Saturday, July 9, 2011

Mitts, Cuffs and Muffatees, Oh My!

Everything Old is New Again

The past few years there has been a slow but growing trend for various forms of knit handwear, from short little mitts to long gauntlet like mitts, some with partial fingers, some a thumb hole and other just a long shoved down cuff. They are nothing new, I have been quite amused at the several "new and novel" items which have wound their way into "modern" knitting in the past few years. Various knit hand warming devices have been around for a long, long time. Their existence long predates my era of study. The first print instructions I know of appear in the 1838 Workwoman's Guide, WWG offered patterns for muffatees, mittens, andt mitts, in all 10 patterns, out numbered only by foot coverings. It tells you something about the life of our ancestors before central heat, staying warm was a struggle. WWG offered plain and utilitarian styles, but that was the gist of the whole book. Like all clothing items (at least it seems all) they transcended simple form and joined the ranks of fashion items. Many of the knitting books published in the next few decades offered more fanciful versions - fancy stitches, lacework, multicolored, anything to make the common item pretty. They persist in some form from one end of the Victorian era to the other. Which was favored - mitt versus cuff and so on - varied from era to era but they all had two things in common. They were knit on small needles (00-2) and they were knit on fine yarn (almost always) modern fingering weight . This is where they diverge from the modern versions. Modern knitters make them from heavy and chunky wools assuming that will keep them warm. But then modern people wear them to wander a chilly street while shopping not to try to run a household. The finer historic version lets the wearer layer, a muffatee could be slipped on over a thin glove to extra warmth without hampering hand use as a heavy item would and they can be worn for housework without destroying dexterity. Most stitches used provide some stretch and flexibility allowing for a snug fit, a loose and floppy will make them cumbersome to wear if you try to do any real work. 

They are small and knit up quickly, a great way to use up scraps of yarn, and a nice project which can let a newer knitter produce a finished project (relatively) quickly.  As a very visible costume item they also get noticed and are good conversation starter leading to conversations about not just knitting but the difficulties in keeping a house warm and trying to keep oneself warn while working outdoors. One word of caution if you want to knit some - many of the patterns end up rather small so swatch the pattern stitch and adjust the stitch count accordingly. You can try going up or down one needle size but unless your knitting is extremely tight or loose changing needle size more than that will alter the texture of the knitting too  much. Below are some pictured of some styles ranging through the Victorian era. All were knit for a knitting workshop I recently taught at the national ALHFAM conference.

 Knit Muffatee, Workwoman's Guide, 1838

Corkscrew Muffatee, Exercises in knitting, 1846 

Feather Mits, The ladies’ self instructor in millinery and mantua making, 1853

Winter Cuffs in Double Knitting, Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, February 1861


Lady's  Mitten with Thumb, Weldon’s Practical Knitter, First Series. 188x

Knitted Cuffs, The art of knitting, 1991