By now you may have heard that the brown, sweater-like mittens that won the internet’s heart on Inauguration Day — the ones that launched a million memes of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) sitting cross-legged on a folding chair in unexpected places — were made by UVM alumna Jen Ellis ’00, a second-grade teacher from Essex Junction, Vt.
Heck, you may have even tried to buy a pair of the cozy mittens yourself. Now a few weeks out from that cold Inauguration Day, Ellis has emerged from the bottom of her inbox’s unread messages to share the news: Soon, you can have a pair yourself. She’s teamed up with the Vermont Teddy Bear Company to bring her mittens to the hands of those thousands (upon thousands) who have asked where they can get the “Bernie mittens.”
We got in touch with Ellis about the new collaboration and to hear the back story behind her gift to Sanders. Here are 10 things we discovered about the Bernie mittens and how Ellis is sharing these 15
mittens minutes of fame with worthy causes.
- The mittens are upcycled. She creates them using repurposed wool sweaters and a fleece made from recycled plastic bottles, sews it all together on a machine and finishes it off by hand. Ellis doesn’t make the mittens anymore, but she estimates she’s made a few hundred pairs over the years, mostly given as gifts or sold at small craft fairs.
- She sent them as a gift of gratitude and support to Sen. Sanders when he lost the 2016 Democratic nomination. “I've voted for him since I was 18 and registered to vote in the state of Vermont,” Ellis says. “I've always supported him and liked his policies. I was disappointed that he didn't win the nomination. I gave him those mittens as a shout out to say, ‘Hey, I still think you're awesome.’ He’s actually been wearing them for a few years."
- This isn’t the first time those specific mittens have made waves. Last winter, they made a splash on Twitter and in Vermont when folks began to notice Sanders wearing them on the campaign trail during the 2020 presidential election. In fact, her favorite pair of mittens came from that first rush of fame. They were customized for a child living with cerebral palsy in Cincinnati whose mother reached out to see if Ellis could craft a pair of thumbless, no-slip-mittens for her daughter. She sent Ellis a tracing of her daughter’s hands and wrists, and it worked — no slip!
- Her family’s Catamount roots run deep. Ellis is a third-generation alumna, following in the footsteps of one grandfather, both parents, an aunt and one uncle. She is originally from South Portland, Maine, and was an English major at UVM. She’s married to “the best professor at UVM,” English professor Elizabeth Fenton. Before graduating in 2000, Ellis was a resident advisor, a founding member of the Student Ambassador Program, a leader in the Alternative Spring Break Program and president of GLBTA. *Bonus: You can find the names and photographs of her grandfather and father — both undergrads and med school grads — in two places on campus.
- The inauguration was a really important day for the Ellis-Fenton family. “We got cupcakes, we made fondue; I mean, it was a holiday in our house,” she says. For her 5-year-old daughter, the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris — the first woman to hold that office — was her first exposure to American government and its political system.
- As such, they adorned the TV with bunny ears that day. To be fair, their television set is tucked away in a closet most days of the year. They don’t have cable, and after the memes took off, Ellis had to reset a forgotten password to login to her Twitter account, which she hadn’t used in a year — when the mittens first gained attention. She logged on to see a whopping 22,000 new followers.
- Her favorite Bernie meme is "Downton Abbey"-themed. “A friend of mine made this meme at my request, because I actually don't know how to make a meme,” she says, “I love 'Downton Abbey!'"
Bernie Sanders and the Dowager Countess Grantham of "Downton Abbey," discussing something important. (Credit: Vikki Day)
- Ellis started leveraging the fame for fundraising almost immediately. She made three new pairs of mittens within days of the first viral memes, two of which went to local charities to auction. One pair went to Passion for Paws dog rescue and the other raised more than $44,000 for Outright Vermont, an LGBTQ+ youth support organization. “I gave them those mittens because I am a lesbian. I recognize how isolating the pandemic has been for some of these kids, because not all of them are growing up in families that support them,” she says. “My family supported me, but that's not everybody's situation.” The third pair she attempted to auction off to support her daughter's college fund, but sadly, that auction fell prey to fake bidders multiple times, and the mittens were never sold.
- Vermont Teddy Bear Company will manufacture the mittens and donate a portion of the proceeds to Make-A-Wish Vermont. “I felt it was important for a portion of the sales to go to charity,” Ellis says. “Many nonprofits have lost fundraising opportunities due to the pandemic and this was an opportunity to help them make up for some of what they have lost. I hope that my efforts have branded the Bernie mittens and mitten-themed products as something that will help lots of people in the end.” Vermont Teddy Bear is currently “putting their paws to work” making the mittens, and have a mailing list for mitten updates. Those who sign up will be among the first to know when Vermont Teddy Bear makes the Bernie mittens available for sale.
- She loves teaching too much to leave it for a mitten business — but she is writing a book about the experience. “The working title is ‘Generosity Brings Joy,’ and it brings us right back to the root of this whole thing. I gave someone a simple gift; I forgot about it; and it brought an enormous amount of joy when we needed it in this pandemic,” she says. In addition to the story of Ellis’s mittens, the memoir will share anecdotes about past gifts she’s given and their unexpected outcomes, ways generosity can be everyday acts of kindness and how teaching has been one of the ultimate gifts she’s both given and received. “If we could just help each other and be a little bit more kind, and a little bit more generous with our own gifts, I think the world would be a better place.”