I have been obsessed with the Birch Mittens to Knit Kit since I saw it pop up on the Interweave Store. A sad reality is that even though I work a mere few feet from the Piecework team, I don’t always have time to peruse all the wonderful work they’re doing, so when the January/February 2010 issue of Piecework came out, I missed seeing these lovely mittens. The original Latvian mittens were knit by a woman named Jette Užāne, and adapted for the magazine by Barbara Plakans. Barbara wrote an accompanying article about Jette, “Latvia’s Favorite Knitter” and I thought it was a lovely tribute to someone who was clearly an amazing knitter. Here’s a short excerpt from Barbara’s article.
In spring 2006, while in the capital of Riga with my Latvian husband, I questioned Latvian friends about their traditional folk mittens. Initially, they were surprised that mittens should have stimulated more international interest than weaving—most Latvians consider weaving their premier fiber craft . The Museum of Decorative Arts and Design (Dekoratīvās mākslas un dizaina muzejs) in Riga devotes an entire floor to woven tapestries while mittens are only displayed for sale in the museum gift shop. Knitting is a prosaic, portable pastime as far as the natives are concerned, a skill that every young girl was expected to learn in school. Thus, mittens are nearly as common as pigeons in the streets of Riga’s old medieval quarter and have long been a prominent souvenir of pushcart vendors, who sometimes knit as they tend shop.
Nonetheless, my Latvian friends repeatedly directed me to one particular knitter: “The best mittens are made by Cimdu Jettiņa” (the affectionate diminutive for Jette Užāne [1924–2007] meaning “little Jette of the mittens”). After I looked through her biography, Cimdu Jettiņa, which contains more than six dozen color photographs of her mittens, I understood that here was a knitter who had moved beyond the folk tradition to “paint her world view in yarn,” as she told her biographer, the art historian and writer Māris Brancis. And I understood why, when she died, this severely disabled farmwoman with no formal education was memorialized in Riga’s largest newspapers in obituaries befitting a revered author or musician.
Jette Užāne rarely left Lejnieki (Place down in the Valley), the farmstead that her parents built in the 1920s in the Dzērbene district of the Vidzeme countryside in rural northeastern Latvia. Jette, the second of six children, was born there during Latvia’s first independence period, and it was her home until her death.
When she was four years old, her grandmother noticed that Jette was bending over, holding her arms stiffly at her sides. A specialist in Riga diagnosed Pott’s disease, an old term for spinal tuberculosis that causes the spine to soften and collapse. Jette spent two years at the sanitarium at Krimulda but fell ill again at home before she could enter elementary school. Within a few days, she couldn’t move anything but her fingers. She was taken back to Krimulda, where she stayed until she was twelve, learning reading, writing, and basic sewing skills.
Back home but severely deformed, Jette was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Nonetheless, her mother soon gave her yarn and knitting needles and showed her how to cast on and turn a heel, saying, “Why are you sitting here without working? Knit something; the other children have bare feet.” After completing many pairs of socks, at age thirteen, Jette turned out her first pair of mittens. Soon, it took her only a day to knit a pair. She was knitting for everyone in the family as well as mending their clothes.
Her stern grandmother, whose sharp eyes had first spotted her affliction, received Jette’s first pair of mittens. As Jette tells it, “I created a special pair (with unusual cuffs) for my mother’s mother and expected her to praise me. ‘Well, aren’t they beautiful?’ I asked. Grandmother replied, ‘They are not yet beautiful, daughter. They are colorful.’ Then I said with a trembling voice through my tears, ‘Lukstiņmāte (Mother of Lukstiņa [her grandmother’s farmstead]), what do the mittens need to make them beautiful?’ Grandmother answered, ‘Beautiful, daughter, is only black, white, and gray.’ ” Undeterred, Jette continued to experiment with scavenged yarn and a set of five double-pointed wire needles (size 0 or smaller).
The article includes many photographs of Cimdu Jettiņa’s lovely work, including the original version of the Birch Mittens that Barbara recreated for Piecework (I’m hesitant to include them, as they were graciously loaned to the magazine for that use only). It also includes this photograph of Jette holding up a pair of mittens she knit based on an Nancy Bush pattern in the November/December 1999 issue of Piecework (many thanks to Zaiga Greenhalgh for permission to use this photo).
As I said at the beginning, I’ve been obsessed with these mittens for a couple of months now. I think I’m going to give into the urge to knit them over Christmas break. I love the woven stitch worked at the cuff and the slightly abstract but incredibly striking interpretation of the birch trees, worked with a combination of stranded colorwork and twisted stitches.
These mittens start with a variation of the Old Norwegian cast-on, one of my favorite cast-on methods for stretchy but sturdy edges. In these mittens, you start with two of the contrast colors for a decorative edge.
The Birch Mittens to Knit Kit comes with the yarn you’ll need to recreate Barbara’s beautiful mittens along with the January/February 2010 issue of Piecework, the 4th Annual Historical Knitting issue! It’s packed with great knitting related stories from the annals of history, including Barbara’s entire article on Jette Užāne and a new stitch pattern from knitting legend Barbara Walker. I ordered my materials today … thankfully I have a Christmas gift to knit for my mom to keep the cast-on anxiety at bay!