Mysterious Mittens and Hidden Symbolism

More than any other technique, even more than hearty cables or airy lace, colorwork makes me swoon. We see so many beautiful examples of color knitting here at PieceWork, but the day Mary Lycan’s re-creation of an unusual pair of children’s mittens from 1875 arrived at our office was particularly memorable. They reminded me of an eighteenth-century embroidery sampler, with various representations of pastoral life worked in a simple color scheme. Rosebuds, apple trees, purple cats, and jaunty roosters circle the mittens in bands, and at the bottom of the mittens is the name “Clara B. Barrows.”

Clara Barrows's Mittens to Knit by Mary Lycan. PieceWork November/December 2013. Photo by Joe Coca.

Are these mittens what they seem? Symbolism fascinates me, especially when something outwardly cheery turns out to have a darker, more serious meaning. Think nursery rhymes, traditional fairy tales, and the Victorian language of flowers. Unable to find the pattern for these mittens in Godey’s, Peterson’s, and other American periodicals published between 1865 and 1880, Mary decided that inspiration for the motifs more likely came from the early embroidery samplers they resemble. She also thinks the mittens might portray a deeper message:

Both pairs of mittens would fit a child in elementary school. Their combination of pictorial patterns and names points to a possible nontextile inspiration for the choice of the knitted motifs: The New-England Primer first reprinted in Massachusetts between 1687 and 1690. An illustrated speller with prayers and catechism that went through countless printings well into the twentieth century, its inculcation of Puritan theology was reinforced by primitive woodblock illustrations. These include an apple tree flanked by Adam and Eve (“In Adam’s Fall / We sinned all.”), a rooster (“Peter denies / His Lord, and cries.”), a cat and mice (“The Cat doth play / And after slay.”), a robin (in the woodcut for the letter “R”), and a heart (“My Book and Heart / Shall never part.”). For someone of Great-Aunt Rhoda’s generation, the mitten motifs, which look to us like happy country images, may have retained their reminders of sin and death. For Robert and Clara, two generations later, perhaps a rooster was just a rooster. How and by whom the motifs were drafted and transformed into a knitting pattern remains a mystery.

I don’t doubt that these sweet motifs once had a more serious context, but it’s certainly true that symbolism can lose its meaning over the generations. The folksiness of the patterns remind us of simpler times, and the mittens are positively charming. And really, it’s hard to take a purple kitty seriously.

Find Clara Barrows's Mittens to Knit and other beautiful historically inspired knitting patterns in the Needlework Traditions store. They're on sale through July 10th, so don't miss out. And remember, sometimes there is more to knitting than what meets the eye!