Knitters in New England and Eastern Canada make mittens stuffed with little tufts of wool fleece that can keep hands warm in the coldest, wettest conditions imaginable.
These are known as ‘thrummed mittens’, and today a search for this term on Ravelry.com brings up almost 150 patterns.
But in the last decades of the 20th century, this technique had almost been forgotten. Where was this style of knitting first developed, and why did it fall out of popularity? These are the questions I want to try to answer.
According to Maine mitten historian Robin Hansen, “the mittens of New England and Atlantic Canada share many aspects of the same North Atlantic knitting culture, which has Western European, Scandinavian, and even Baltic roots.” Although some well known knitting ‘traditions’ were created intentionally as commercial products, many were simply invented by women who needed to keep their families warm and wanted to make beautiful things at the same time.
It’s almost impossible to pinpoint the origin of these traditional folk knitting designs, and many motifs and techniques were used in so many different places as to be almost ubiquitous. It is the fusion of colour, technique, pattern, and materials that makes mittens from one specific place distinguishable from those made elsewhere. A unique combination of shape, fit, color patterns, and an extra technique of adding fleece or yarn scraps to create an insulating layer of fluff was engineered by enterprising knitters in the north-east corner of the USA and Canada to create several types of unusually warm mittens.
Thrummed mittens, such as our example overleaf, incorporate tufts of fleece into the knitted fabric; the resultant mitten has a thick, fleecy lining that is incredibly warm, and felts together with wear
All of these techniques came to North America on the needles of immigrants from Europe, where they were combined in many new types of protective hand coverings, customized to the job at hand:
• Shooting gloves have separations for the thumb as well as for the index finger, allowing hunters and soldiers to keep their hands warm while using a gun. With three fingers kept together, these are warmer than standard gloves.
• Lobster mitts are knitted oversized and felted to shrink and gain extra thickness, durability, and warmth. Sometimes the mittens were not felted before their first use, but left to shrink with daily wear and future washing.
• Wristers are basically fingerless gloves. They have a thumb gore and opening for the thumb, and another opening for all four fingers. They cover the wrist and palm and can be covered with a full mitten when needed.
• Nippers fit around the palm of the hand only. They protected fisherman’s hands from being chaffed or cut by wet ropes. They were knit in the round and stuffed with cotton and fleece for extra padding.
• Tufted mittens are perhaps the warmest and most unusual mittens. Insulated with pieces of fleece or yarn cut in short pieces and attached to the stitches of the knitting to create a fluffy surface like a shag rug, these mittens were made in several different ways. The tufts were sometimes sewn on after the knitting was complete, or were knitted into the stitches as the mitten was made.
Tufts could be left on the outside of the mittens where they might have been left as loops or cut to form a smoother, more even texture. In this case, the tufts were made from yarn that was one color for
a solid mitt, two colors to form a heather effect, or multiple colors to create a floral or geometric motif.
Other times the tufts were left on the inside of the mitten. In this case, small pieces of fleece were laid over the working yarn between stitches to be invisible on the outside or knitted into the stitches to form a regular pattern on the outside. It is this last type of tufting that is used on the mittens that have come to be called ‘thrummed’.
Thrummed mittens are native to Newfoundland and Labrador on the eastern shore of Canada. Where did knitters here get the idea to stuff fleece into their mittens for extra warmth?
Perhaps European immigrants got the idea from the Indigenous peoples they met. Native Americans and Canadians used animal fibre to add warmth to their boots. When I was doing research for my second book, Arctic Lace, I learned that Inupiat and Yu’pik women in Alaska often put qiviut (down from the musk ox) into their boots for softness and insulation.
Perhaps knitters in Canada took the idea from thrummed hats that were popular with British sailors in the 1500s and 1600s. These hats were made with bits of fleece attached to the fabric; the furry-looking hats were also worn in North America, as proved by an advert that ran in the PennsylvaniaGazette in 1737 describing a runaway servant as having a shaved head covered by a “thrum cap”.
Wherever they got the idea, knitters in New England and Eastern Canada created their warmest mittens and socks by working tufts of fleece into the knitting. After the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of modern fibres for use in winter clothing, the tradition of making fleece-stuffed mittens almost died out. But some women kept knitting them long enough for the idea to be rediscovered and made popular again with local knitters and, ultimately, wherever knitters need to keep their hands warm and dry.
Although many experienced mitten knitters could make these thrummed mittens without a pattern, having instructions is easier for learning. We don’t always have a grandmother or a local folk-knitter to show us how to make a time-tested piece from memory.
North American Mittens & European Mittens