Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., sits alone at the inauguration ceremony in a beige parka, legs and arms crossed, socially distanced. Hugging his hands are a pair of large mittens bearing a white and brown pattern. They look soft. They look warm. They look vaguely familiar.
Of all the historic images from the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president, this might be the most unexpected. But a photo of Sanders bundled up against the Washington cold went viral almost immediately.
Dionne Warwick tweeted at him, “Looking warm.” Actor Bradley Whitford tweeted, “One of the reasons people love @SenSander is they know he would have worn exactly the same thing if he had won the presidency.” Many, many, many people on Twitter claimed Sanders as their uncle or grandfather.
The image of him on that chair was Photoshopped into famous scenarios, real and fictional, including the throne from “Game of Thrones,” the cover of Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” and the iconic photograph “Lunch atop a Skyscraper.”
Sanders bobbleheads are forthcoming. At one point, on CBS News, Sanders was even asked to address his attire. He said: “In Vermont, we know something about the cold. And we’re not so concerned about good fashion. We just want to keep warm.”
We’re already familiar with the Burton parka, which became a meme after he wore it in a 2019 campaign ad. But one question persisted: Where did he get those cozy mittens?
The answer: Jen Ellis, a second-grade teacher in Essex Junction, Vt.
Among the things she’s passionate about are Bernie Sanders, teaching her class (which, during the pandemic, she’s done in an outdoor classroom she built) and mittens.
And, dear reader, note: We’re talking mittens. NOT gloves.
“There’s some debate about whether mittens are better than gloves, and I’m obviously in the camp that thinks mittens are better,” she told The Washington Post. “Your fingers need to work together to keep your hands warm, and in mittens, they can be together. In gloves, they can’t.”
Ellis and a partner began making mittens years ago as a side hustle. She cuts up wool sweaters that are no longer being used and sews them together in various combinations on a machine her mother gave her. She then lines them with fleece made of recycled plastic. Each pair takes about an hour.
Now that both have kids, there isn’t much time left for mitten making, though Ellis said she tends to make some for gifts and the occasional craft fair during the holidays.
Ellis has long admired Sanders, saying, “As a public school teacher, I can see how what he says about school debt forgiveness and free education and a lot of things he talks about in his policies make sense for people.”
She also has a tangential connection to him: The senator’s daughter-in-law Liza Driscoll was the director of the preschool that Ellis’s daughter attended. Though Ellis never met him, “when he lost the bid for the Democratic nominations in 2016, I was really heartbroken for him because I felt like he probably wouldn’t run again.”
“I thought, ‘I’d like to make him a pair of mittens.’ And I did,” she said. “I totally remember the night I did it. I was thinking to myself, “Is this crazy? I don’t even know this guy.’ But I wanted to make them for him, so I did.”
So she sent them to the senator and thought that was the end of it.
If you’re an avid news reader and feeling a bit of deja vu, that’s because nearly this exact scenario happened about a year ago. When Sanders was on the campaign trail at the end of 2019, the very same mittens kept his hands warm.
At a stop in Pittsburgh, he spent some one-on-one time with University of Pittsburgh Medical Center dietary worker Alexandria Cutler. At one point, before her hour-long commute, she reportedly mentioned that her hands were cold. Sanders lent her his mittens.
A photograph of Sanders handing Cutler the mittens went viral. Someone created a parody Twitter account for the mittens, with a bio that reads in part, “Mittens are the only thing that can keep Bernie’s hand gestures under control.”
Ellis found Sanders’s, err, gesture “very touching because mittens are kind of a personal thing.” Inspired, she sewed 10 more pairs and sent them to the campaign. She also reactivated an old Twitter account. “For like a few weeks, I tired to figure out what Twitter was about and, you know, follow along,” she said. “But I just don’t have the time for it.”
Now, it’s happening all over again.
“I’m really honored he wore them today. The fact that he’s still wearing them is delightful and flattering,” Ellis said. “There were people at the inauguration wearing clothing from world-famous designers. Then there was Bernie, wearing my mittens.”
“All my friends and family have the same mittens as Bernie, too, so I think they all feel just a touch of fame — which is fun,” she added.
As the origin tale of the mittens began to seep out on Inauguration Day, that old Twitter account resurfaced. Soon, Ellis’s inbox filled with emails — more than she can count, “because I can’t even find the end of my email. By the time I’ve gotten the count, another hundred people have emailed me.” It didn’t help matters that some organizations erroneously reported that she’s currently making more of them.
“I’m trying not to let it overshadow the obvious historic moment that was today,” she said, adding that she watched it on a TV with rabbit ears she pulled from the closet. “I have a 5-year-old daughter, and it was just awesome to watch the inauguration with her. That was really special, and this other thing with the mittens is a little funny.”
Mostly, Ellis just feels touched.
“When you are a maker of things, when you create things — art or clothes or whatever you make — you never know where they’re going to go. And the fact that these mittens were made with the sewing machine my mother gave me when I was 12 years old and with wool that somebody else had thrown away, and they made it all the way to one of the most historic inaugurations of my lifetime. . .” she said, her voice trailing off. “It just delights me.”