Kate Larson and the Secret Language of Norwegian Mittens
Editor’s note: While Roving Reporter Kate Larson is taking a breath after her first art gallery opening, we revisit one of her favorite subjects: Norwegian mittens.
I am particularly enamored with Norwegian mittens and the stories they hold. During the nineteenth-century, Norway was rapidly changing, and we can see many of those changes manifest in the mittens from that era. We can see the impacts of industrialization and new technologies as synthetic dyes and mill-spun yarns become available. We can also see interest in regional identity and traditional motifs.
Norwegian Mittens in the New World
In 1814, Norway gained its independence, and by the 1830s, people were migrating to North America by the thousands in search of new opportunities. Many of these immigrants took small cultural mementos, like mittens, with them as they forged new and unknown paths. And some of those mittens that were carried across the sea by boat in wooden trunks eventually made their way into the collections of some wonderful museums, such as the Nordic Heritage Musuem in Seattle, Washington, and Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum in Decorah, Iowa. You can see some of these very special textiles in the Vesterheim online collections.
You Can Spin and Knit Norwegian Mittens
In Norway, as in other parts of northern Europe, many mittens were handknitted for sale using approved measurements, patterns, and yarns, while others were born from the knitter’s creative blend of cultural and personal aesthetic. Handspinners and knitters are often quite innovative people—making use of new materials that are available and finding new uses for traditional materials. Today, we can continue this tradition as we blend techniques, tools, and fibers from around the world to create textiles that are thoroughly modern. I am currently spinning Gotland top from the United Kingdom on a spinning wheel made in Canada for a Norwegian inspired mitten that I will embroider with yarn spun from the ewes grazing outside my window in Indiana–textiles connect us all.
One of my absolute favorite places to be is deep within the storerooms of a museum with my research notebook and white gloves, carefully trying to peer inside an exquisite mitten. Mittens, gloves, and other handcoverings can not only be a trove of technical information but also endlessly inspiring. Looking closely, we can see how these handcoverings were worn and repaired, how the knitter preferred to increase or decrease stitches, and what types of fibers and yarns were used. And there are always the questions that will often remain unanswered—did she knit these for herself or for someone she loved? How did they end up in the museum collection?
Posted September 17, 2013. Updated July 26, 2018. Featured Image: Norwegian mittens and gloves are a fun challenge for spinners, knitters, and even embroiderers. Photos by Joe Coca