End-Of-Times Mittens

red knit mittens
Winter isn’t coming… (Photo by Mary Bakija)

Winter after winter, some exposed part of me freezes: I try to arrange the hair over my ears, or tug my collar around my neck, or shove my bare fingertips deeper into my pockets. Winter after winter, this knitter has forgotten to make sure she’s got all the essential accessories.

It started as soon as I learned how to knit, in a class at a yarn shop in Western Massachusetts about 13 years ago. The first lesson was a scarf, knit in a garter stitch — rows of knitting back and forth, stable and comforting and just a little boring, all sort of like life in the Happy Valley. I plowed through it and immediately bought yarn for a sweater (which I ultimately unravelled — too ambitious, too soon). The scarf, unsatisfying in its blocky regularity, I never used as intended. It was a difficult winter in the area, and the sidewalks became snow hallways. We’d walk single-file through narrow crevices dug out after multiple storms, the next pedestrian waiting at the other opening. I squeezed my way through, huddled against the cold with a hand gripping my coat up to my cheeks. My cat, at his new, non-shelter home, only aware of the snow as something to chirp at from the windows, used the scarf as a blanket.

The more successful things I’ve made have mostly become gifts. My brothers and their families have mittens and hats and afghans, and weddings and babies have been celebrated with quilts. (Note though, there is a sweater curse, which also pertains to scarves in my experience.) When the time came that just about everyone had something, I started making things for myself, but they’re usually experiments. And that, of course, means they’re off, not quite right but lovable because of their flaws.

Driving the experimentation is the impulse to try something new, to be challenged. It’s not the destination; it’s the journey. But you don’t normally end a trip with a hat four sizes too large or an itchy neon scarf. So I’ve got a greater skill set, but also a stash of cold-weather accessories that I’ll wear only in a pinch.

Of course I don’t aim to make crap. Every project starts with grand intentions, and is going to be the best [cowl/pair of socks/cardigan] ever! However, while the skills may have improved, the planning is often still lacking. Who wants to knit a swatch when they can dive right in a knit the band of the sweater? I’m a better cook than a baker, and the details of measurements sometimes seem stifling.

It all came to a head this fall, when I decided to be prepared for winter, for once. I needed mittens, and I had some yarn and a pattern, and this time, I’d make them right — not just test different size needles to get the correct gauge, but cast off the last stitches well before April.

I began the first mitten the day before a Thanksgiving-week road trip to Niagara Falls and finished the second not long after a December trip around Wisconsin, all of which sounded somewhat doomed in the planning stages. Would I really finish the mittens before winter hit New York City? Had anyone ever visited the Falls in November on purpose? Would the rental car handle a blizzard between Milwaukee and Madison?

Despite a few flurries mid-state and ice from the mist on the American side, traveling through upstate New York was balmy — we even smoked the holiday turkey on a grill in a friend’s backyard, where dinner guests played croquet. And though rainy and gray (and gold and slate blue), Wisconsin was also unseasonably warm for the middle of December.

Which should have been all the foreshadowing I needed.

I worked in the yarn ends from the left-hand thumb a few days before December 24 — which turned out to be one of the warmest Christmas Eves on record in the city. It reached 72 degrees, and I saw people wearing shorts and flip flops while out walking their dogs that morning.

It’s El Niño, or it’s the end of the world, or I have the power to control the weather in the opposite with my earnest preparations.

I’m going to start crocheting a bikini immediately.

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