Glorious, glorious mittens. They really aren't given enough credit -- for some reason, people feel an absurd need to migrate from mittens to gloves once they hit puberty. I won't make the obvious joke about the circumstances in which the latter might come in handier than the former.

Mittens are usually composed of yarn, carefully knitted by a grandparent. They are quick to make and utilitarian. They are worn on the hands, and have only two slots: one for the fingers and one for the thumb. This makes flexibility an issue, but they keep you very warm.

They're also much snazzier than gloves, tending to come in more festive colours. It's alright to have odd combinations of colours on mittens, but with gloves you're pretty much limited to grey, black, brown and white. What's the point?

Mittens also immediately increase the cuteness of any girl who is spotted wearing them, particularly if she's also got one of those ski caps that tie below the chin. Especially if the knot hasn't been tied on those lengths of yarn. You can witness this by renting a romantic comedy set in the winter. The female lead will eventually don a pair of mittens and have minor troubles with menial tasks which require the male lead to chuckle and lend a hand.

That's all besides the point, though. I, like so many others, forsook mittens in favour of gloves and am now bereft of mittens and disenchanted with gloves. A fabulous symbol of childhood lost, I think.

Mostly they're cool and they didn't really have a node and now they do.

Need some mittens? How about giving someone you care about a pair? Mittens are simply fabulous things. First, they are warmer than gloves as one's fingers are kept together where they can share warmth and they have more insulating air pockets than knit gloves. Second, while eminently effective, they also connote youth and even frivolity. Gloves after all are practical; one's fingers are free so they can do work. Third, mittens are quick to make, take very little yarn, and are the perfect canvas for fancy colorwork or texture stitches. An entire finished project can be made in an afternoon and take 100g or less of yarn. In knitting, that's almost instant gratification! And, they rhyme with kitten which can't be bad. So, how 'bout it?

How to Knit Mittens

Making custom fit mittens is extremely simple for any knitter comfortable with a few basic techniques. The following is a guideline for how to knit ''top down'' seamless mittens worked in the round, as in mittens worked from the tips of the fingers to the cuffs and require almost no finishing once bound off.

These guidelines can be adapted to just about any weight yarn and any stitch pattern as one works by gauge rather than adhering to row by row instructions. Because the mittens are worked from the top down, they can also be tried on while in progress. Another benefit of top down mittens is if one is worried about running out of yarn. You can work each mitten to the wrist and then trade off working the cuffs until you run out of yarn. This also permits subbing in a second color if the first runs out and still having the two mittens match and look like the color change was intentional.

This method sizes the mittens by using a tracing of the dominant hand (generally the one one writes with, which tends to be more muscular, and thus marginally larger). Because of this, you do not need to be in proximity to the hands for which the mittens are intended. I've made mittens and gloves for people from a tracing only, and had good results in fit. I rarely swatch and take a gauge when knitting these as well. There is some leeway and eyeballing is usually sufficient.

These mittens are worked in two pieces, finger pocket and thumb, which are then joined together. The palm and thumb gusset are worked as a continuation of those two pieces. Making gloves from the same basic technique is extremely simple. Instead of making one finger pocket, one makes 4 fingers much the way the thumb is made. They would be joined together just as the thumb is joined to the finger pocket, and the rest is worked the same. Making fingerless gloves and wrist warmers is also extremely simple. One would simply cast on open tubes instead of closed, and knit each to the desired length.

One thing to keep in mind when working in textured stitches on only part of the mitten, especially if cabling. All texture stitches, but especially cabling, affect the width so it's in one's interest to adjust the increases to compensate. The following instructions are given for plain stockinette mittens. I've made many pairs of these. A medium/small women's pair with a long doubled cuff took less than 50g of a light worsted weight yarn worked on US#7s (Harrisville Designs Highland Style wool, 100g=200yds/183m, a photo tutorial for these mittens is available here). I've made women's large mittens using 1 entire 100g ball of bulky weight yarn on US#9s, also with a doubled cuff (Phildar Lenox Superwash Bulky, a pic for these mittens is available here). In general, for a plain pair, I assume I'll need about 100g of worsted or slightly heavier weight yarn.

You will need to know how to: figure-8 cast on (instructions at the end); knit in the round; 3-needle bind off (instructions at the end); pick up stitches; increase without leaving a hole; decrease for a right and left slant (depending upon how one knits, ssk and k2tog, see also slip stitch and pass); bind off and weave in ends.

Getting started:

  • You will need
  • a set of double pointed knitting needles in the size appropriate for your yarn.
  • enough yarn for the project; generally 100g or less. If you aren't sure if you have enough yarn, or want to use the entire ball, make sure it's wound into a center pull skein.
  • something to hold the stitches of the finger pocket or thumb while the other piece is being worked, this is also necessary if both mitten cuffs are to be alternated. Stitch holders, scrap yarn, spare double pointed or circular needles all work. If you intend to work both cuffs until the yarn runs out, it's most expedient to have an extra set of needles in the correct size, although by no means necessary.
  • a few split stitch markers; paperclips work as well.
  • a template of the hands for which the mittens are intended

Creating a Template:

Start by tracing of the dominant hand, usually the one that you write with. The thumb should be extended, but the fingers should be held together. Smooth out the outline so the fingers are surrounded by an arc clearing the longest finger and gradually widening to the maximum width of the palm by about the pinky. Add a bit of ease to account for hands having three dimensions. I usually add about 1/4 inch along one side of the hand and thumb. This is your mitten outline which you will reproduce in fabric. To make a matched pair, you only need one template. To make the second, it is faster to follow your notes from the first than to use the template again. However, remember these are custom fit, so if you need to, make the second from a different template.

Knitting a mitten:

Using two double pointed needles, figure-8 cast on some stitches. How many depends upon how pointed you want the mittens to be at the start. I generally cast on 6 per needle for a total of 12 stitches. Make a note of how many you've cast on.

Knit one row around.

After finishing the first row, place a stitch marker to indicate the start of the row. The cast on row will be loose.

At any point after the first row, you can tighten up the cast on row by gently pulling on the legs of the stitches to tighten them up and then pulling on the tail to snug it up. I generally do this sooner rather than later as it's easier to reach the inside of developing piece before there's much of a tube. This is especially true for thumbs, or if making gloves, fingers. Sometimes, if the yarn is slippery and strong enough, you can just firmly pull on the tail. But I like gentling it along for the most even results.

On the second row, increase 4 stitches. Any increase will do as long as it doesn't leave a hole. I leave the stitches halved on two needles and increase on either end of each half, making one in the first stitch and the second to last. Starting from 12 stitches (6 a side) it would look like this as it developes into a flat pocket: (v= knit stitch; m= make 1)

row 4  vmvvvvvvmv 
row 3   vvvvvvvv 
row 2   vmvvvvmv   (if it could be opened out: vmvvvvmvvmvvvvmv)
row 1    vvvvvv 
cast on  vvvvvv

Continue to increase 4 stitches every other row on either side of the mitten pocket. It will become increasingly difficult to work as the stitches increase, so start working on at least 3 needles (I prefer 4).

As it developes, compare your finger pocket with the mitten tracing. Line it up and continue to increase every other row until you reach the necessary width.

Again, for ease reasons, it's best to work until the side is wider than the tracing by one stitch on either end. Make sure the stitches aren't bunched up or stretched unduly. Wider is always better than too tight. Make a note of how many times you've increased or how many stitches you've increased to. Yes, you can always look at the first mitten when working on the second, but I find it's easier just to keep notes.

When the finger pocket is the right width, either move up your stitch marker to indicate the last increase or use your last increase stitch to keep track of how many rows you'll be working. I usually keep track from my last increase, but if you use yarns with poor stitch definition, it's much easier with a stitch marker. If the tracing becomes much wider at any point, you can always add 2-4 increases a row as needed to add to the width. This tends to happen with very long fingered hands. The increases can be worked evenly across the hand or centered rather than at the edges. If worked at the edges, the increase is a little more noticeable in the shape of the mitten.

Work straight until you reach the angle of the thumb webbing on the tracing. Don't measure including the row on the needle. Mittens which are too short are worse than mittens which are too narrow. Make a note of how many rows you've worked.

Place what you have so far onto stitch holders or spare needles or what have you. You do not have to clip the yarn. Instead, you can use the other end of your yarn ball to work the thumb. Cast on the same way, using the figure-8 cast on, and again mark your first stitch so it's easy to keep track. I usually cast on 2 each needle for a total of 4 stitches. Increase 2 stitches every other row until it is wide enough, again comparing it to the tracing. If the yarn is very thin, you may need to increase 4 every other row. I like to increase on one side only to make a slightly shaped thumb, but this is by no means necessary. Note down how many stitches you've increased to.

Work straight until you reach the angle of the thumb webbing on the tracing. Again, don't include the row on the needle in the length. Note down how many rows you've worked.

Put the main mitten back onto needles and, if necessary, put most of the thumb stitches on a holder. I make my mittens with specifically a right and a left mitten. This means I join the thumb to one side of the edge of the mitten. If you don't want right and left specific mittens, join them with the edge of the mitten in centered with the thumb. I generally join the thumb to the palm working across 4 stitches which works out to 3 because of the 3 needle bind off. Because working the bind-off leaves you with one stitch, if you're centering the thumb, you'll need to join the thumb across an odd number of stitches. Either way, do not 3-needle bind off across less than 3 stitches. Note down across how many stitches you bound off.

Looking at the mitten with the needles towards one (so you can look inside the mitten if desired) the first would be a left hand mitten and the second would be a right hand mitten. The last is an undifferentiated mitten which could be worn on either hand. The @ marks the first stitch of the round for the finger pocket, although this is not the only place you could orient that stitch.

 O                    O  LEFT
 O                    @
                  OOOO   - work bind-off with these stitches
                 O    O

 O                    O  RIGHT
 O                    @
 O    O

 O                 @O   O
 O                 OOOOO

Line up your thumb and your finger pocket and 3-needle bind-off the desired number of stitches. This leaves you with one stitch from the bind-off, and if you tried to just continue knitting, it would leave large gaps. It also would not ease around the thumb/palm join terribly easily.

Depending on which direction you'll be knitting in, you may wish to move the last stitch of the 3-needle bind-off to the other needle. Whatever works.

To account for the gap, I pick up a stitch on either side of the bind-off from the stitch below the bind-off. In other words, on either end of the seam created by the bind-off and on both sides, I pick up a stitch in each stitch below the ones which comprise the seam. This adds 4 stitches total to the circumference. If it seems like a larger than desireable hole is forming even with the picked up stitch or perhaps in the picked up stitch itself, twist the stitch as you knit it to make it tighter.

To save weaving in ends later, I also knit in the ends as I come to them. Usually, when I make a left mitten, I clip the thumb yarn and do the bind off with the finger pocket yarn and continue knitting with that. When I make a right mitten, I clip the finger pocket yarn and do the bind off and knitting with the thumb yarn (changing direction after the bind off so I stay on the outside of the mitten).

After the thumb and palm] are joined and you've completed the round, mark the start of the row.

I generally form the thumb gusset by decreasing every 3rd row. It offers a nice gradual slope which seems to fit well. This will be fairly consistent across different gauges of yarn as the ratio of stitches to rows will remain reasonably close, even if the actual number is vastly different. People with very elongated hands may wish to decrease more slowly, just a people with very short hands may wish to decrease more frequently. However, I'll stick with every 3rd row for this. Working on either side of the 3-needle bind-off, decrease 1 stitch every 3rd row. I work the decreases so they slant towards the palm, which gives it a neat appearance. In my case, as I knit combined, but I'm working in the round, I k2tog (knit two 2 together) for the right decrease and ssk (slip, slip, knit slipped stitches together) for the left.

Keep working until the palm of the mitten is long enough to reach the bottom of the palm in the tracing. It should be close to your last decrease, but do not keep decreasing the thumb if you reach the same number of stitches as the number you originally had for the widest part of the finger pocket. If you 3-needle bound off across an even number of stitches, stop when you have one more that the original number of stitches of the finger pocket to account for the odd number introduced by the 3-needle bind off. If you've not yet reached the base of the palm despite reaching the desired number of stitches, continue to work without decreasing until you reach the base of the palm. Make a note of how many decreases you do and how many extra rows you've knit.

For ease sake, work another 2 rows (or more if working with very fine gauge yarn) once you've reached the base of the palm. Then decrease stitches evenly to reach a number divisible by 4 (if you want to do a 2x2 ribbing; 2 if doing a 1x1 ribbing; 6 if doing a 3x3 ribbing, etc.). Note down how many stitches you end up with.

Work in ribbing until the cuff is the desired length. Note down how many rows this is.

If you're worried about running out of yarn, you can leave your first mitten on stitch holders and start working the second mitten from the other end of the yarn ball. Start the finger pocket first and clip the yarn on the finger pocket when you're ready to work the thumb. Remember if you're making right and left specific mittens, to place the thumb on the other side of the palm.

Work to the desired length, and bind off. I like nice long cuffs as they are more flexible if the length of the mitten turned out a little short, and this prevents drafts up one's sleeves.

Weave in the ends and you're done. Often the tail left by the cast on of the thumb will not require weaving in if the cast on is pulled nice and tight. Leave a bit of a tail, half an inch or more, and just leave it. The tail from the finger/palm should be woven in, however.

Adding a string to your mittens so they stay attached to your coat is easy. Crochet chain, or cut a piece of ribbon long enough to stretch from cuff to cuff of your coat, plus several inches (how much extra depends on how long the cuffs of the mittens are). Then, simply tie it to the cuffs of the mittens.

How to figure-8 cast on:

Take 2 double pointed knitting needles and hold them together, parallel.

Slip the end of your yarn, a tail 2-3 inches long, through the needles so that the tail is handing down and away from you.

Wrap the other end of the yarn around the outside of one of the needles and then come back through between the two needles.

Then, wrap the yarn around the outside of the other needle to form a figure 8. Continue in this way until you've cast on the desired number of stitches. Take a third needle and start knitting off of the loops on the needles. Make sure not to twist them or accidentally drop the first one which was cast on.

Note, after casting on the last stitch, do not bother to pull the yarn up and through the needles again unless you are purling the first stitch. Otherwise, you'll just have to move the yarn behind the needle for the first stitch anyway.

How to 3-needle bind off:

Hold the needles with the stitches to be bound off parallel to one another. Place the tip of a third needle through the first stitch on each of the other needles as if to knit. Knit through both stitches. Knit through the next stitch on both needles the same way. Pass the first stitch you'd knit over the second, as when normally binding off. Continue in the same way until the desired number of stitches have been bound off.

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