Friday, February 27, 2009

Mitten books

It looks like I will only be sending two pairs of mittens off to Kazakhstan on Monday. I'm just not willing to turn my whole weekend over to knitting furiously. It's taking me about 3 days to make a pair without thumbs, so I can easily finish up the fourth mitten & make four thumbs in the next three days, but doing that AND making a whole third pair seems like more than I want to tackle.

While I've been knitting these mittens I've also found myself looking through lots of my mitten books. I thought it might be fun to write a roundup review.

As I mentioned before, the mitten books I turn to most often are Robin Hansen's Fox & Geese & Fences and Flying Geese & Partridge Feet. Over the years I've made several dozen pairs following these instructions, usually the two color Maine mittens (rounded tips). Oddly enough, there are quite a few patterns I've never tried, since a few have become my favorites. I make Chipman's Block, Spruce / Jacob's Ladder, and Mattie Owl's Patch / Compass over and over again. I wrote about these mittens last year, though, so I won't say more now.

One of the first mitten-specific books I bought was The Swedish Mitten Book : Traditional Patterns from Gotland, by Inger & Ingrid Gottfridsson. (Lark, 1984) I was a new knitter and unnerved by the fine gauge -- the "bulky" version of the patterns uses fingering weight yarn and #0 or #1 needles, so it was quite a few years before I actually made anything out of this book. The patterns vary widely, from small allover patterns with short floats to large, multicolored florals with very long floats. As with much Swedish knitting, practicality takes second place behind beauty. This made more sense to me when I realized that the Gottfridssons were recording traditional patterns on the small canvas of mittens, rather than specifically recording traditional mitten patterns. Mittens really do need to be practical, and long floats are more of a problem in mittens than they would be on a sweater. I've made a couple of pairs of mittens from this book and have used the patterns on other garments as well, which I think is what they had in mind.

A little while later I bought Lizbeth Upitis' Latvian Mittens : Traditional Designs & Techniques. (Dos Tejadoros, 1981) This is a fantastic book, full of astonishing patterns, knitting techniques, and Latvian folklore. At the time I was floored to read that she was not Latvian, just married to a Latvian -- and here she was, publishing a book about his ethnic heritage, in Latvian (and English), no less. Now I'm married to a Norwegian, and I get it, at least a little. (I haven't learned Norwegian, though.) I have the first edition -- have wanted the second ever since it came out, but just can't bring myself to buy it when I have so many charts in the first that I've yet to explore -- but I think my comments would apply to the second as well. There are detailed instructions for a simple child's mitten and four full-fledged adult mittens from various districts, along with photos of another 48 (the second edition has twice as many ) and charts for 103 mittens which of course could be mixed & matched to make a gazillion different mittens. There are several interesting techniques including a knitted-in fringe and a sort of wrapped stitch that looks like braiding; I've seen these elsewhere since then but this was the first place.

I've made a couple of Latvian mittens and have used the techniques elsewhere as well. I love to look at the color combinations. The mittens I like best use at least three colors at a time, though, and I usually only want to knit with two. So I haven't made as many of these as of the Maine mittens.

A couple of years ago (or maybe longer, time blurs) I bought a lovely little book called Cimdi. Durani : Savpatna Vertiba Latvija / Gloves. Mittens : Unique Heritage of Latvia. It's a tiny little book (about the size of a mitten when open) published by the Dept. of Ethnography of the History Museum of Latvia. It has no knitting information per se, but lots of beautiful photographs and interesting historical information. I'm not sure whether this is still available; I think I got my copy from Schoolhouse Press.

Homespun, Handknit was another purchase fairly early in my knitting life; I bought it when I still thought handspinning was crazy. I don't think I've ever knit a mitten straight from this book but there are lots of interesting patterns. I find it very stimulating to read about other people's handspun projects. I also wonder why I've never made the darling sheep mittens -- Charlotte may need a pair for next winter.

Marcia Lewandowski's Folk Mittens : Techniques and Patterns for Handknitted Mittens is a very nice overview of many different mitten traditions, from Northern Europe to South America. Several patterns from different regions of North America are included; oddly enough, Maine & the Maritime provinces are not included. But this book would be a very good starting place for someone who wanted to explore different traditions. Lots of different thumbs and cuffs are included, though as part of patterns rather than in a separate discussion. Almost all of the mittens tips are decreased at the little-finger & thumb sides, rather than in a round; there's no real discussion of the choices you make in shaping a mitten tip. My only quibble is with her statement that twisting yarns while doing tvandstickning is old-fashioned and "rarely done today." Well, tvandstickning is rarely done today, but there are plenty of people who believe you can only really call it tvandstickning if you do indeed twist the yarns.

Anna Zilboorg's Magnificent Mittens (XRX, 1998) is a real gem. It is not a record of any particular ethnic tradition; instead, it's her distillation of many mitten traditions. She relies heavily on Scandinavian and Baltic traditions but also includes lots of Turkish patterns which shakes things up a little. She offers mittens with thumb gores, mittens without thumb gores, mittens with cuffs, mittens with enormous gauntlets, many, many fabulous cuff treatments, and lots of information on combining all of the above. She knits her mittens from the tip to the cuff, and has very clear instructions on how to do so. She also dyes all her own colors and includes the color formulas for replicating them using Washfast Acid dyes from ProChem. The book itself is beautiful, and it lies flat and stays open. Yeah, XRX! Some of the photography is a little too self-consciously romantic for me, but that's a small price to pay for a durable, well made book.
I have made a couple of pairs of mittens from this book. They were fun to make and fun to wear.

Charlene Schurch's Knitting Marvelous Mittens : Ethnic Designs from Russia was published in 1998 but I didn't buy it until a couple of years ago. I can't imagine why not; it's right up my alley. She has documented the knitting of a rapidly disappearing culture in Russia's northwest. There are some very interesting reticulated patterns in here that look like a lot of fun to knit. She says they are easy to remember but look complicated. Since I haven't knit any yet I can only say that they do, indeed, look complicated. The how-to section is basic but functional; the point of the book is clearly to reproduce the pattern charts.

Last winter I was thrilled to discover Terri Shea's Selbuvotter : Biography of a Knitting Tradition. This wonderful book includes detailed charts and information on more than 30 Selbu mittens and gloves from the collections of the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle and of Annemor Sundbo. They demonstrate what a wide range of designs, from geometric to pictorial, are included in the Selbu visual vocabulary. There are also very thorough chapters on techniques and materials that enable the knitter to recreate any of the historic mittens or to create her own. I love Selbu mittens and have knitted a few from other sources, but the wealth of information contained here is just amazing. I can't explain why I haven't knitted anything from this book yet. (Hey, look, I reviewed ths one already, too. I guess I'm just repeating myself today.)

Another recent purchase is Nanette Blanchard's Glove Knitting. This is a short, self-published booklet (unpaginated, but about 36 pages, depending on whether you're counting pages with information, or pages inside the covers) that is chock full of information on thumb gores, methods of finger construction, dealing with holes between fingers, and so forth. The only gloves I've knitted were the hands & feet of my giant gorilla (Rav link) and they didn't have to fit, just look right. I really enjoyed knitting them, though, so I leapt on this book when I found it. Haven't ever knitted from it, though. Do you see a pattern emerging?

I was very excited to order Carol Rasmussen Noble's Knitting Fair Isle Mittens & Gloves. I've read her writing for years with enjoyment & enlightenment, I love her Orenburg shawl book, and I love Fair Isle knitting. So it is with heavy heart that I tell you that I just don't like this book. Or rather, I don't like the hand coverings in the book. The book itself is well written, well charted, and well illustrated. It has a crummy binding that won't stay open and will probably shed pages if I ever start knitting from it, but that is unfortunately a fairly common flaw. But for whatever reason, the designs just don't speak to me. This makes me so unhappy that I haven't really tried to analyze why I don't like them; I just put the book back on the shelf and hope I'll like them better next time. (I just see that copies are listed on Amazon for $133-190; maybe I shouldn't just be putting it back on the shelf!)(Does anyone really pay these prices?) I think perhaps that my dislike stems from the way the patterns look like they are applied to the mittens rather than that they are the mitten -- in most of the examples the color patterning ends when you get to the fingers (on gloves) or the fingertips (on mittens). Maybe I just like allover patterning better. Hmmm. Will think about this.

In the meantime, here is a quick picture of the mittens I've knit this week. I've shown one of each pair inside out:

They are knit in Classic Elite's Tapestry, a worsted weight & worsted spun wool & mohair blend. The red and green pair are in Chipman's Block (surprise) and fit my son; the tan & brown pair are in Salt & Pepper and fit me. Salt & Pepper was a surprise for me. I usually avoid it because it looks so boring but I love the way the fabric is turning out. It's very smooth and dense and of course there are no ends for even the most contrary fingers to get snagged on.

1 comment:

Caroline M said...

There is a reason why you need so much shelving isn't there, you book collector you!