Pa’s red & white checked mittens
Most likely knit in Fair Isle pattern.
Pa and Uncle Peter had each a pair of new, warm mittens, knit in little squares of red and white. Ma and Aunt Eliza had made them. – Little House in the Big Woods, Chapter 4, “Christmas”
Mary C. Gildersleeve’s Great Yarns for the Close-Knit Family (published in 2008) contains two knitting projects inspired by Little House in the Big Woods: “Ma’s boot socks” and “Pa’s red-white checked mittens.” There are also projects inspired by other great children’s books. If you’re a knitter like I am, you probably ran right out and bought a copy when it first came out!
The Little House books include a number of knitted items, including collars, coverlet, doily, hood, lace, mittens, mitts, necktie, socks, stockings, and wristlets. In Little House in the Big Woods, there’s also the doll Charlotte’s hair, which was made of “black yarn that had been knit and raveled, so it was curly.” (See Chapter 4, “Christmas”)
Little House in the Big Woods inspired me to knit both socks and mittens. In the box below is my grandmother’s pattern for Checked Mittens in Fair Isle Knitting. My grandmother, who lived from 1895-1966, was a contemporary of Rose Wilder Lane. I inherited her treadle sewing machine and some of her knitting needles and patterns.
Since I was already a mitten knitter when I received this pattern, I construct my mittens a bit differently, but I use the chart for the squares, which I only place on the back of the hands, not both palm and back of each mitten. Gildersleeve’s mittens are checkerboard squares covering the whole mitten, with striped thumbs. We don’t know if Pa’s mittens were covered in squares or not, but if changing colors so often isn’t easy for you, try limiting them to the back of the hand on each mitten, and doing the rest in solid red. Your project will go a lot faster.
A small mitten to be used as a Christmas ornament is a great way to practice color-work; you don’t have to worry about sizing or how messy your work is on the inside! After knitting the ribbed wrist and several rows of the back, I counted the stitches in a row and located the center stitch, figuring out the checkerboard pattern based on available stitches, leaving several main-color (red) stitches at the beginning and end of each row. For the mitten shown here, I knitted “squares” that were three stitches wide and four rows tall. The checkerboard probably would have looked better if I’d started and ended sooner so that the patterned area was centered on the mitten back. No worries; I’ll do the next one that way, and this one will look just fine hanging on my Christmas tree.
Fair Isle knitting is the name given to designs knitted in several colors. The yarn is carried across the wrong side of the work. When only two colors are used and the spaces between are not more than four stitches wide, the yarn not in use is stranded across the back, keeping about the same tension as knitting. When the distance between two colors is more than four stitches wide, I twist the two yarn colors at the back of the work between stitches.
My grandmother’s mittens are knitted in an attractive diamond pattern; the main color being gray with red and green contrasting. Any other desired color combination may be used [note: use red and white for “Pa’s checked mittens”]. For size 4 child’s mittens, you need about one ounce baby yarn in main color, and a small amount of each of two contrasting colors is sufficient to make one pair of mittens; use knitting needles size 1 and 2. Three ply fingering yarn and size 1 and 3 knitting needles are best for size 6 mitten. Medium weight sport yarn and sizes 2 and 4 needles are used for size 8 mittens. Use knitting worsted and size 3 and 5 knitting needles for adult mittens.
One ball of main color is sufficient; but each diamond requires a separate strand or small ball of yarn.
Abbreviations: St (stitch); k (knit); P (purl); tog (together).
RIGHT HAND – With the smaller of the two sizes of needles and main color, cast on 48 stitches. K in ribbing of k 2, p 2 for 2-1/2 inches (3 inches or more for larger sizes). Increase 1 st at end of last ribbing row.
Change to larger needles and continue in stockinette st adding the various colors of yarn on next row.
Row 1: K 6 in main color, 1 green, 11 main color, 1 red, 1 main, 1 green, 11 main, 1 red, 6 main. Continue from chart for one complete diamond (11 rows)– be sure to p the row after each k row using the same sequence of sts and colors; the 12th row and each row between diamond patterns is worked in main color.
THUMB ROW – (Row 13) K 6 main, 1 red, 11 main, 1 green, 4 mian. With a small piece of contrasting yarn (about 12 inches), k the next 7 sts. Then slip these 7 sts just knitted back onto left hand needle and k them again with main color. FInish row with 1 red, 11 main, 1 green, 6 main.
Continue from chart until 3-1/2 complete diamonds have been knitted from ribbing (42 rows).
Row 43: K 2 main, 9 green, 3 main, 8 red, (k 2 tog, k 1, k 2 tog) in main, 8 green, 3 main, 9 red, 2 main.
Row 44: (P 2 tog, p 1) in main, 7 red, 5 main, 6 green, (p 2 tog, p 1, p 2 tog) in main, 6 red, 5 main, 7 green, (p 1, p 2 tog) in main.
Row 45: (K 2 tog, k 1) in main, 5 green, 7 main, 4 red, (k 2 tog, k 1, k 2 tog) in main, 4 green, 7 main, 5 red, (k 1, k 2 tog) in main.
Row 46: (P 2 tog, p 1) in main, p 3 red, 9 main, 2 green, (p 2 tog, p 1, p 2 tog) in main, 2 red, 9 main, 3 green (p 1, p 2 tog) in main.
Row 47: K 2 tog, k 1) in main, 1 green, 11 main, 1 red, k 3 tog in main, 1 green, 11 main, 1 red, (k 1, K 2 tog) in main.
Row 48: Divide the sts onto needles and weave together; or bind off with main color and seam across the top.
THUMB – Pull out length of contrasting yarn which you used to knit the 7 sts on thumb row. This will release 14 sts. Pick up on 3 needles and knit for desired length of thumb. K 2 tog around for last row. Pull out needle and pull end of yarn through all sts and fasten securely.
LEFT HAND – Work as for right hand to thumb row. Thumb row: K 6 main, 1 red, 11 main, 1 green. With a small piece of contrasting yarn, k next 7 sts. Slip the sts you have just knitted back onto left hand needle and knit them with main color, k 4 mian, 1 red, 11 main, 1 green, 6 main.
Finish remainder of mitten as for right hand; also the thumb.
Remember that in Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls (at age four) is knitting a little pair of mittens for Baby Carrie. Go ahead and knit some mittens. You’ll never learn any younger.
Pa’s red and white checked mittens (BW 4)