NativeTech: Native American Technology and Art

Elk Hide Chopper Mittens


Instructions for
Chopper Mittens

Elk Hide Chopper Mittens
(Prindle 1997).

A very useful source in learning about chopper mittens (and other Native handiwork) is: Crafts of the North American Indians; A Craftsman's Manual. (pg.s 95-104). Written, illustrated & published in 1972 by Richard C. Schneider, 312 Linewood Ave., Stevens Point, Wisconsin 54481 ISBN: 0-936984-00-7.

gauntlet gloves with fringed cuffs
Ojibwe chopper mittens (Grand Rapids Public
Musuem & the Cranbrook Academy of Art/Musem (1981).

Simple chopper mittens are not too difficult to make for someone who has a little experience in sewing with leather. The most involved part is sewing the thumb-piece to the rest of the mitt. For sturdy chopper mittens, I prefer to use a heavy elk or moose hide in a 4-6 ounce weight (leather weight is measured by how much it weighs per square foot). If the mittens are to be worn for work, they should afford both protection for the hands and durability so they will last. However, lighter weight leather or deer hide can be used if your purpose is make mittens that are for special dress, and not for chopping wood. The mittens pictured to the left are Ojibwe made, from the Chandler-Pohrt Collection. These mittens are made of deerskin and wool cloth with military braid binding. The elaborate sewn beadwork is done in a traditional eastern woodlands floral pattern.

Measuring the Pattern:

Measuring the mitten
Measuring the mitten (trank) pattern

The basic pattern for the trank of a mitten is fairly easy figure. Lay your hand flat on a piece of paper with your thumb flush against the rest of your hand. Although the mitten can come as far down your wrist as you'd like, generally the mitten should at least reach just below the protruding knuckle of your wrist. Trace around the perimeter of your hand, leaving at least a half inch on the pinkie side, a half inch over the finger tips, and a half inch on the thumb side. The bottom of the mitt at the wrist should be flared slightly to make it easier to slip the mitten on and off.

If you are using heavy elk or moose hide and/or lining the mitten with fur, wool or a knit material, you can leave up to an inch between the edges of your hand and the edge of the pattern. I like to have finger mobility in my mittens, so I also round out the top of the mitten… to see how much to round out the top of the mitten, spread your finger tips about a half inch apart from each other, you should still have a half inch from the edges of your finger tips to the edge of your pattern.

thumb to be sewn to gouch gouch for the thumb hole
Pattern showing inside of left thumb
to be sewn to gouch.
Trank pattern showing inside of left palm
with the gouch for the thumb hole.

Make a note on your pattern where the heel of your thumb is, as this is important in placing the thumb hole, or gouch in the palm side of the mitten. Most people have a crease on their palm which goes around the thick padded part of their thumb… this curved on the palm line should be identical to the inside curve of the thumb gouch pattern. The back side of the trank is simply a mirror image of the palm side.

One-Piece Mitten trank pattern showing inside of left hand of chopper mitten.

Note: The entire trank for the mitten can be made in one piece to reduce the amount of sewing, although it would take bigger pieces of hide. In this case the seam sewn around the perimeter of the mitten would be much shorter as shown in the illustration to the left.

Whether you cut the trank for the mittens in one piece or in two separate pieces, it is best to orient them on the hide in the same direction - re: the stretch in the leather is going in the same direction with each piece of the pattern, otherwise you may end up with one wide-short mitten and one long-narrow mitten.

The pattern for the right hand's trank palm, trank back, and thumb pieces are simply a mirror image, or reverse, of the left hand. Make *sure you mark all pieces of your patterns Left Hand and Right Hand and also note on the patterns 'inside' and 'outside'.

Sara's Mittens
Sarah's buffalo hide
and rabbit fur mittens

About Mitten Liners: If you plan on making a liner for your mittens, the same pattern is used. The liners can be sewn into the mittens along with the leather parts, but only if the mittens are sewn 'right side out'. Be aware that if liners are sewn into the leather parts of the mittens, that liner will show in the seam on the outside of the mitten. When I make liners for mittens, I make them completely separately (without turning them inside out to stitch them) and then insert them into the leather part of the mitten when they are completed. Then I join the liners at the cuff of the leather part, or make the liner extra-long at the wrist and fold them over the outside of the mitten, especially if the liners are made of fur. The mittens pictured to the right were made for my niece using thinly split buffalo hide for the palms, rabbit hide for the backs of the mittens, and separate liners of very light weight deer hide…. All in white, with red beaded edging joining the liners to the mitts at the wrist.

Assembling Mittens:

You can either sew the mittens right side out, or inside out, if you sew them right side out the stitching will show. It is definitely less confusing to sew the mittens right side out, in which case you might want to stitch them together using the blanket stitch and colored thread. With practice, you may prefer to sew the mittens together inside-out, as they are more durable, using either the whip stitch or the blanket stitch. Schneider's book Crafts of the North American Indians; A Craftsman's Manual. (1972) has excellent instructions for sewing chopper mittens together using a welt which reinforces the seam, as well as other variations on how to sew this type of chopper mitten together. In any case, a heavy waxed nylon thread (imitation sinew - in lieu of genuine sinew) is recommended to sew the mittens together. If you are using heavy elk or moose hide, you will likely need a glovers needle (a special needle for sewing leather which is available at fabric stores). A standard needle can be used on most light weight leathers and for the liners.

Thumb Piece Gouch Hole in Trank
Thumb Piece Gouch Hole in Trank

It helps me to staple the pieces of leather together first before sewing… not only does this serve as a check to make sure the pieces fit properly, it also helps to keep the one piece of leather from 'creeping' while you are stitching along a seam.

You need to assemble the thumb before you can sew the palm of the mitten to the back of the mitten… sewing the thumb to the gouch is the most difficult part of the mitten… have patience… it *will work.

Fitting the Thumb Piece to the Gouch:

Aligning thumb & gouch
Aligning thumb & gouch

To start sewing the left mitten's thumb piece to the gouch, first line up the bottom of the slit in the thumb piece to the wide angle at the gouch (at #2 in the diagram) … this will look like your thumb piece is upside down, but bear with it. Line up the points #1 and #3 on both thumb piece and gouch and staple or pin between these points to keep it from slipping. It is very important that the point at #2 is aligned correctly.

Sewing the thumb
Sewing the thumb

Start sewing the thumb to the gouch with a knot on the inside of the mitten at point #1…. It is O.K. that a point of leather protrudes at point #1, as this is where you will end stitching the thumb, if the point protrudes too far at when you complete sewing the thumb, you can trim it off then. Sew from point #1 to point #2 and take several stitches around the tight corner here, as there is a lot of the stress on the seam here when wearing the mitten. Continue sewing from point #2 to point #3 and end your thread there with a knot on the inside of the mitten.

Now fold the thumb piece in half along the line #4-#6 and make sure that point #5 is aligned on the thumb with point #5 the gouch. In folding the thumb piece in half and aligning point #5, your thumb should now look right-side-up, and begin to look like a thumb. With a new thread, knot on the inside of the mitten at point #4 and sew around the top of the thumb piece, continuing to sew down past point #3/#3a … take several stitches to reinforce point #3/#3a … if a tiny point of leather projects too far here you can trim it back just before you take the stitches there.

Finishing the thumb
Finishing the thumb

Continue sewing with same thread down to point #5, again for reinforcement take several stitches at point #5. Before sewing further, fan open the base of the thumb piece and compare how it fits with the gouch hole … check that you don't have too material on the thumb piece and that it
Finished Mitten
Finished Mitten
with the thumb
folded down to
show construction.
lines up properly with the gouch hole. If you have too much material on the thumb piece, carefully trim off material from the bottom curve of the thumb piece until it fits properly with the gouch hole. It is wise to pin or staple the remainder of the thumb & gouch so the leather does not creep as you sew. Now, continue sewing from point #5 around around base of thumb past point #6 and back up to point #1 where you began.

Congratulations!! You just finished the hardest part of the mitten, sewing the thumb! All that's left now is to sew around the perimeter of the trank. If you have a one-piece trank, you would fold it in half and only need to sew from the top of the mitten down to the base. Make sure you keep right sides together, and pins or staples will help you keep the leather from creeping.

Introduction to Native American Mittens & Gloves
Examples of Native American Mittens & Gloves
Chopper Mitten Pattern For Child
Chopper Mitten Pattern For Adult

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© 1994 - Tara Prindle
unless otherwise cited.