A People’s History of Mittens

Mittens on a bench
Image credit: Niklas Sagrén on Unsplash

It’s been a month since the U.S. presidential inauguration, which means that we’ve had four weeks of Joe Biden as America’s president and a full month of Bernie Sanders mitten memes. Sanders’ viral inauguration look, which included a pair of hand-knit mittens, has set the internet alight.

Sanders’ frigid pose and hefty jacket (made by Vermont-based snowboard company, Burton) tell you everything you need to know about the temperature in Washington, DC on January 20th. So Bernie’s mittens — which were a campaign gift made from on-brand recycled materials — were a wise choice. Mittens keep your hands warmer by bunching your fingers together, which allows them to retain heat better, and cutting down on surface area, which means less exposure to cold air.

Since mittens are so simple stylistically and have historically been made from biodegradable materials, it’s near impossible to trace their origins precisely. Certainly, humans have worn mitten-like coverings made from animal fur, skin, or similar for many centuries in cold climates. 

In Latvian tradition, an unmarried girl would be given a ‘hope chest’ to be filled over time, among other things, by hand-knit mittens, somethimes hundreds of pairs of them. These mittens, each bearing a distinct pattern typically dedicated to a feature of the natural world or some aspect of domestic life, would be presented as gifts to the prospective bride and her family. Since every pair was prized for having a unique design, surviving hope chest mittens have provided a centuries-long iconographical history of Latvian culture.

The well-known star or rose pattern often associated with mittens and other assorted wintery knits, named selburose, has become a visual shorthand for Scandanavian cosiness. It initially arose in the ancient Fertile Crescent and then spread throughout Europe, but the pattern is most closely associated with Norway thanks to one girl from the town of Selbu.

Flat lay of selburose mittens
Image is my own / All rights reserved

In 1857, young Marit Gulsethbrua Emstad made three pairs of mittens in an intricate black-and-white, eight-leafed pattern. When she showed them off at church, they proved popular enough for everyone in town to want a pair — everyone in town and then some. By the 1930s Selbu inhabitants were knitting 100 000 pairs annually to sell throughout Europe.

The nineteenth century also saw the birth of the poetry mitten, which, as advertised, featured lines of verse woven into their designs. This proved a short-lived craze, though you can still find examples of these crafty patterns on Pinterest.

Such whimsy is well-suited to popular perceptions of mittens. Simply the word — ‘mitten’ — is cute. They are garments associated with nursery rhymes (cf. ‘Three Little Kittens’), Rodgers and Hammerstein (warm woollen mittens, you might recall, were among their favourite things), and small children, whose fine motor skills don’t feel the loss of individual digital movement as keenly as an adult might. 

But mittens also have a hardier side. They are essential kit for extreme weather conditions, proving popular with skiers, sailors, sleighers, and explorers. They were known as ‘haling hands’ by American colonists for their necessity in hailing materials outdoors in harsh winters. During the American Civil War, Abby Condon, one of the country’s first female entrepreneurs, assembled an all-female workforce from across New England to work from home knitting mittens for fighting soldiers at 25 cents a pair (After the war, Condon’s business continued with great success, getting through as much as six tonnes of yarn a year to produce 96 000 pairs of mittens). Knitting mittens at home in support of soldiers again became part of the war effort of the Allies during World War I. 

Man writing at a desk surrounded by cold weather gear
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain
Image credit: National Archives of Norway / CC BY-SA 4.0
Image credit: Library of Congress; Nationaal Archief / CC BY-SA 3.0
Pilot wearing mittens
Image credit: Nationaal Archief / CC BY-SA 3.0

If you’re looking for a pair like Bernie’s, you’ll have to wait. They sold out instantly, along with his Burton jacket, and the charitable merchandise he had made to cash in on the meme’s popularity (all of which has meant $1.8 million raised for Vermont charities, as well as a business partnership between the teacher who created the original pair and the Vermont Teddy Bear Company to meet soaring demand). In the meantime, you’ll have to turn elsewhere to buy a pair, or else wait until next winter rolls around to get your mits on some meme-worthy merch.

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