During my recent visit to Colonial Williamsburg, Associate Curator Neal Hurst showed me this pair of women’s knitted mitts from the Foundation’s Costume & Textile Collection. Mitts were an important accessory for women in the 18thc, a time when the sleeves of most women’s garments ended around the elbow. Mitts covered the forearm yet left the fingers free, and they could be cut and sewn from cloth, or knitted. (See the genteel white mitts being worn while reading in this detail of a portrait by John Singleton Copley, below right.)
The Colonial Williamsburg mitts were hand-knit in very fine linen yarn/thread on very small needles, at a gauge of about 22 stitches per inch. Modern knitters will understand how delicate this is, and also know that this size needles and yarn are no longer commercially available. The mitts were knitted seamlessly, with shaping decreases at random intervals narrowing at the wrist. More decreases plus increases created the open thumbs as well as the pointed shape of the flap that would lie over the back of the wearer’s hand. There are initials worked in cross-stitch silk thread at the top of each mitt: AS, for Abagail Steere [Fowler] (1775-1860), the original owner and possibly the maker as well. If she was, then she was not only industrious, but she also possessed the considerable leisure time to devote to knitting these useful, fashionable accessories.
In my upcoming book, The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr, one of the most important characters is Theodosia Bartow Prevost, the wife of a British officer. While her husband is away fighting during the Revolution, Theodosia is left with their children, her mother, and her younger half-sister on her husband’s estate, The Hermitage, in New Jersey, and stranded in a no-man’s land between two armies. She must rely primarily on her intelligence and cleverness to defend her family and property; in the face of guns and cannon, her only weapons are the letters she writes to the officers on both sides, charming and coaxing and pleading as she carefully balances one side against the other.
I pictured Theodosia furiously writing letter after letter at a small table in her bedchamber, the room chilly despite the fire. She has a shawl around her shoulders and mitts on her hands while the pen in her hand scratched across the page. Theodosia’s mitts might be made of soft wool, linen, or even imported silk, and they could have been decorated with embroidery, or with her initials, like Abagail’s. Not only would Theodosia’s mitts keep her arms and hands warm, but they would also help protect them from the sun if she ventured outdoors. Even during wartime, Theodosia would have wanted to maintain the fashionably soft, unblemished skin expected of a lady of her rank.
There would have been no such expectations for Theodosia’s enslaved cook Mary Emmons, the heroine of Secret Wife. While Mary might also have occasionally worn mitts, hers would have been made of coarse wool that she’d carded, spun, and knitted herself. She could have pulled them on outdoors for warmth as she hurried from the house to one of the outbuildings, or perhaps brought in more wood for the fires.
But in the kitchen, Mary’s hands and arms would have been bare, her skin vulnerable in countless ways large and small. Burns from wayward sparks from the open hearth, the too-hot handle of a kettle, a splash of boiling water meant for her mistress’s tea, nicks and cuts from knives and graters, and washing dishes and pots with harsh soap all could have left their marks. Mary’s hands would have been strong and skilled and capable of both culinary marvels and compassion, and later they, too, would learn to wield a pen. But dark-skinned, laboring hands would never have been considered beautiful to the 18thc eye, and they never would have been painted by John Singleton Copley.
Top: Knitted Mitts, 1780-1810. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. For more photographs and information, visit the page for the mitts through the Colonial Williamsburg eMuseum.
Right: Detail, Mrs. James Russell (Katherine Graves) (1717-1778) by John Singleton Copley, c1770, North Carolina Museum of Art.
Pre-order my newest book, The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr, which will be released on September, 24, 2019.