No Grey Mittens

27 October 2021
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No grey mittens. My father believes that grey mittens are bad luck and attract misfortune. His belief stems from an old superstition taken very seriously in the Nova Scotia fishing town where he grew up: Lunenburg superstition holds that grey or black mittens are bad luck on ships and fishing boats.

I’ve always complied with my father’s grey mitten ban as a matter of tradition more than belief. Whenever I’m planning a mitten project and gaze at a skein of grey yarn, his warning plays in my mind, and I call him for clarification. Maybe it would be okay to use grey as a contrast colour? Maybe that skein is more blue or taupe than grey? Maybe the mittens could be worn only on dry land? But his answer is always the same: Don’t take chances… Don’t tempt fate… No grey mittens.

Perhaps it’s time to learn more about Lunenburg fishing mittens and this unusual superstition.

The town of Lunenburg is located on Nova Scotias south shore and boasts a rich maritime history dating back to the mid-1700s. Many of its families have eked out a living for generations through dangerous work in seafaring occupations such as offshore fishing, shipbuilding and even rum-running.

My own great-grandfather lived a subsistence lifestyle on a rocky island located six miles off Lunenburg in proximity to the fishing grounds. My grandfather fished from there as a young man, then fished out of Boston during the depression years, and later settled in town where he became a master builder of make-and-break” boat engines.

Lunenburg is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and popular tourist destination. A granite monument erected near the waterfront is inscribed with the names of more than 600 mariners lost at sea since 1890. Local history is shared with visitors through museum exhibitions and tours, while traditional ways and superstitions endure through the habits and memories of residents.

Fishing offshore in winter is a frigid endeavour for which warm mittens are a necessity. Traditional Lunenburg fishing mittens were hand-knit from handspun yarn. My great-grandmother reportedly boasted that she could take the wool off a sheep and put it on her husband as socks, mittens, and long underwear.

After shearing, fleece was hand-washed without complete removal of lanolin. It was then carded into batts and spun into thread which was plied together to create yarn for knitting. Most local sheep were white in colour and the odd black sheep was considered to be bad luck. Since this bad luck extended to the yarn made from their fleece, it was plied with white threads to create a grey yarn. With its bad luck diluted, the grey yarn could be used for socks or sweaters.

image description: a close-up of several balls of handspun yarn, in natural shades from cream to brown

Handspun yarn from the writer’s great-grandmothers stash, including both white yarn suitable for mittens and grey yarn in varying shades of bad luck.

image description: a creamy white oversized handknit mitten

Close-up of fishing mitten with cast-on tail left for looping around a sleeve button.

Fishing mittens were knit oversized to allow for shrinkage and felting, which was achieved by soaking the mittens in salt water and then heating them on the exhaust manifold of a boat engine. The lanolin in the yarn encouraged the fibres to matt together. The mittens eventually became thick, durable, and wind-proof. The cast-on tail was made into a loop which could be hooked over a sleeve button to prevent the mittens from falling overboard while fishing.

When fishing in winter, mittens dipped in salt water developed a protective shell of ice that kept the wind out. The frozen mittens could be held over the heat from the engine exhaust of the boat so that the insides would heat up and keep hands toasty warm.

While these utilitarian mittens were essential gear for offshore fishing, any Lunenburg sailor would be sure to wear only pairs knit from white or dirty white yarn. Fishing captains out of Lunenburg were known to return to port to disembark crew found to be in possession of grey mittens. Alternatively, grey mittens would be tossed overboard, leaving the unfortunate crew member with no mittens to protect their hands from freezing.

The common association of grey with inclement weather and black with death could be at the root of the superstition. The wearing of grey mittens is feared to bring grey skies, which translate to dangerous conditions at sea. Since undertakers and funeral directors wear grey gloves, wearing grey mittens on a journey could invite death.

Variations on the mitten superstition persist in other regions of Nova Scotia. While my fathers warning applies to plain grey mittens and extends to any mittens containing grey yarn, mittens of other colours are also believed to bring bad luck. Red mittens and coloured stripes on mittens are frowned upon in some communities, while folks in other regions maintain that mittens of any colour should never be worn aboard a vessel. More generic versions of the superstition simply maintain that only white mittens should be worn when fishing or aboard a ship.

As a maritime community built around offshore fishing, Lunenburg has obviously suffered the loss of far too many ships and lives to the sea. While its unlikely that the bad luck associated with grey mittens is solely to blame, its not surprising that superstitious sailors would seize on any possible precaution to avoid misfortune.

I may not be convinced that grey mittens are bad luck, but out of an abundance of caution and respect for the past, Ill continue to heed my fathers warning. Its better to be safe than sorry, so its still no grey mittens for me.

image description: a pair of white woolen mittens, hanging on a line

Pair of traditional Nova Scotia fishing mittens belonging to the writer’s father and knit by her grandmother from yarn hand-spun by her great-grandmother.

All images by Cynthia Levy.

Copyright © Cynthia Levy except as indicated.
image description: a three quarters head and shoulders portrait of a white woman wearing glasses

About Cynthia Levy

Cynthia Levy is a craft enthusiast and knitting designer living in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories but originally from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Recently retired from a career in law, she now makes time each day to indulge obsessions for knitting, weaving, quilting, pottery and more. Whenever the weather permits, she’ll be found outside exploring the northern wilderness by floatplane or snowmobile. See more of her work at www.redtigerdesigns.weebly.com.

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