The Mittens That Multiplied Like Rabbits


IT WAS really all my fault, for I was the one who first put the idea of mittens into Charlotte’s head. We were members of the same car pool, and we used to meet every morning at the Esso Station in Red Bank. There George, our driver, picked us up and whisked us over thirty miles of N. J. State Highway to Linden, where we all work in an aircraft factory. About half way there we stopped to pick up Tony.

The trip home was comparatively leisurely and relaxed; but in the morning it was George’s fixed purpose to arrive at the plant in time for a cup of coffee before punching in at eight o’clock. We made for Linden as if shot out of a gun; and if anything disturbed our progress, such as a car coming out of a side road, we never deviated from our course by so much as a fraction of an inch.

It occurred to me that some form of light manual labor during the ride would keep me from imagining such headlines as “ War Workers’ Bodies Not Yet Recovered From Smoldering Wreck — Complete Story on Page 4.” Outside of engineering drawing, I have no love for handiwork; but I thought that any fool could make mittens, and, as it turned out, I was entirely right. I made dozens of pairs, and arrived at work calm and collected as a payroll deduction.

I must admit that, although I did all right on the straightaway, the thumbs and tops of the mittens were too complicated for me. I therefore worked out a system involving two sets of needles, two balls of wool, and my mother. I would knit the mitten up to the place where you have to make a hole for the thumb, and then turn it over to my mother, who took care of the thumb situation while I was knitting the cuff of the second mitten. We pursued this method of switching mittens throughout. By the middle of July we had reached peak production, never bottlenecking each other, and mittens were coming off the assembly line at the rate of two pairs a week. My immediate family had long since absorbed mittens to the saturation point, but the problem of the surplus crop was solved by the imminence of Christmas.

I never supposed that Charlotte would be interested in my mitten-knitting technique, so I had not explained it to her, and it was only natural that she was misled by the speed and ease with which mittens ripened and dropped off my needles. One Monday morning she turned up in the car with an enormous hank of red wool, four needles the size of crowbars, a hand-painted cardboard container, and the announcement that she was going to knit a pair of mittens when I gave her my directions.

The only direction I could give was “Set up 42 stitches and k 1, p 1, from Red Bank to Linden.” Since it was the first time that Charlotte had ever asked my opinion, or treated me with any show of respect (she works downstairs in the plant, makes twice as much as I do, and regards the Drafting Room as distinctly inferior), I was reluctant to display my ignorance. Fortunately, her hank of wool was unwound, and it took her all the way to Linden to wind it up into a ball, so we arrived at the plant with my prestige unimpaired.

Since we weren’t busy in the Drafting Room that day, I passed the morning by working out a conversion factor on the calculating machine: Diameter of needles times gage of wool over 42 stitches equals k, a constant, and so forth. During the afternoon I made what is known to the trade as a flat, pattern, which I entitled “Layout and Development — Mitten — Charlotte’s. Left Hand Shown, Right Hand Opposite.” On the way home I was able to give Charlotte authoritative information about how to proceed as far as the thumb. That night I had my mother write down the instructions for the thumb, as well as the tricky business of narrowing the top, and by the end of the week we were streaking through our mittens in top form.

The only flaw in our relationship was that, in calculating the conversion factor, I had overlooked Charlotte’s knitting. It was of the casual, happygo-lucky variety, and much looser than mine; so her mitten developed heroic proportions. I assured her, however, that she could block it to size — a phrase I had picked up from my mother — and she looked at me trustfully and went on happily knitting.

Over the week-end Charlotte finished her first mitten, with the exception of the thumb, which I had told her to leave to the very end, and by the time we reached Linden on Monday morning she was almost up to the thumb hole on its male. During the morning she came into the Drafting Room and asked me where she was supposed to put the thumb. I was busy, and, conscious of my boss’s disapproving gaze, I said with great conviction that inasmuch as her mitten had, up to this point, neither back nor front, it didn’t make the slightest difference where she put the thumb.

Charlotte looked pretty bewildered — I can see now that she had every reason to— but I finally reassured her and she went away. Of course you know what happened: she made both mittens for the left hand. But she bore this misfortune philosophically, for the entire business of knitting mittens had captured her inflammable imagination. She said that she might just as well have two pairs anyhow, and would now knit two right-hand mittens. I applauded her ingenuity and resolution. Charlotte roared through the third mitten at breakneck speed, and had reached the top of the fourth when the wool gave out.

You might think that all she had to do was get another hank of red wool. But it seems that no two hanks of red wool are ever exactly the same color, unless they come out of the same dye lot, and there wasn’t any of Charlotte’s original dye lot left. I didn’t blame her, with three and three-quarters thumbless mittens on her hands, for saying rather plaintively that if she had realized how difficult it was going to be, she would have knitted a scarf instead.

Even the male members of the car pool, who had hitherto regarded the mittens with apathy, exhibited concern. Between us, we finally evolved a plan of partial salvage. Charlotte was to rip out the fourth, unfinished mitten, and use that wool to make thumbs for the other three. This would give her one complete pair, and a widowed left-hand mitten, which she could keep on file in the hope that the exact shade of red wool might turn up someday.

Then Tony, who had been pondering the problem in silence for several minutes, came through with a really magnificent bit of mitten lore, dredged up from who knows what remote corner of his past. He advised Charlotte to knit a fourth mitten with the new wool, and then soak the third and fourth mittens together in a strong solution of hot water and soap. They would both run a bit, he claimed, and would come out of the water a perfect pair. At this critical juncture, the Drafting Room went on a different shift, and I had to find a new ride into Linden, so I have never learned how Tony’s theory worked out.

The other day Charlotte flashed by my table; and as she passed, she flapped a huge, half-knitted mitten at me. I was delighted to see that it was a black mitten, with a jagged yellow streak emblazoned on its cuff.

  1. ELIZABETH WARD left publicity work to take a job in a war plane factory in New Jersey. This is her first appearance in the Atlantic.