Making mittens for Bernie Sanders can change your life. But it doesn’t have to

  • Jen Ellis models the type of mittens she made for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, who wore them at President Joe Biden’s inauguration Jan. 20, 2021. Photo by Sally McCay Sally McCay photograph

  • FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2021 file photo, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., wears mittens as he attends President Joe Biden's inauguration ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Sanders says the wooly mittens he wore to the ceremony that sparked endless quirky memes across social media have helped to raise $1.8 million in the last five days for charitable organizations in his home state of Vermont through the sale of T-shirts, sweatshirts and stickers with the iconic image of him sitting with his arms and legs crossed in his brown parka and recycled wool mittens. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool Photo via AP) JONATHAN ERNST

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in the bleachers on Capitol Hill before Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th US President on Jan. 20, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images/TNS) AFP-TNS file photograph — BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI

  • Jen Ellis mimics the pose U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, took when photographed at President Joe Biden’s inauguration Jan. 20, 2021. Photo by Sally McCay Sally McCay photograph

Published: 1/21/2022 7:27:12 AM
Modified: 1/21/2022 7:26:06 AM

Vermonter Jen Ellis was trying to tune her old television’s rabbit-ears antenna into coverage of President Joe Biden’s inauguration a year ago when her cellphone sounded an alarm.

“It just started dinging,” the 43-year-old Westford School teacher recalls. “Like, DING DING DING.”

Ellis, unmoved, was focused on such history as the first woman of color to be sworn in as vice president, Kamala Harris, and the youngest inaugural poet, Amanda Gorman.

Seemingly the rest of the world, her phone knew, was fixated on the mittens Ellis had made for one of her home state U.S. senators, Bernie Sanders.

Ellis had crafted the pair out of repurposed wool sweaters and fleece spun from recycled plastic bottles after Sanders lost his Democratic presidential primary bid in 2016.

“I don’t know why,” Ellis said of her inspiration. “I was just so disappointed at how everything worked out, and I wanted to do something nice.”

Ellis passed the mittens along through Sanders’ daughter-in-law — a college classmate and director of her child’s preschool — and thought that was the end of the story.

Then Sanders donned them on Jan. 20, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol, not knowing a photographer would capture him in a functional coat and folding chair amid the starry likes of inaugural singers Jennifer Lopez (in suffragette-white Chanel) and Lady Gaga (in a Schiaparelli gown).

“Honestly, I didn’t think a lot about it,” Ellis said of the initial buzz. “At first, it seemed a little ridiculous.”

But within hours, the Sanders photo went viral, sparking countless memes, media raves (“truly spectacular,” GQ gushed about the gloves), an all-time Google search high for “mittens” and, for Ellis, more than 20,000 messages from people wanting their own.

An avalanche of offers to start her own business soon followed.

“People made a lot of suggestions that I could quit teaching and open a mitten factory and hire all these people who are unemployed and …” she recalled. “But just because an opportunity presents itself doesn’t mean you have to take it. I am not a businessperson, and I don’t want to be.”

Ellis instead partnered with the Vermont Teddy Bear Co., which promised to create 10 new mitten-making jobs, use recycled materials and give a portion of the profits to Make-A-Wish Vermont.

A year later, sales of mittens and meme-related products have netted some $2 million for numerous charities.

As for Ellis, she’s living in the same house and teaching at the same school, although she has supplemented the sewing machine her mother gave her at age 12 with one the Singer Corp. gifted her after the inauguration. With it, she occasionally crafts donations for nonprofits as varied as the Shelburne, Vt.-based dog rescue Passion 4 Paws, Washington County’s Good Samaritan Haven and the statewide Outright Vermont LGBTQ+ youth support agency.

Ellis reserved one pair of mittens to auction off for her 6-year-old daughter’s college fund. It received a high bid of $6,100 — from a preteen who hacked into a family account to promise money he didn’t have.

“The father emailed me, ‘I’m so sorry.’ I thought that’s OK, ‘I have a daughter, I get it.’ ”

A second auction ended with a similarly fake bid. By the time Ellis thought about a third try, she had signed a contract with Vermont Teddy Bear agreeing not to compete, taking further efforts off the table.

And yet this story has a happy ending — in part because Ellis said it has come welcomingly full circle.

Back on Jan. 19, 2021, Ellis would have described herself as “a pretty private person with a pretty quiet life.” The next day, she was swamped by media calls, people sending their own handicrafts and, soon after, copycat websites from scammers that brought calls from duped customers.

“It was very surprising,” she said, “and it was also really stressful.”

Ellis would rather talk about her subsequent appearance on the game show To Tell the Truth (“There’s a puppet business in this,” Seinfeld actor Jason Alexander told her while demonstrating on camera) or the fact she has sent mittens to Biden and Harris.

“Who knows,” she said, “maybe they’ll start wearing them around.”

Surprisingly, Ellis has yet to shake the hands that made her mittens famous.

“Bernie has called me on the phone,” she said, “but I’ve never actually met him in person.”

Yet. A year later, Ellis is happily staying put, so she may see him someday around their shared home turf.

“So many good and interesting things have happened, but I kept thinking, ‘Am I making the most of this, am I passing by something that could be great?’ ” she said. “I don’t think very many people get the opportunity to really think, ‘Do I want to keep this life or do I want to pursue something completely different?’ And it’s kind of beautiful to choose the life you already have.”




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