, knit three, and repeat around. Knit one round. Knit two together around. Break the yarn and draw up the remaining stitches on the tail, using a yarn needle. Darn the tail back and forth across the tip of the mitten. Thumb: Pick up from thumb gore seven stitches on each of two needles and one stitch from each side of the thumbhole, a total of 16 stitches on two needles. Pick up the 10 stitches from the palm side of the thumbhole on a third needle. Knit two rounds. Next round, decrease one stitch on each end of the third needle. There are now eight stitches on each needle. Knit 2 to 2-1/2 inches.

Next round, decrease: knit two together, knit two, and repeat around. Knit one round. Next round, knit two together, knit one, and repeat around. Break yarn and draw up remaining stitches on the tall, using a yarn needle. Darn the end into the tip of the thumb. Work all other loose ends into the fabric of the mitten.

Crochet a loop at the edge of the cuff for hanging the mitten to dry. Use the tail left from casting on, if possible. To shrink: soak the mittens in boiling hot water, squeeze them out and dry them on a radiator. I shrink mine in the drier on the hot setting, but this takes out some of the oil. Some men say to dry them in the freezer. This takes a long, long time. Some claim they soak their mittens in fish gore, then wash them in hot water. However you choose to shrink your mittens, the first shrinking will not complete the trick, but the mittens will continue to shrink in use. Don’t give up.

  • This pattern is old, like very old. I’ve since revised it somewhat, and suggest needle size US 6/4 mm/Can Size 8 — which I think is the same as British 8. You can find the revised pattern complete with shrinking directions in my books FAVORITE MITTENS or ULTIMATE MITTENS, both from Down East Books.

    The mittens do run large, because they are meant to be fulled to size. The technique of fulling, explained in a later Yanke article, is not explained above, but I will tell you:

    You need 2 good-sized dishpans or smallish washbasins, real soap or soap based shampoo (We use Orvus horse shampoo or plain Murphy’s Oil Soap), a wash board or felting board, a scrub brush, and a large pot of boiling water and a source of pretty cold water.

    Maine fishermen shrink their mittens — I have now learned — by wetting them in the cooling water from their engine, throwing them on the deck and walking on them as they work. Now and then, they lay them on the engine manifold to heat them up, watching them and turning them to keep them from scorching, while possibly eating their lunch or drinking a cuppa. Then, back in the cooling water, back on the deck. By the end of the day, the mittens are shrunk and fit well. We approximate this in the kitchen with hot and cold water, soap, and a washboard.

    Start by tracing around the mitten with a crayon or a marker on a large piece of paper — newspaper or a paper bag. Then you can compare the size as they shrink. They should shrink about 20 percent lengthwise, about 10 percent widthwise. NEVER knit these with Superwash preshrunk wool or any synthetic or synthetic blend, which will not shrink at all.

    The mittens are shrunk NOT by boiling but by the shock of going from hot water to cold, by agitation (against the washboard), and by using lots of soap. The soap also helps to get those wool fibers to slip past one another.

    PROCESS: Fill one dishpan with water as hot as you can stand to put your hands in (Cool it to bearable with a little cold water). Fill the other with seriously cold water, either from the tap or iced.

    Dunk the mittens in the hot water, rub soap lavishly into them, then scrub them on the washboard, wetting them thoroughly often with the hot water. Scrub them inside and out. Scrub both sides of the thumb.

    When tired of this, submerge the mittens in ice cold water and quickly squeeze cold water through them until there’s no warmth. Back in the hot, more soap, and the washboard. You will feel them relax in the hot water, pull up in the cold. (This happens to the wool on the back of the sheep as well when they’re warm or cold.)

    Go back and forth like this from hot to cold and cold to hot until the mittens give up the ghost and stay tightened up even in the hot water. Lay them on your paper outline. Try them on. When they are small enough, use the scrub brush to brush up the nap, brushing toward the tip and starting at the tip, then proceding back to the cuff. Your mittens should come out nice and hairy, looking as if they were knitted by a grandmother for a favorite fishing grandson.

  • You are correct on your conversion.I hope this helps, a size 4 needle converts to 3.5mm per my needle conversion chart. I wish I knew more about my iphone and computer, I would post a picture of my chart.

  • | am UK based and unsure what size needles I need. I was assuming no 4 is US size, translating to 3.5mm, but that seems very small for this project. Old UK no 4 would be 6mm which seems more reasonable. Can anyone advise? Thanks

  • I love your article on boiled mittens. I had been buying mittens socks and gloves in the boiled mittens style for some years and then I couldnt find them on line anywhere. I saw your article and did a new google search to see where to buy, i am not a knitter, and found http://www.sweaterchalet.com which has sweaters but also boiled wool everything else and they seem to be hand knitted in Austria.

    Thanks Yankee Magazine


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