New England Boiled Wool Mittens | Classic Yankee Article
The art of knitting these rugged boiled wool mittens, the choice of fishermen for hundreds of years, was in danger of being lost until the enterprising women of the Chebeague Island (Maine) Methodist Church Ladies Aid got together …
Time was that when a man went out in his boat in winter, he took his wool mittens off a nail on board, dipped them in the warm water from the engine, wrung them out, and put them on wet. Then he clapped and beat his hands and swung his arms until his fingers were so red they stung. After that he could work all day, hauling traps from the frigid salt water, working with sloppy, half-frozen bait, or even clamming, and his hands would stay warm.
When he peeled his mittens off at the end of his day, his hands were red and so warm they steamed in the cold air. He hung the mittens up again by little loops on their cuffs and went ashore.
The boiled wool mittens had an amazing insulating quality when wet. They may have been knit by his wife, or he may have bought them — handknit — from the same store that sold him his trap stock, boots, netting shuttles, and other gear. Wherever he got them, they were big, maybe a third bigger than his hand, and made of oily, cream-colored yarn. Some men took them home and soaked them in hot water; others put them in the bilge of their boats and walked on them all day while doing other work. And they shrank. The wool became thicker, the stitches tighter than can be knit, and as the fisherman wore them, wetting them each time in salt water, they shrank and matted even more until they were shaped to his hands and quite stiff when dry.
Fishermen wore mittens like these in New England and the Canadian Maritime Provinces for hundreds of years. Some still do, when they can get them.
The downfall of the fishermen’s boiled wool mittens came with the rise of the insulated glove, which on the surface sounds a lot more reasonable. Bulky and rubbery, the insulated glove is warm enough, but doesn’t permit much fine finger movement or any feeling through its layers. Some fishermen use them only for the prickly work of handling bait, complaining that they “can’t work in them.”
In many fishing communities, the art of knitting fishermen’s mittens has been lost, and even those women who wanted to knit them for their husbands couldn’t. There were no mittens left to measure, and no women left who knew how to make them.
This was the case on Chebeague Island, off Portland, until a few years ago. Minnie Doughty, the one woman who had maintained the skill, died, taking her knowledge with her. Like many other coastal women, Mrs. Doughty had had a difficult life and had lost several of her six sons to the sea. In her lifetime she had knitted a great many pairs of fishermen’s mittens — so many that when she died, the single remaining new pair was treasured as a keepsake by her daughters.
One of the expert knitters of the Chebeague Island Methodist Church Ladies Aid, Elizabeth Bergh, took these old mittens, counted stitches, measured, found a loose end to determine the thickness of the yarn, and put together instructions for fishermen’s mittens. The Ladies Aid knitters tried out the instructions, then continued knitting until they had a small pile of mittens. They “sold like hotcakes” at their fair, Miss Bergh recalled.