Knitting Sale-Socks

Harriet Prescott lived with her aunt and uncle in the large red brick boarding house that they owned in Newburyport, Massachusetts. The boardinghouse is at center in this 1913 postcard.

American author Harriet Prescott Spofford’s short story, “Knitting Sale-Socks,” was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in February 1861. That and her numerous other stories that were published enabled Harriet and her sisters to stop working in the textile mills in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Mary Lycan’s article, “Harriet Prescott Spofford and Women’s Work in Nineteenth-Century New England,” in the January/February 2013 issue of PieceWork details the life of this most amazing woman. ‘’Knitting Sale-Socks” tells the poignant story of the Ruggles family, a mother and two grown daughters, whose only income is from knitting and selling mittens and socks to the local storekeeper for which they earn fifteen to fifty cents a pair for socks—paid in store credit.

Mary based her pattern for these sweet mittens from dialog in ‘’Knitting Sale-Socks.” She explains:

According to the speaker, these are the most common style of mittens, made from homespun or store-distributed yarn and sold to village stores to supply farmers, lumbermen, and fishermen. The pattern is well designed to suit both wearer and knitter.

For the wearer, the stretchy cast-on and short, tight-ribbed cuff suggest mittens to be worn over longer fingerless gloves or wristers, easy to pull off and put back on, handy to wear when sharpening an ax or a crosscut saw or when harnessing a horse. After the thumb gore stitches are dropped, the stitches cast on to close up the thumb are decreased to form a small gore or fourchette, providing exceptionally good fit over the webbing between forefinger and thumb. The shaping makes the mittens comfortable for handling a snow shovel or other tool that nestles in the hand. The round-toe sock shaping at the tip of the fingers and thumb ensures comfort and long wear: if the palms get wet, simply switch the mittens so that the wet part lies on the back of the other hand. The quote is a bit long; I’d end it here, especially with only two pics.

Mary Lycan's mittens interpreted from dialog in "Knitting Sale-Socks," one of Harriet Prescott's short stories.

For the knitter, the single-stitch purl ribs arising from the cuff ribbing and outlining the sides of the thumb gore are a visual and tactile reminder of where to place thumb increases: stitch markers within the pattern itself. The mittens’ girth of sixty stitches provides a good fit when knitted tightly from a DK or light worsted-weight wool. A mitten made on fewer stitches from heavier yarn might appear to work up faster, although in my experience, bigger stitches move more slowly. But in a sheep-to-shop handwork cottage industry like that of the Ruggleses, the knitting is only the last process of several. A lighter-weight mitten results in more mittens to sell from each acre of grazing, from each sheared and washed fleece, from each day of carding, and each day of spinning.

And now you can knit your very own 1861 Cottage-Industry Mittens and Wristers with our new PieceWork kit! Included are a digital copy of the entire 7th Annual Historical Knitting issue of PieceWork with Mary’s article on Harriet Prescott Spofford and the instructions for the mittens and the wristers and the Cascade 220 wool yarn. I just know you’re going to love learning more about Harriet, knitting these mittens, and being toasty warm while wearing them!