I recently visited the lighthouse museum at Port Clyde, Maine. The first thing I saw as I walked through the door was a large spinning wheel that had belonged to the wife of one of the light keepers. This led me to the display of the fisherman's mittens. According to the write up, these mittens were hand made by the wives and mothers.
The curator noticed my attention to the mittens, and came over to talk. Come to find out he was a retired fisherman himself! The mittens were made about a third too big and given to the men. On board the boat, they had a hot water barrel (heated by coils from the boiler wrapped around it) which they used to clean buoys. They would put the mittens on, dunk their hands in the hot water barrel, then go to work. The heat from the water would keep their hands warm while they worked, at the same time as "matting" the fibers of the mittens. When they were done working, they would hang the mittens on a nearby hook.
As you can imagine, this caused the mittens to felt. What's interesting is that this process made an exact mold of the hand! The end result would be a very stiff mitten until it was dipped in water. According to the curator, most fishermen stopped using them once the neoprene glove came into existence, primarily due to the fact that the glove allowed use of all the fingers, making the work easier. Yet there are a few men out there who would love to find a pair of hand made wool mittens!
What's sad is that the art of making these mittens has all but disappeared. The museum has a newspaper article discussing how women of the past made so many mittens there was no need to write down a pattern, and the last woman in the area who made them had died. As making mittens was such an important part of her life, her surviving daughters kept the pair she had been working on. A local named Elizabeth Bergh borrowed those mittens, measured and counted, and came up with a knit pattern called Chebeague Island Fishermen's Wet Mittens. It is available for purchase at the museum store.
Of course I bought the pattern, even though I do not knit. I want to rewrite it in crochet, and perhaps try the process out on my crochet glove pattern, just to see how it would come out. I also want to see how much of a difference there is felting with salt water, if any.
Visiting that museum was a mind opening experience. You never know what traditions will die out, and some things need to be preserved.