Jen Ellis was a second-grade teacher and part-time mitten maker on January 20, 2021, the day her life changed. During the inauguration of President Joe Biden, a photo of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) sitting cross-armed and cross-legged in a folding chair wearing a pair of her mittens became a viral meme on the internet.
The one-of-a-kind mittens, gifted to Sanders in 2016, were made of recycled wool sweaters and lined with fleece. As the mitten meme spread around the world, Ellis' star rose. Demand for her mittens increased exponentially, and her email inbox overflowed with appearance requests.
Ellis chronicled this unique time in her life in a book called Bernie's Mitten Maker. She wrote about the role crafting has played in her life, the stress of becoming an internet sensation and her efforts to do something positive with the attention.
Ellis auctioned off mittens to raise money for Outright Vermont and Passion 4 Paws. Vermont Teddy Bear launched a line of Ellis' mittens, and a portion of the proceeds goes to local nonprofits. Darn Tough Vermont made a limited run of JENerosity socks, which raised funds for the Vermont Foodbank.
After 17 years of teaching, Ellis left her job and is now in graduate school for counseling. She lives in Essex Junction with her family and their dog. Ellis only makes mittens for charitable causes or friends these days. Seven Days senior multimedia producer Eva Sollberger met up with Ellis at her home to watch her cut up some vintage sweaters and to hear about the process of writing her book.
Ellis' book launches on Tuesday, May 2, at Phoenix Books in Burlington.
SEVEN DAYS: Why did you make this video?
EVA SOLLBERGER: Like the rest of the world, I tuned in to the inauguration in 2021. I was watching on TV while surfing the internet on my phone. When the Bernie memes started spreading, I was as charmed as everyone else and saved a bunch of my favorites to my phone. The memes were just the perfect way to capture everyone's complex feelings on that important day. The internet is magical and capricious like that. It can rip people to shreds in an instant and then turn around to build these beautiful unifying moments out of the ether.
I still don't know why that meme resonated so deeply for so many people, but it was meaningful for me, too. And when I heard that a Vermont teacher had made Bernie's mittens, I wanted to interview her — unfortunately, so did everyone else! So I bided my time and waited. When I heard that Jen Ellis had a book coming out, I got in touch with her about making a video.
SD: The video still you took is hilarious.
ES: I asked Jen if she would be willing to take some photos in Bernie's famous meme pose. As she placed her chair and got comfortable she shouted, "Assume the position!" I really wish I had gotten that line on camera.
Jen's partner, Liz Fenton, and two of their friends were parked in a car nearby. They were waiting for us to finish so they could all watch the latest episode of "Yellowjackets." It made the photo shoot a lot more fun to have such a jovial audience.
We took about 80 photos, and the still I ended up using is the first one I shot. I could not decide if I should use an image of Jen wearing her mask, like Bernie, or maskless so we could see her face. I asked some colleagues, and they felt the masked shot which mimicked the viral pose was the right choice. It is truly an iconic image now and will probably wind up in some history books.
SD: Did you read Ellis' book?
ES: I really enjoyed Jen's book and shared it with my mom, as well. As someone who also loves crafting, I knew it would be right up my alley. My mom taught me how to knit in my twenties, and I have made many hats and scarves, even a few mittens. You can see a striped pair at the end of the video. They aren't lined with fleece, so they are not as warm. I brought my meager mittens to show them to Jen, and she said people are always showing her things they have crafted, like little mitten offerings brought to the Mitten Mama.
Jen's story is one that many of us can relate to. When life gets intense and complex, a simple skill like quilting, mitten making or knitting can help clear your head. The act of creation is sometimes the perfect counterbalance for our anxious brains. And I also feel like it connects us to our ancestors. Like Jen's grandma, my grandma was also a seamstress, and I cherish her quilts, some of which were hand stitched with my great-grandmother.
SD: Did anything surprise you making this video?
ES: I saw the Bernie meme from my position on the outside as something charming and lighthearted. After reading Jen's book, I have a much better understanding of what a tsunami of sudden internet fame is like for someone. Jen went from an anonymous Vermonter, wife, mom and teacher to a viral sensation, almost overnight. In some ways, this book is like a guide for going viral, which seems to happen with more frequency these days.
I was musing that Jen is the most famous mitten maker in the world — maybe the only famous mitten maker. I doubt anyone could have predicted this strange turn of events, even with an internet crystal ball. As Jen documents, she struggled to figure out how to channel this attention into good deeds. Considering how much money she helped raise for local nonprofits, it appears that Jen managed to harness the power of the internet for good.
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