Katie Cross (Katherine Baker Cross, 1916-1989) introduced me to buff mittens in 1987. I met her at a church bazaar in the foothills of the Adirondacks. She was an active member of the Johnsburg United Methodist Women who made and sold tied quilts to raise money for their church. Katie also made her own buff mittens and buff knitted slippers to sell at these fundraisers.
Buff mittens are very thick, made by knitting an extra loop on the outside, that was then clipped to produce a shaggy outer layer. They are very warm and were often used by men driving teams of horses in sub-zero weather. Outdoorsmen and ice fishermen also prize their warmth.
Katie learned the technique in the early 1920s from her mother, Effie Baker, who knitted buff mittens at the family farm in Thurman (Warren County, NY). Katie learned to knit by the age of 6, and used to clip the loops on the buff mittens for her mother.
The family had their own sheep. Her father, Esauc Baker, sheared the flock, and then they washed the fleeces in tubs along the brook using homemade soft soap. The wool was sent to Warrensburg to be carded, but Effie then spun and dyed the yarn with natural materials such as sumac and butternut skins, but also with store-bought dyes.
"Oh yes, she was knitting all the time. Lots of the time during the day, you know, if we weren't making quilts or something like that. We didn't have the pleasures that we have now. We'd knit or sewed something. I guess I was always satisfied to take that as my pleasure because it was fun. I enjoyed doing it."
A peddler by the name of Joe Blair used to come around and buy mittens, socks and other woolen from Effie and other local women, load them into his pack basket, and walk from Warrensburg to the lumber camps in Speculator (Hamilton County). Effie also sold her buff mittens at Kugel's store in Warrensburg.
Katie Cross returned to knitting buff mittens some 45 years after first learning the art.
She often used acrylic yarns, believing her mother would have approved of the bright colors. She has also modified the tradition by designing buff slippers and vests. Demand for her buff knitting came from clients all over the country.
"I can get 'em knit, but to have to take time to clip 'em. My husband used to clip 'em... Three or 4 days before Christmas they'd want mittens or something, you know... I used to sit right there and knit. And when I get one done, I'd throw it to him and he'd start clipping the next one. We'd get them done, but not now [after her husband passed]. I don't like to get too many ahead of me before I start clipping because your eyes go 'round in circles!"
Back in the early 1990s, I donated a pair of Katie's buff mittens, and 2 pairs of her slippers, to the Folk Art Collection at the Folklife Center. Over the years we've displayed them in various exhibitions, and knitters have examined them to learn the art of buff knitting. This year (2021) they've traveled north to Canton, New York, to be on display at the TAUNY Center as a part of the exhibition, Folk Arts All Around Us. I think Katie would be pleased with all the attention, and perhaps more importantly, that the buff knitting tradition lives on.