Warmth of Tradition

Warmth of Tradition
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First published: 1995-11-27

It's hard to beat mittens for keeping digits toasty

Pity the poor mitten. Unlike its distant winter-apparel relatives, the mitten lays no claim on the world's imagination.

Earmuffs have a bona fide pedigree, invented by legendary Farmington native Chester Greenwood in 1877.

Scarves and gloves have escaped the wintry doldrums and become fashion accessories, year-round and indispensable, as likely to be found on Rodeo Drive in July as at the Center for Shopping in January.

And hats. Hats come in so many varieties, sizes, colors, shapes and personalities that some stores sell nothing but. Even the hat-maker has a fancy name — a milliner.

Pity the poor mitten, which is, after all, a mere mitten. Although its maker also has a name - "Nana," "Grammy" or "Memere" - the mitten lacks a true history. There's no prete-a-porter. No niche markets. No catalogue to call its own.

Nonetheless, with winter just around the corner, Mainers are digging into their mitten baskets and pulling out their favorite pair. Or remembering their favorite pair as they fish to the bottom : come up with a stray. With a colder-than-normal November just about to end, and the Old Farmer's Almanac predicting above-average snowfalls this season, the mitten is mandatory.

Mittens may be the last unconquered winter apparel market, but the clothes designers and manufacturers are circling in. Today's shopper faces a confounding tangle of choices when searching for the right mitten for his or her kittens.

The first and most basic: mittens or gloves?

"I prefer mittens,"" says 18-year-old Candice House of Waterboro. "They keep my hands warmer." House says most of her Massabesic High School friends also wear mittens, for the same reason. "Unless you're a skier, you go with the mittens," she explains.

Because they're better for snowballs?

"I don't do snowballs," House says.

Four-year-old Garrett Munroe and his younger brother Ethan also fall solidly in the mitten camp. At the Ice Arena Sunday to watch their older brother Matt play hockey, the Munroe boys were sporting knitted mittens clipped to their coats. The boys' preference is easy to explain — it's hard to weave a snow creature design into gloves because of the fingers. Mittens, on the other hand, provide a lot of room for a creative crafter to knit in images of abominable snowmen and the like

"We're a mittens-and-gloves family," says their dad, Wayne Munroe. He's a glove man himself, because he spends about half his work time outdoors as a natural resource manager.

"I wear a pair of suede gloves," Munroe adds, noting he's had to try on hundreds of gloves before settling on his current choice. "They're essential. You absolutely want the right fit."

George Day works indoors, but still wears gloves. He's the zamboni driver at the ice arena. "Mittens are generally warmer," he concedes, "but it's not all that cold in the arena."

His gloves are unexceptionable. The two-year-old rawhide hand-warmers he had Sunday are slick with grease and wear. But there's no sentimental value to them whatsoever. "I'd trade them in for new," he admits.

Gloves are also standard issue for the Biddeford police force, says Captain Joseph Daudier. "Mittens are nice for directing traffic, or any of the outside stationary work," Daudier says. "But we usually wear gloves, so we have the flexibility and freedom of movement we need. We need the gloves for weapons, and for taking people into custody. Can you imagine trying to grab somebody's arm wearing mittens?"


As the mitten continues its hyper-evolution, fewer people are having to make the mitten-versus-glove decision. A new breed of hybrids is reaching the marketplace, and retailers say they've captured a new generation of mitten-wearers.

"We call this the 'omigosh' glove," says Saco Bay Classics owner Michael Myrick, showing off what looks to be an unexceptionable mitten. But put your hand inside and — omigosh! — the mitten has fingers built in. For some reason, a mitten with fingers inside actually does seem to give you more dexterity.

"Whenever anyone tries them on, they just have to buy them," store clerk Maureen Lessard says. "Even I have a pair."

Another variation on the theme is the detachable mitten. The item looks like a pair of ragg wool knit gloves, but attached at the back of the glove is a mitten flap secured by a Velcro strip. Myrick calls them "mailman mittens," because they're favorites among postmen.

"I bought these for my husband," says Diane Leblanc, who also works at the store. "'He's a surveyor, and when he has to write something down, he just folds the mitten off and uses the gloves."

At L.L. Bean, the store the boasts it "knows the outdoors," the esoteric mitten-seeker can also find the two-finger mitten. That particular model is misnamed — it actually sports the standard thumb and finger pouch of a mitten, but adds a separate finger for your pointer. Good for hunters, Bean mitten-ologist Brian Duranceau says.

"'That's the trigger finger," he points out, but quickly adds that a lot of people who like dexterity and warmth buy the glove because the index finger can easily be withdrawn and stuffed in with its neighbors if it gets cold.


At Bean's, the focus has not been on trying to solve the glove-versus-mitten debate, but trying to find the ultimate insulating material.

With the exception of the old standby, wool, mitten raw materials have mostly been developed in the past decade, and usually by companies that don't remind anyone of snow and cold. Amoco, 3M and Dupont, for example, make some of the most popular synthetic fibers for mittens.

The omnipresent Thinsulate is 3M's entry into the market. The company licenses the material to mitten manufacturers, and boasts " more microfibers to keep you warm." According to 3M, the microfibers capture warm air, and it's air that's the ultimate insulator. But at Bean's, Thinsulate mittens will double the cost of an item. Ragg wool mitten that normally run for $12 will cost you twice that if Thinsulate is added to the double-knit design.

Thermastat by Dupont, Hi Loft 285 by Gordini, Alpha Olefin by Amoco are other contenders for space-age mittens. All claim the same basic qualities — itsy-bitsy microfibers that trap air, wick away moisture and dry quickly.

Kezar Falls resident Dan Bonville, a registered Maine Guide, says for most of his outdoor winter activities — camping, skiing, snow-shoeing and mountain climbing — the best insulation comes from soda bottles. Bonville wears "pile" liners beneath a Gore-tex shell when he's in his element. Pile, a synthetic fabric manufactured from recycled plastic containers, "insulates better because it's fluffy and allows air in there," he says. "Air is the best insulator. You could put on 100 layers of cotton and it still won't keep you as warm because it doesn't trap air."

When his hands get cold or wet from sweat, Bonville changes the liner. "I always keep two or three pair with me."

But Duranceau says all of these materials may be trumped by a new entry that the public snubbed only a few years ago. "These are big sellers," he says, holding a pair of gloves bearing the Primaloft imprint. "We can't keep these in stock."

Primaloft manufactures a "synthetic down" that was designed for U.S. Army specifications in the 1980s. When the product first hit the market, the gear — jackets, gloves and mittens — retained a military look, and flopped at Bean's. But you can't keep a good insulator down, Duranceau says, and with new product line, the material has become Bean's second biggest seller. Despite the marketing hype, the microfibers and the flashy Gore-tex shells, none of the new mittens have staked a claim on the number one spot at Bean's. Duranceau walks over to the humble, drab double-knit ragg mittens and holds pair. "This will be our biggest seller again this year," he predicts. "Unit for unit, it will far outsell any other mitten in the store. It's warm, it's traditional, and it makes an easy present. Most people still come in and look for the basics."

A lot of that stuff, Bonville says of the NASA-esque material, "is for the serious outdoorsman and not for the serious snow-shoveler."


Bonville says that for all-around quality, wool is the best technical wear for the dollar.

"The thing about wool is that even when it's damp, it will keep you warmer than a lot of other things," Bonville explains. "To my way of thinking, wool is still the best natural fiber around, and there is a certain segment of society that demands natural materials."

Bonville keeps a pair of double-knit wool mittens in his cold-weather repertoire.

"When I climb Mount Washington in the winter, and it's about 60 to 70 below with the wind chill, I wear the double-knit wool mittens beneath my Gore-tex liners. Any exposure at those temperatures is no good."

Day, the zamboni driver, says that as a kid, he was just another double-knit mitten-wearer. Thoughts of extra linings, or space-age materials never crossed his mind. "When you're a kid, nothing bothers you."

That's true, say some of southern Maine's most prolific knitters. The Kimball women of Saco — sisters Dorothy Kimball Moody and Evelyn Kimball Henaire and their sister-in-law, Marjorie Kimball — are responsible for a sheep herd's worth of knitted mittens, hats, scarves, lap robes and booties every year.

Moody, 76, is the trio's designated mitten-knitter. She learned the craft from Minnie Fenderson as an eighth-grade "domestic science" student and has been at it ever since. Each year, she knits between 20 and 30 pairs of mittens, scarves and hats. "I've had people tell me they're the best thing to throw snowballs that there ever was," she says proudly.

"Our mother was the real knitter," Henaire, 75, adds. According to the sisters, their mother knitted everything for her seven children, and her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren. "She used to start knitting the day after Christmas and not stop," Henaire says.

The two hooked their sister-in-law on the craft a few years ago. "Ever since I started, I can't stop," Kimball says.

But the women don't know if their products can match up to the high-tech offerings of L.L. Bean's and Saco Bay Classics.

"I think the ski mittens today are warmer than these knit-mittens," Moody admits. "And they stay drier, too. These mittens get kind of wet, and you need three or four pair so that you can wear one while the others are drying out."


Have no fear for the handmade mitten, say the experts. While mittens may not enjoy the prestige or clear-cut history of scarves and earmuffs, mitten patterns are often a family tradition, passed down from mother to daughter, or grandmother to grandchild, folk researcher Robin Hansen says.

Her books on traditional mitten-making in New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada ("Fox and Geese and Fences" and "Flying Geese and Partridge Feet," published by Downeast Books) show that mittens — like folk songs, local lore and crafts — are part of the cultural traditions of a place, and can tell us much about the work of a community.

Hansen says that when she first moved to Maine from Denmark, she was shocked by the absence of a distinctive mitten-making culture. "Here's this really cold climate, and there's no traditional mittens at all," she recalls thinking.

But she learned that a small segment of the society continued to make mittens that stayed within families. By word of mouth, she met and began to interview the mitten-makers, and ended up writing an article on the subject for Downest Magazine. The article drew 2,500 responses.

One of the most popular mittens Hansen wrote about was the fisherman's wet mitten. Chebeague Island fishermen wear the three-ply wool mitten only after soaking it in sea water. As long as their hands are warm to start with, Hansen says, the wool mitten will actually heat the hands tr the point of steaming.

The mitten is made twice as big as the hand, and then shrunk down to size. "I was told they just shrunk when the men used them," Hansen said. "So that's how I wrote about it. When I published my first book, people knitted them and they didn't shrink. I got a lot of phone calls, and my publisher got a lot of phone calls — angry phone calls."

Although most wool mittens don't need such elaborate preparations, they're far ahead of the competition for the normal winter tasks flatlanders face. And that, Hansen says, should ensure the knitted mittens future despite the acrylic yarns and the Thinsulates of the future.

"Wool will never be replaced," she says. "'It breathes well. It's warm, even when it gets wet. And it's comfortable."

Publication data

title: Warmth of Tradition

date: 1995-11-27

outlet: Journal Tribune

keyword: feature

words: 2213

status: published

version: RWT4.0

citation: "Warmth of Tradition" Newspapers.com, Journal Tribune, November 27, 1995, https://pressherald.newspapers.com/article/journal-tribune-warmth-of-tradition/127721792/