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The Polar Museum: news blog

McKenzie’s unshrinkable mittens

Every now and then you come across an object in the collection that really speaks to you about the conditions for which it was made. For me, it was this pair of mittens, made for Edward McKenzie, who was one of 5 stokers on the Terra Nova during Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-13.

 

A stoker was responsible for keeping the boiler going in a steam ship – a bit like the fireman on a steam locomotive – but would also be expected to turn his hand to maintenance and repair of the ship’s engines. The mittens were given to the Polar Museum after McKenzie’s death in 1973, together with other clothing and tools that he had used during the Terra Nova expedition.

The mittens have a label inside them proclaiming that they are made from “Wolsey Unshrinkable” wool. Wolsey is a British knitwear manufacturer, founded in 1755 and still selling menswear today. They developed a way of making "unshrinkable woollens" towards the end of the nineteenth century, and these mittens are thus among the most practical, high-tech clothing of their time. In 1911, Wolsey supplied woollen underwear and accessories to both Scott's and Amundsen's Antarctic expeditions, presumably hedging their bets about which party would win the race to the South Pole!

Both men wrote back endorsing the excellence of Wolsey's underwear, and the company capitalised on this by using their testimonials in their advertising. Scott diligently sent a photograph showing three of the expedition party sitting on a sledge in their woollen undergarments back to England. The photograph was used by Wolsey in an advert, together with a personal testimonial from Scott: 

"I have much pleasure in informing you that the Wolsey Woollen Goods supplied to this expedition by you have been highly satisfactory. The materials are excellent for our purpose, and I am very grateful for the careful attention you have paid to all details. I enclose a photo showing the clothing in use in the Antarctic Regions, which may be of interest to you. (Signed) R. Scott, Captain, R.N." 

The photograph used in the advert was taken by Herbert Ponting on 7 February 1911 and is shown below. 

In fact, the wool and cotton clothing that was favoured by the British Antarctic Expeditions was not the best choice for the Polar climate. Although it was warm and (relatively) light, it easily became damp and froze stiff, leaving the men colder than ever. This was a particular problem while man hauling the sledges, which was hard, sweaty work. By 2 August 1911, Scott had started to have doubts about their choice of clothing:

"We have discovered a hundred details of clothes, mits, and footwear: there seems no solution to the difficulties which attach to these articles in extreme cold; all Wilson can say, speaking broadly, is ‘the gear is excellent, excellent.’ One continues to wonder as to the possibilities of fur clothing as made by the Esquimaux, with a sneaking feeling that it may outclass our more civilised garb. For us this can only be a matter of speculation, as it would have been quite impossible to have obtained such articles. With the exception of this radically different alternative, I feel sure we are as near perfection as experience can direct. At any rate we can now hold that our system of clothing has come through a severer test than any other, fur included." (Scott's diary, 2 August 1911).

McKenzie's mittens didn't undergo this "severer test" because he was not among the shore party. Despite this, I think you can tell a bit about his life on board the Terra Nova by looking at these mittens. Firstly, there is the fact that they are fingerless: you need to be able to use your hands while working on a ship, so this is a compromise between warmth and dexterity. (We also have some fur gloves in the collection which McKenzie would have worn on top of his mittens when he needed greater warmth.) The mittens are also very long, and would have reached all the way to McKenzie's elbows, again providing as much insulation as possible without hampering movement. The wool used to make them is dark grey, presumably a practical colour for someone whose job primarily involved shovelling coal and maintaining the ship’s engine! The outsides of the mittens have felted on the wrists and palms, and it is easy to imagine how this happened through daily use. The insides, however, still look as good as new, testament to the thickness of the knitted fabric. The picture below shows the outside (left) and inside (right) of one of the mittens, and you can see how felted the outside is compared with the inside.

As a keen hand-knitter, the mittens piqued my interest: how did Wolsey make them so thick? The vertical lines running down them show that they have been knitted from a ribbing stitch, but they are thicker and more "spongy" than you would expect for ordinary ribbing. After looking at the construction of the mittens closely, I think they have been made from "fisherman's rib", a special type of ribbing that is similar to brioche stitch (the two stitch patterns are worked differently but give a similar result). Fisherman’s rib produces a very thick, squishy fabric (and uses 50% more yarn than plain ribbing!) but the result will be warm and cosy. Unsurprisingly, it was traditionally used for fishermen's jumpers so it is a very appropriate choice of stitch pattern for these mittens.

I am in the process of knitting a swatch myself, to test this theory and see if McKenzie's mittens really have been made from fisherman's rib. I will update the blog in a few days with the results!

– Christina

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