The Weird, Feminist History Of Winter Mittens

by JR Thorpe
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

As temperatures drop across the northern hemisphere, the humble winter mitten is finally getting its due. Who hasn't slid on a pair, wiggled their thumb into its designated spot, and set off in the knowledge that the loss of dexterity is more than worth the great warmth? Mittens are in fact warmer than gloves, because fingers produce and hold heat better when grouped together in a single space, and that's likely why they've been so well-loved in cold countries. And they're also better all round because they possess a spectacularly weird and unexpectedly feminist history, which involves Scandinavian teens, American entrepreneurs and aviatrixes. Fingerless gloves and "glittens" are clearly second-best.

Mittens have likely been around in cold weather cultures for thousands of years, made of furs, skins and whatever else was at hand. We know, for instance, that sailors, sleigh drivers and other outdoor workers have always been fond of them; mittens were called "haling hands" by American colonists in the 1800s because of their use when hauling materials outside in bitter American winters. But the oldest existing mittens come from Latvia — A Latvian mitten has been found that's more than 1000 years old — and it's that country that has one of the best traditions around mitten production and folklore.

Mittens in Latvian tradition are knitted, and for many centuries Latvian women, when entering a marriage, were given a "hope chest" filled with hundreds of mittens, all with unique knitted patterns to bless their houses, their new husbands, the natural world, and other members of their family. One of the strongest sources of Latvian iconography in history is in the surviving mittens and their patterns, all of which have specific meanings. Mittens as written history: who'd have thought it?

Indeed, the knitting of mittens has been interwoven with interesting and powerful women throughout history. In the 19th century, a Norwegian girl set off a revolution in local mitten tradition by daring to knit her mittens with two wool colors and a star or rose pattern. The girl, Marit Emstad, was poor and worked as a shepherdess, and there is, alas, no sign that she ever gained any commercial gain from her invention — but it grew into the tradition of Selbuvotten, one of Norway's most common cultural knitting patterns and now a firm part of its folk art and political symbolism. Everybody from Norwegian businesses to politicians has taken the Selbu rose, as it's called, as a symbol of Norway itself, and it all started with Emstad trying to keep her hands war.

But American women particularly embraced the mitten, both as folk art and as a means of empowerment. The American Museum Of Natural History has a mitten dating from 1803 likely made by a woman with a poem knitted into the wool, a pattern traced back to a New Hampshire woman who probably wasn't paid for it. One woman did get paid for mittens: Abby Condon, one of America's first female entrepreneurs. Condon hailed from Penobscot in Maine, and succeeded in securing a contract to produce hand-knitted mittens for soldiers during the American Civil War, for 25 cents a pair. Rather than running a factory, though, she hit on another method: she recruited women from all over New England, sent them the wool to knit mittens at home, then sent the results to the front. In one year, 15,000 dozen mittens were sent out. Fifteen hundred workers, all female, were employed at one point, and Condon was apparently the chief customer of all the steamboat freights in Maine.

She was also an innovator. When prices of mittens collapsed, she kept 250 women on staff; when knitting machines came in, she bought four and expanded her empire to 150 machines over the next few decades, and was producing 96,000 mittens a year by her death in 1906, long past the end of the war.

Mittens would change as the century did; in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the word also referred to long netted and embroidered garments that women placed over their hands at formal dinners. But they would shift and adapt to the times. Knitting mittens for soldiers became a recognized part of the war effort for women supporting the Allies in World War I, and a striped knitting pattern for mittens and sweaters developed in Norway, the Fana, symbolized a wish for peace. And, of course, as women took to the skies and became part of the rise of aviation, they joined the class of professional mitten-wearers; Amelia Earhart wore a tailored set in 1930 to protect her from cold temperatures as she set aviation records.

Mittens have had a long and interesting journey to end up in your coat pocket. Consider their feminist past as you gear up to throw that snowball.