A Tale of Two Mittens

July 3, 2011 § 2 Comments

With only two weeks to go until I have to hand in my Bachelor’s thesis, I’ve been experiencing a serious case of startitis. And a bit of finish-it-up-itis, which is nice.

In the course of this, I recently finished a pair of Gryffindor mittens, nothing fancy: I did some corrugated ribbing for the wrist, took the chart from the House Bag pattern, and continued the checkerboard pattern on the palm. They’re awesome and I can’t wait to wear them, but I also learned a couple of things from them, and when my roomie and a good friend of mine both asked for a pair of House Mittens, I figured this might be a good opportunity to document my designing process, on the off-chance that others might be able to learn from my mistakes.

So, I present you with the first installment of:

A Tale of Two Mittens

Part One: Gathering wool. And books, and some more ideas, and general information.

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Whenever I pull together a pattern from bits and bobs, I try to model it on something I own that fits. In the case of the initial pair of Gryffindor Mittens, this was last year’s pair of Vespergyle Mittens (which are still up among my favorite things I’ve made), and from the many failed attempts on that front I knew that on 2.25 mm needles, nothing below 18 sts/needle (that’s a total of 72 stitches) would fit my giant man-hands. From Vespergyle, I also learned that a couple more rows of cuff would have been very nice indeed, and that thumbs should rather have two rows too much than too few.

So for the new mittens, the first thing I did was taking a look at my brand-new Gryffindor ones. Here’s a picture of them, and one of what’s wrong with them. (I’ll occasionally stick with smaller pictures for the sake of layout, but as always, bigger versions are just a click away)

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If you look at the second picture, you’ll see that the upper palm is all wavy and weird, thanks to my evidently being rather tense for a couple of days and not leaving floats that are long enough. The second mitten turned out alright, since I wove in the floats obsessively – but really, you don’t want to do that with mittens, since the loose floats trap more air, making the mittens warmer. (This is the reason Latvian and Estonian mittens are usually in fingering-weight yarn, yet still warm enough for their extremely chilly temperatures.) And if last winter is any indication, warm mittens are the way to go this year as well.

So I formulated my basic concept based on the two things I’d learned from these mittens: that I needed another pattern for the palm, and that if I had to do any more corrugated ribbing, I’d rip somebody’s head off.

***

Mittens are generally constructed of a couple of basic elements that can, if you’re so inclined, be knit in different patterns. There’s the cuff, which is often either ribbed or decorated with ornamental bands; this is also the place where braids go on Latvian mittens. Then there’s the top, where the elaborate patterns typically happen; the thumb gusset (if you’re doing one) and thumb, usually done in fairly small patterns or stripes; and the palm, which with small patterns is often the same as the top, making reversible mittens (see Vespergyle), or have a small-to-medium pattern. When working a stranded pattern, the palm and the back of the hand are usually divided by a solid-colored 2-stitch column on each side, which provide a convenient place for placing the thumb gusset and the tip decreases. When the cuff is just corrugated 2×2 ribbing, continuing these columns from knit columns looks nice and tidy; when you’re doing a patterned cuff, these columns typically start when you start the palm/top patterns.

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While one of the mittens I’m making is for my roomie, who I can just call over to try her damn mittens on whenever I like, the other pair is for a dear friend on the other side of the Atlantic, so I developed this handy cheat sheet. As you can see, it’s a not exactly a fantastic feat of industrial design, etc etc, but it also gives you all the information you need to remote-tailor mittens. For measurements a, b and e, it’s best to trace your hand (stretched out all the way!) on a piece of paper and measure, c and d are the circumferences of wrist and palm, respectively. Speaking of b, you’ll need to add about 25% of ease to that measurement in the actual mitten. I unfortunately don’t have any fancy math to back this up, but I’ve empirically tested this on several mittens and hands, and it seems about right. If you’re off by a tiny bit, don’t sweat it too much. As EZ said: wool stretches.

However, mittens shouldn’t be too tight, for several reasons: first, it distorts the fair isle pattern by pulling the stitches apart. Then, mittens that cut off the blood flow to your hands aren’t particularly practical, plus a bit more air within the glove means more warmth. On the other hand, they shouldn’t be so loose as to be impractical. Hence the measuring.

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(please excuse the wonky mitten, this photo was taken when it was fresh off the needles)

Now, I love Ravelry, but at heart I’m still someone who believes in the power of books, which is why I splurge for knitting books whenever I can. Lizbeth Upitis’ ‘Latvian Mittens’ is one of the most recent additions to my library, and truly a godsent both on construction notes and patterns. I sadly haven’t gotten around to really trying out her charts, but I have plans for my Jamieson and Smith, and the pictures are an endless source of inspiration. EZ’s ‘Knitting Without Tears’ is lovely, although in retrospect I’m not entirely sure whether I used this book or ‘Knitter’s Almanac’; either way, both are worth buying. The book in the right corner is a super-cheap, generic stitch dictionary – a friend of mine picked it up for me at his supermarket, for something like €3. It’s not comprehensive by far, and it doesn’t rival the Vogue or Walker stitch dictionaries, but it’s still got a surprising amount of nice stitch patterns. Alison Hansel’s ‘Charmed Knits’ was my very first knitting books way back when, and the source of my disastrous first pair of socks. However, when you actually know what you’re doing, it’s entirely charming and fairly useful, as you will see.

I looked through these books mostly for palm and cuff patterns. I have a bit of a magpie attitude towards knitting, i.e. I take what’s shiny, and I don’t care where it comes from. The cuffs were pretty easy: ‘Charmed Knits’ has patterns for the broomstick and snitch socks Dobby gives to Harry in ‘Goblet of Fire’ which are 8 stitches wide and 17 high, which, combined with a couple of plain edging rows and some Latvian braids would make perfect width for a cuff. (I like mine to be about 25 rows deep; that way, you don’t have to do any arm shaping. Remember, stranded knitting isn’t very stretchy!)

The palm patterns were a bit more of an effort, and I spent a couple of hours doodling and flicking through books, just sort of collecting different things that weren’t checkerboards.

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The crosses towards the bottom are from EZ, the small one with THUMB next to it is what I used in the first mittens and liked very much, and I did think about using it for the palm, but it was sort of too small. Also, I like to pack as many patterns into a mitten as I can. I think the wide crosses (that look more like circles when they’re knit up, which I’ve rationalized symbolize the snitch, sue me) might be from ‘Latvian Mittens’, I’m not entirely sure, but the checkerboard-like thing definitely is (and it fell through because a) there are a lot of single-color rows, and b) oh god, checkerboard). The red one is from the cheap little stitch dictionary, and Saskia likes it, so she’s getting that one. I knew I’d have about 33 stitches available, that’s the width of the center crest chart and a good number for mittens in fingering-weight yarn.

One important thing about the palm pattern is that it should at least sort-of match the top pattern, if only to make it easier to remember. One repeat of the checkerboard background is 8 stitches high, so I went looking for anything that was either 4 or 8 high, so as to not break my brain entirely. I also like things to line up nicely, so in addition to the repeat itself I like beginning and end sections that center the pattern; in many cases it’s a bit more elegant than just sticking half a repeat on one end to bolster the stitch count. Theoretically you could just do one-stitch vertical stripes, lots of patterns do, but, well. I like to be complicated.

***

A word on yarn: As Lizbeth Upitis and, I’m sure, countless others have reiterated, thicker yarn doesn’t necessarily make mittens warmer. Fingering weight yarn, when knit up in a stranded pattern, is more than warm enough for most climates except maybe Siberia and the Arctic, since the stranding traps at least as much air as thicker yarn. Bulkier yarn also means bigger holes in the fabric, and less mobility of the fingers. If you’re really, really worried that mittens that are warm enough for the Baltic aren’t suited for your climate, you can make them a little bigger and add silk, cashmere or alpaca lining. You can also go down a needle size to make them warmer, as the fabric density will skyrocket on 2 mm needles.

I usually make my mittens out of superwash sock yarn. A high animal fiber content is essential for warmth, but I like the durability, smoothness and wide availability of sock yarn for mittens. Especially the non-fuzziness, really; I wouldn’t wear angora mittens cause I hate fluff in my mouth, luxury fiber or no. You’ll need less than a skein of each color for a pair – the first Gryffindor mittens took 30 grams of gold and 35 of scarlet, and my hands are not small. I guess that’s part of the reason for their popularity, that you can really splurge on yarn if you want to, cause you’ll need so little of it.

I haven’t used non-superwash for mittens; I do have Jamieson & Smith lined up and will report back. The fact that non-superwash was used for hundreds of years, with fantastic results, is probably an indicator in favor of its use, and since they full (slightly felt) with wear means they’re only going to get warmer the more you use them.

I’m using Zitron Trekking HandArt Flamé for the gold, and some plant-dyed scarlet yarn I bought at the Wollefest two years ago, for the Gryffindor mittens; also a bit of the brown Zitron Trekking HandArt left over from Vespergyle for the broomstick shafts. I’ve made socks from flamé yarn that have felted terribly, so I’m hoping for a similar effect in these mittens. Saskia’s Slytherin mittens are made with Regia sock yarn in green and grey; the broomstick shafts are made with bits of the gold flamé yarn.

***

So, that’s yarn, the different patterns, sizing info. Next time: cuffs, thumbs, and stranded knitting.

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§ 2 Responses to A Tale of Two Mittens

  • Toile says:

    I love this! It’s so cool to follow your designing thought process, and see a lovely design being born. I love the mittens, they’re so cool.

    Not to mention ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ being one of my favourite books…

    I’ve also gotten into the Sherlock Holmes books, lately. I thought you’d appreciate that. Good luck on your thesis!

  • wollphilie says:

    I’m glad you like it :) just wait until you see the cuffs, if it weren’t such a pain I’d totally rip out mine and redo them :P

    and yay Sherlock Holmes! I have to admit, I haven’t read a whole lot of his, just a book or two (which I unconditionally loved), but I’ll be getting on that when I have more time. Or possibly in fall – it seems like such a perfect autumnal series, with fogs rolling in and tea all around…

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