Part of this article was previously published in Lancaster Farming and then Troy re-worked it for On Pasture.
Several years ago I had the very good fortune of being a grazing mentor for the Regional Farm and Food Project. In that capacity, I worked with an incredibly passionate grass farmer from East Meredith, N.Y. named Catharina Kessler. This descendant of Swedish royalty carefully nurtured her Black Angus cattle, multi-colored sheep and pastured poultry as we discussed grazing strategies, water systems, marketing and her life-long dream to become a farmer. By the time the mentorship ended we had become good friends. Upon graduation, I framed a poem I wrote especially for her farm and in return she presented me with handmade mittens.
These were no ordinary mitts, they were handcrafted from her own brown wool and made in the traditional Lovikka style of northern Sweden’s indigenous people. On the radius of the cuff, in order, were the colors yellow, blue and green. She said, “In the spirit of my homeland these represent the sun, the water and the grass.” Being that these were the first mittens she created since being on the farm, I was truly honored by this warm gift with so much history.
The other day, for some strange reason I looked at those mittens closer, a little tattered and torn, with my hands still warm, wrapped around the steering wheel of my tractor and thought about Catharina’s yarn. It’s a tale of quality and love that is timeless. You just don’t find that with a pair of gloves from Walmart. Because they are so special, I keep’em no matter what, even with holes created by farming’s wear and tear. Luckily I have a secret weapon to make them last—mom’s mittens.
I can’t lie, I’m a mitten throwback. When all the kids in the neighborhood were donning the latest in linings coupled with psychedelic color tones and slippery plastic, I was wearing custom-made hand-ware with an extra-long cuff from my Mommy. She would ask what color you wanted (in general) and then match it up with shades of whatever spoke to her that day at the local sewing shop. No two pair were ever alike. Sometimes you would get black striped, rainbow tipped and the occasional zigzag pattern. Every once in a while, my brother and I would fight over a pair when she really hit the color sweet spot. Dallas Cowboy’s motif comes to mind.
I don’t remember anyone brave enough to mess with two rugged farm boys wearing mom’s mittens. You just didn’t go there. Winter football in the front yard reminds me how valuable they were. Hiking the cold pigskin into a teenage boy’s hardened gloves was a recipe for fumbles and the ever famous, “dogpile”, while the mitts clung to the ball like summertime. Us mitten-wielding teenagers never complained because our fingers were together and warm, except for the lonely thumb, but we could have him join the digit family to stay warm between downs. If we were really serious we would double up a pair and watch the competition whine.
Believe it or not, I tried to “knit one pearl two” but ended my career just making a funny looking headband. I won’t be treading on my mom’s mojo anytime soon. Her prowess as a “ninja with needles” has clothed my daughter’s tootsies, made dish cloths and hot-pads for my wife and like my friend from Houghtaling Hollow is creating warmth with a story.
The tenderness of handmade items doesn’t end at the farm. My mom is part of a local volunteer group of twenty ladies ranging in age from 50 to 90 that meets once a month to make hats for cancer patients. The Caps for Cancer gals have produced and donated thousands of caps, shawls and lap blankets from donated yarn, free of charge to the Regional Cancer Center at Faxton Hospital in Utica, N.Y. for patients needing the same comfort as a farmer’s hands.
In an ironic family twist, my mother-in-law was one of those patients who benefited from a very sturdy and pretty yellow hat. The caring group have even compiled a pattern booklet and have a sister organization starting in California, all at the hands of some passionate women.
Upon examining Catharina’s “holy” mittens from the tractor seat, I stopped and thought of mom’s work with the caps. Covering the tears in the sacred mittens was an easy and spiritual fix —-just put my mom’s mittens underneath as a sheath and move on. Never did two pairs of anything go together so well and with so much heart. Might seem odd but I actually took a picture of the two new old friends. My fingers really enjoyed the marriage between the cultures and styles of Sweden and New York.
I saw a pair of Catharina’s famous wool mittens at a raffle auction and put several bids in amounting to eighty dollars, but alas I was denied at the end by someone who needed the love a little bit more. I can hear your question, “Eighty dollars for a pair of real wool mittens?” Are you crazy?
I did the math and no, not in the least. For me, it was only 8 bucks a year for heirloom quality hand-wear, made from local ingredients, stimulating business on a farm and creating a lasting memory with a fellow farmer. Heck, I should have paid a hundred dollars for them. It’s hard to depreciate a good story.
This romance over Catharina’s sacred, home-spun mittens has one more layer. Upon learning about my tale of the two mittens and how much I appreciate their worth, Catharina found it in her heart to bless me with an additional pair, made this time with white wool. In the bottom of the box was a beautiful note of thanks for the prose and the free marketing.
Being that they were white, I resisted wearing them out on the farm but the raggedness of the previous brown pair and the bone-chilling cold of the last few weeks forced my hands to change. Because warm hands are a must and mittens often get wet when you’re out-wintering cattle and rolling round bales, I strayed away from the mittens and invested in a few reserve pairs of gloves made of the latest and greatest materials touting to be, of all things, waterproof.
WHAT was I thinking? Those fingered, phony, camouflaged pile of synthetic goop didn’t hold a match to the cold and to make matters worse, their plastic cuff clips that you hang them by to dry out kept getting tangled in the net bale wrap, forcing me to keep taking them off in the frigid cold. I just stopping using them and went “full-time” homemade mittens and have never looked back. They are simply the best.
The ladies have made me a true advocate for real wool mittens. Now imagine an economy based on the quality tenets that go into producing these fine rural woolies. The inspiration is as close as a mitt-shake.
Editors Note: Want your own pair of Catharina’s Mittens? We can’t promise she has the time to be making lots of them, but here’s her contact information:
2714 Houghtaling Hollow Road
East Meredith, NY 13753