Good question. What are buff mittens? I’ve never heard of them before, but today, Knitting Daily e-newsletter featured an article from PieceWork magazine that was published in Fall 2011. The following is quoted from that article, “Annis Holmes’s Buff Knitting: Preserving and Updating a North Country Tradition.” The North Country cited includes New England, which increased my interest, being a lifelong native of the region.
According to author Joanna Johnson, “In winter during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, warm, windproof, and waterproof mittens, deemed ‘buff mittens,’ were a mainstay for loggers and others laboring in the woods of the Adirondack region of New York, New England, and neighboring Canada….The term ‘buff’ may refer to the felted pile or to the undyed yarn that typically was used to make the mittens.”
Curious about the term “buff”, I checked it out in several dictionaries, but none of the definitions I found relate to mittens or even to knitting. Instead, a soft, thick leather with a napped surface, often made from buffalo skin, was known as buff. Then there were the more common meanings, such as a brownish yellow color, a polishing process, bare skin, a devotee of some particular subject or activity, or the slang for physically fit. Interestingly, American colonists in the 17th century wore a short, thick coat made of buffalo leather, called a buffcoat.
But back to the mittens. For PieceWork’s 10th annual Historical Knitting Issue, available now, Joanna designed the child’s buff mittens seen in the photo. If you want to know how that soft fuzzy surface is made, you can order a kit, or read about it in the magazine. Basically, it involves knitting the fabric with loops on the surface, then cutting, trimming, and fulling the finished product. Sounds like the embroidery technique of Turkey work, aka Ghiordes Knot, for which there are numerous tutorials online.
More info about this project, including where to get the mitten kit, is available right over here .
(Wonder how these mittens hold up after multiple washings and wearings. They recall to mind some dusting mitts my mother used to have.)