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Smitten for mittens: Bernie Sanders' mittens spark new business opportunities for East Coast makers

Joanne McDow, from Kentville, N.S., says people are looking for something positive amongst the pandemic and right now, that’s Bernie Sanders’ mittens. She’s happy people have found joy through smittens.
Joanne McDow, from Kentville, N.S., says people are looking for something positive amongst the pandemic and right now, that’s Bernie Sanders’ mittens. She’s happy people have found joy through smittens. - Contributed

When Joanne McDow posted pictures of the mittens she makes on social media, she literally received a new order every minute.

Within 15 minutes, she had 15 orders for mittens, and within eight hours, she had 28 orders – some of which were going to Maine, Texas and Europe.

“My order list has exploded,” says the Kentville woman, owner of The MeMa Collection, a business focusing on a large variety of handcrafted items, including mittens like the ones made famous in the recent photograph of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders at the inauguration of President Joe Biden.

A cold-looking Senator Bernie Sanders wears mittens as he attends the inauguration of Joe Biden Jan. 20. His mittens have sparked interest across the world, and East Coast makers are reporting increased interest in their products. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/Pool/File Photo
A cold-looking Senator Bernie Sanders wears mittens as he attends the inauguration of Joe Biden Jan. 20. His mittens have sparked interest across the world, and East Coast makers are reporting increased interest in their products. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/Pool/File Photo

A close-up of the mittens worn by Senator Bernie Sanders during the inauguration. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/Pool
A close-up of the mittens worn by Senator Bernie Sanders during the inauguration. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/Pool

McDow believes she’ll be able to keep up with the sudden influx of orders from people who want a pair of mittens like the ones Sanders sported.

She says the posts sparked an instant motivation in her, and she loves a challenge.

What can I say, I’ll be knitting day and night to get the orders out. #thememacollection #thememacollectiononfacebook #berniesandersmittens #mittens

Posted by The MeMa Collection on Monday, 25 January 2021

Much like McDow, Donna Levy of Sunken Lake, N.S. says her mitten sales also increased after the Bernie Sanders meme went viral.

Levy’s daughter, Crystal, who now lives in New York, posted a photograph of the mittens her mother made her. From that post, several of Crystal's friends expressed an interest in getting a pair of their own.

Now, Levy has several orders heading to the United States and has noticed more hits and likes on her post on Facebook marketplace.

Donna Levy of Sunken Lake, N.S. received orders for her smittens from New York following the viral posts of Bernie Sanders wearing a pair at the inauguration. - Contributed
Donna Levy of Sunken Lake, N.S. received orders for her smittens from New York following the viral posts of Bernie Sanders wearing a pair at the inauguration. - Contributed

Elaine Shea of Donkin, owner of Smitten Mittens and More, has also seen an increase in interest and sales of her mittens from her Cape Breton home. Not only does she make the mittens, but she also sells templates with instructions for people to make their own.

“My Etsy page has seen double the views as people want to make their own and I’ve had local sales pickup already,” says Shea.

Her sales were already going all over Canada, United States, Australia, and Japan, and since Bernie’s mittens have gone viral, she says she is now sending some to the United Kingdom.

How the mittens are made

The mittens made popular by Sanders are called smittens, as they are traditionally made using upcycled wool sweaters.

The mittens are made by washing the wool sweaters in hot water and drying them in a very hot dryer, ultimately shrinking them or felting them so they can be cut up without the wool unravelling, explains Shea.

She then cuts the sweaters into mitten pieces using templates and then sews them back together. Once that is finished, they need a fleece lining and a cuff to finish them off, says Shea.

Levy sources her sweaters from thrift stores, looking for sweaters that have at least 25 per cent wool, as they are warmer. On average, Levy can make three pairs from each sweater, and even uses the cuffs and waistband to make the cuff on the mittens.

Doris Benedict of Wool a Fiber in Windsor, N.S. says finding wool sweaters in thrift stores is getting more expensive and difficult to find. She likes using many recycled textiles in her work, though.

Doris Benedict of Wool A Fiber in Windsor says her passion is keeping used textiles out of the landfill and repurposing them to make beautiful works of art. - Contributed
Doris Benedict of Wool A Fiber in Windsor says her passion is keeping used textiles out of the landfill and repurposing them to make beautiful works of art. - Contributed

Wool, a natural fibre, is renewable and so much better than microfibers for the environment, says Benedict.

“My passion is keeping used textiles out of the landfill and repurposing them to make beautiful works of art,” says Benedict.

These smittens, says Shea, are the warmest mittens around because the wool is felted or matted together, insulating them to prevent the wind or rain from going through them. Because they use the two layers - an outer mitten and an inner fleece - it keeps the warmth in and the cold out.

“I tell people all the time: your hands will not be cold if you have sweater mittens,” says Shea.

McDow makes her mittens slightly differently and doesn’t use sweaters, like Bernie’s mittens. Instead, she knits the mittens from wool, then lines them with moisture-free fleece. The pattern has a solid blue palm with an Icelandic pattern on the front. It’s a style she learned from elders in the isolated northern community of Kugaaruk, N.U., where she lived for eight years.

Finding sweaters for making smittens - like the ones Bernie Sanders famously sported at the presidential inauguration recently - are becoming hard to source at thrift stores, says Doris Benedict of Wool a Fiber in Windsor, N.S. - Contributed
Finding sweaters for making smittens - like the ones Bernie Sanders famously sported at the presidential inauguration recently - are becoming hard to source at thrift stores, says Doris Benedict of Wool a Fiber in Windsor, N.S. - Contributed


Worldwide interest

The crafters say that smittens have always been a popular item, especially around Christmas. The instantaneous increase in fame thanks to Bernie Sanders has caused interest to spike, sparking interest and conversation worldwide, says McDow.

When asked why people are so passionate about Bernie's mittens, McDow says she thinks it’s because people, during the dark days of the pandemic and the recent events in the U.S.A., are looking for things to laugh at.

“People are looking for the bless in the mess and Bernie Sanders is always ‘keeping it real’, so much that people can relate to him,” says McDow.

Did you know?

  • Anyone wanting to learn how to make their own mittens can visit the Smitten Mittens and More Etsy shop to buy the pattern. Levy also offers workshops in non-COVID times.

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