Joe Biden’s inauguration doubled as a promenade of style, featuring thousand-dollar Dior Air Jordan 1s, monochromatic jewel-toned looks, and a skirt so wide it enforced its own sartorial social distancing. But the fashion icon who stole the show was, of all people, Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose casual ’fit became instant meme fodder, with special attention paid to his extremely cozy-looking mittens. Eagle-eyed observers noted that Sanders had been wearing these specific mittens for years.
Slate caught up with the mitten-maker herself, Jen Ellis, who lives in Essex Junction, Vermont. In between teaching her class of second graders, Ellis explained what it was like to see her mittens at the inauguration, how she came to give them to Sanders, and which memes are her favorites. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Rachelle Hampton: I’m sure you’re being flooded with so many interview requests right now.
Jen Ellis: Yeah, I think my Gmail has crashed now. My report cards are due tomorrow, so I need to focus on some other things until the weekend, when this will probably not be a thing anymore.
What was your reaction when you saw Bernie wearing your mittens at the inauguration?
I was totally delighted. I was actually a little late to the game because I was remote teaching for the whole morning. I go to my classroom and remote-teach from my classroom. I think it’s important to just turn off all media and focus on your students, but my phone happened to not be on mute and it started dinging in my coat pocket and I was like, someone’s really trying to reach me. Like, maybe my parents are in danger?
As soon as I was done with my remote teaching, I hopped in my car and drove home. It was a huge blizzard yesterday up here in Vermont, so it took me forever. As soon as I walked in the door, my partner was like, “You’re not going to believe this.” We don’t watch TV—we’re intentionally a non-TV family—but we had taken the TV out of the closet so that our daughter could watch the inauguration. We found our bunny ears and we found a local station that would allow us to watch the inauguration. People had sent me pictures of Bernie Sanders sitting there in his chair, looking a little grumpy. Then the camera zoomed right in on him and I was like, there he is, he’s wearing my mittens. I was completely surprised and delighted and flattered and good for him.
Do you kind of wish he looked a bit less grumpy in this photo with your mittens that’s now gone viral?
No, I don’t actually think he was grumpy. I bet he was really excited to be there, even though it was bittersweet, right? Because he wanted to be in Biden’s shoes, but I’m sure he recognized the importance of that day and this whole change of power in America and I bet he was glad to be there. He is who he is and not everyone has a resting pleasant face.
Relatable. Speaking of bittersweet, you supported Bernie. How did you feel about watching Biden be sworn in as president?
Oh my gosh, I cried. I’m 42 and I’ve waited four decades of my life—I’m tearing up just thinking about it—to see a woman be vice president. I wish that she was president, although I think Biden is pretty great. It was so powerful to sit there with my 5-year-old daughter who I love so much and be like, this is where you enter politics, right? We have shielded you from Trump as much as possible. But this is what we want you to see, a wonderful, successful woman and a woman of color in such a powerful position. It was great to share that with her and my partner who’s also a woman, so we’re just a huge feminist household celebrating this momentous occasion.
And then there was this little side nagging thing of every five minutes I was getting several hundred more emails about the mittens. A year ago, when Bernie was on the campaign trail, he was wearing those mittens and Twitter buzzed about it then. I’m not really on Twitter—I have an account, but I don’t really participate—but a lot of my younger colleagues do and they were like “You’ve gotta check this out.” I went on Twitter and what I saw was some misinformation that bothered me. People were talking about how these mittens probably came from Bernie’s grandmother and they were a Christmas gift and they were knitted. There’s so much inaccuracy in that. Bernie’s Jewish. They were not a Christmas gift.
So I put it out there that I made the mittens, they were a gift, and they’re not knitted, they’re sewn from repurposed and up-cycled sweaters. At that time, I had 30 or 40 mittens for sale and being a little naïve about Twitter, I put my Gmail account on that, which someone picked up yesterday and retweeted it. People have been contacting me thinking that they can get mittens, and actually they can’t. I don’t have any more, and I don’t have much of a mitten business anymore because it really wasn’t worth it. Independent crafters get really taken for a ride by the federal government. We get taxed to the nth degree, and it wasn’t really worth it pursuing that as a business, even as a side hustle. I mostly just make them as gifts.
How did you come to give these mittens to Bernie?
His daughter-in-law owns and operates a preschool down the street from my house, and that’s where we sent our daughter from the time she was 15 months old. I was making gifts for the preschool teachers and I knew Liza was connected to Bernie, so I made an extra pair for him back when he lost the bid for the presidential nomination in 2016 to Hillary Clinton. I was just sad, because even though I like Hillary, I’m also super pro-Bernie and as a public school teacher, I can see every day how families are struggling. People are just trying to make ends meet and they need things like student loan forgiveness and free education and a lot of the things that Bernie is fighting for. I sent him these mittens kind of as a shoutout to who he is, and I put a note in that said something to the effect of “I hope you run again.”
Tell me a bit more about how you make the mittens.
The outer layer is made out of discarded wool sweaters, so wool sweaters that have moth holes or that someone sent through the washing machine or they were ripped or whatever, fallen out of fashion. I cut them up and I piece them together with other sweaters with complementary colors and I use the cuffs of the sweater to be the cuff of the mitten. Then I line them with fleece, which is also a recycled material, made out of plastic bottles, shredded plastic. I bought some thread at thrift stores, I used all the thread from my grandmother’s old sewing basket after she died, and I find recyclable thread or reusable thread but usually I buy the thread.
Do you have a favorite meme of Bernie wearing your mittens?
There’s one that’s a rainbow and it has all the different fashion from yesterday and all the other people, like red, orange, blue, and purple, are women and they’re wearing fancy designer clothing and the green color of the rainbow is Bernie. I would just love to get that one framed and just have it because it features Kamala Harris and Jill Biden and Amanda Gorman, all the heroes of yesterday were featured. And then there’s Bernie.
There’s another one, it’s just a picture of him sitting there by himself, but the caption says “I found my spot at Tanglewood and I’m not moving.” And Tanglewood is an outdoor music venue in Massachusetts and I love Tanglewood. I went to a little summer camp there when I was a kid, so that one was especially funny.
Honestly, I think that my slice of media is so limited because people are making these as we speak and I’m teaching reading lessons in a little rural Vermont school with the snow gently falling. I’ve had to turn everything off so I can focus on what my real life is. This is a really lovely flash in the pan, but I know that it’s not gonna last and I need to keep my day job. People have sent me legitimate offers, I’ve only seen a few of them but people have been like, “Oh I own a factory” or “Oh I’m a designer, I’m a businessperson, I could publicize your new business.” I can see that if I wanted to drop everything and pursue that path, I could do it, but who knows how long that would last? The path that I’m already on brings me a tremendous amount of joy and I think that’s the greatest symbol of success, right? This little blip of fame is sweet, and it’ll pass, and then my regular life will just be what it already is, which is kind of nice.
Do you think you’ll continue making mittens just to gift to people you know?
Yeah, I definitely will. Sometimes people approach me, and their mother just died and their mother knitted one precious sweater for their child that never was worn and never fit and they ask me if I’ll turn that into mittens because they want to keep it. So in that sense, I think I’ll definitely keep making mittens for people.