"Who taught you to make mittens?" I inquired.
"Why my mother I expect," she said.
"And who taught her?" I wanted to know.
"Well, her mother. Or her Grandmother Adeline -- you know Grammy Staples."
Adeline lived in Calais Maine in the mid 1800's and had a large farm family of 9 children. She knit constantly and I have, through Nana who is my great-grandmother, the double pointed knitting needles that she used. They are steel with different kinds of points ground onto the ends, and of various lengths from 9 inches (for mittens, hats and socks) to 22" (for circularly constructed sweaters like Ganseys). I have used the 9 inch ones many times and they are my go to needles for what I call VooDoo socks which I generally make for wedding presents -- one pair for the bride and one for the groom -- because of my feeling that it knits the new member into the family.
I have been really moved emotionally by reminder of how old some of my knowledge is, how far back it goes, and the lifestyles that created it. I am going to my big bowl of handspun yarn right now to dig through and look for appropriate yarns to knit up a pair of mittens and wristers for my son. And I will be using Adeline's needles.
I have been knitting since the age of 4. We had a big family with many children in Maine, so one of the very first things I learned to knit was mittens. I am going to try to analyze and clearly describe a process that is encoded on my DNA, hence the title. This is a basic, solid color mitten with no tricky pattern stitches or other flummery. You can add that to your future efforts once you have made a pair or 10 of the basic sort. These make excellent Christmas gifts for children. I often make them in sets of 3 so that a lost mitten is no catastrophe.
If you have never made mittens before I recommend that you make the first pair for yourself. This is mostly because you have your hands right there in front of you, knitting , and that makes them handy for trying on and test fitting. Once you are familiar with the process you should be able to grade the whole business up or down to fit hands that may or may not be right in front of you.
For the purposes of general descriptions these are the approximate measurements for mittens above the line of the cuff for the various sizes of human beings.
Small - 5 inches around and 5 inches long
Medium - 6 inches around and 6 inches long
Large - 7 inches around and 7 inches long
Small - 7 inches around and 7 inches long
Medium - 8 inches around and 8 inches long
Large - 9 inches around and 9 inches long
Now your human beings may come in non-standard sizes with long narrow hands, or wide baseball mitt shaped hands so accommodate to your people, don’t blindly follow the measurements. One of the advantages of hand made as opposed to mass produced mittens is that you can make your mittens one at a time to actually fit the person, who has also, usually, been made one at a time.
First question.....what kind of yarn are you using? If it is worsted weight then you will get approximately 5 stitches per inch. If it is DK or sport weight then you are probably looking at 6 or 7 stitches per inch. If it is fingering or sock weight yarn then we are talking about 8 or 9 stitches per inch. The weight of the yarn has more to do with the gauge then we usually think, and the needle size has less. Mittens are best when knit at a fairly close tension so use a smaller size needle then you usually would. Here is another general list.
Worsted Weight - needle size 4-7
DK or Sport - needle size 3-4
Fingering or Sock Weight - needle size 0-3
I’m going to assume that you are knitting your mittens on double points since that is the way it is traditionally done. It can be done on two circular needles, or one long circular needle either singly (one mitten at a time) or for the adventurous doubly (two mittens at a time). I am going to assume that with your first pair you are not going there, although it does give you something to aspire to.
Work up your gauge. Cast on 20 stitches and knit on the front, purl on the back side for about an inch or so. Now measure how many stitches you are getting to the inch. This is your key number which we will abbreviate as N. If you are using worsted weight N=5 in all probability.
Take your number N (I am going to assume it was 5) and multiply that by the number of inches around your hand (I am going to assume 8 for Adult Medium). Multiply N by your measurement to get the approximate number to cast on. (5x8=40)
Making the Cuff
Fudging takes place here. I like to use a Knit 2 Purl 1 rib on my mittens for the cuff. This rib is stretchier and allows for a little elegance of construction when we do the thumb gusset later so just go with me here. 40 is not divisible by 3, but 39 is. I would cast on 39 stitches and Knit 2 Purl 1 for one row. Do not join first as you usually do. This creates a little ridge for your first row that makes it easier to join without twisting because you can see what you’re doing. Now place 13 on each needle and join. I like to start every needle with a knit stitch because it makes the knitting of the cuff more automatic pilot for me and requires less paying attention, so do that too.
So now we have 39 stitches in all, split into 13 stitches on each of 3 needles, each one beginning with a Knit 2. Do Knit 2 Purl 1 ribbing until the cuff is as long as you want it to be. For children 2-3 inches is usually good, adults may want it a bit longer, say 3-4 inches.
Setting up for the Hand and Thumb Gusset
We are now going to divide our number of stitches roughly in half. We will reserve 20 stitches for the front of the hand, so place 20 stitches on one needle. Split the other 19 roughly in half, placing 9 on the first “short” needle and 10 on the other, but pay attention to where your Purl and Knit Stitches are. We want to have a Purl 1, Knit 2, Purl 1 section at the beginning of the 9 stitch needle. We are going to use that section to make the thumb gusset and if you do it my way you will have an elegant line of purl stitches that goes all the way from the base of the cuff up each edge of the thumb gusset. It is a small thing that in no way affects the utility of the mitten, but it amuses me so I am telling you about it. From now on all stitches will be knit with the exception of the Purl stitches on either side of the thumb gusset.
Beginning with the 9 stitch needle and a purl stitch, Purl 1 Knit 2 Purl 1 and then knit until the first round is completed. You may want to increase up to 4 stitches in this first plain knit row, depending on the shape of your hand. A long narrow hand won’t require any increasing. A broader hand with a narrow wrist would benefit from a few extra stitches above the cuff. Continue knitting around and maintaining the Purl 1 Knit 2 Purl 1 base for the thumb gusset for 2-4 rows. Now we are going to start increasing for the thumb.
Maintain the purl stitches going all the way up the edges of the gusset.
Row 1 and all odd number rows): Purl 1 Make One by knitting into the stitch below, and then into the stitch on the needle. (Right handed make one) Knit whatever is in the middle here which on row 1 will be 0, on row 3 will be 2, on row 5 will be 4, etc., etc. Make another one by Knitting the stitch on the needle and then into the stitch below (Left handed make one). Purl one. Knit plain for the rest of the row.
Row 2 and all even number rows. Knit all knit stitches and purl the two stitches on the outside edges of the gusset. Do not increase on even number rows.
Keep this up until you have increased 10 stitches and there are 12 knit stitches in all between the purl stitches on the outside of the gusset. Run a length of contrasting yarn through these stitches to hold them and cast on 4 stitches to close the gap. Now just knit around until your mitten is an inch or so shy of your final measurement, in this case 7 inches above the line of the cuff.
Setting up to decrease for the top of the mitten.
Check your thumb position. Look at your the hands palm up. When you are looking at the palms of your hands, or your mittens, the thumb is on the right on the right hand, and on the left on the left hand. Place your stitches so that you have half your stitches on one needle for the front of the mitten and the thumb gusset is on the right side for the right mitten or on the left side for the left mitten. This may require some initial fussing around with your double pointed needles to get things placed properly. Just move your stitches around until you it is correct and then place your 4th double pointed needle wherever it needs to be in order to begin to knit again. Knit 1 round ending up on one side or the other of the front of the mitten. You should have 1/2 of your stitches on one needle, and 1/4 of your stitches on the other two.
Round 1 Side 1 - Knit 1 stitch, PSSO (this is done Slip 1, knit 1, pass the slipped stitch over the knit stitch -- henceforth referred to as PSSO), Knit until you are within 3 stitches of the end of this side. Knit 2 together, Knit 1
Round 1 Side 2 - Do the same thing.
Round 2 and all even rounds - Knit all stitches
Round 3 and all odd rounds - Same as round 1
You will notice that on the odd number rows you are decreasing a total of 4 stitches each time. When you reach the point when you have 6-8 stitches left on each side you are ready to close the top of the mitten.
You can Kitchener stitch it together which is what I do because it is tricky and looks good.
You can do a 3 Needle Bind Off.
You can just cast off and sew the top of the mitten together.
If you decide to Kitchener stitch the tops together then just put the first mitten’s top stitches on a length of contrasting yarn and complete the other mitten so you can finish them both at once. It is easier to remember how to Kitchener stitch when you are doing both at once rather than one, and after a long time passes, another one.
Finishing the thumb
Pick up the 12 stitches on your thumb, and then pick up 4 more where you “cast on 4 stitches to close the gap”. Spread them out with 5 stitches on each of 3 needles, knitting two together where necessary to close up the little hole that is always cropping up at the base of the thumb join. Knit around and around until the thumb is long enough, approximately 2 inches for adult medium, but thumbs differ so feel free to try the mitten on to check.
Closing off the top of the thumb. PSSO at the beginning of each needle and K2tog at the end of every needle. You should have 3 stitches on each needle now. Slip 1, K2tog, Pass the slip stitch over on each needle. You now have 3 stitches left, 1 on each needle. Break off the yarn and, using a darning needle, thread through the middle of each stitch and pull gently to close up the hole. Work your end in and cut the tail of yarn off so it doesn’t hang there foolishly.