The Vermont Conversation with David Goodman is a VTDigger podcast that features in-depth interviews on local and national issues with politicians, activists, artists, changemakers and citizens who are making a difference. Listen below, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify to hear more.
The inauguration of President Joe Biden generated many memorable images. There was the inauguration of Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman of color to hold the office. Young poet Amanda Gorman gave a mesmerizing reading of her poem, “The Hill We Climb.”
And Sen. Bernie Sanders became an internet icon for his mittens.
A photo captured Sanders bundled against the January cold, sitting alone on a chair, cross-legged, wearing a Burton ski parka and looking cozy in a pair of fuzzy wool mittens. The image instantly became a viral meme depicting him on the throne from Game of Thrones, on Mike Pence’s head and sitting in a row of ironworkers high above New York City.
This viral sensation led reporters to seek out the mitten maker. They quickly found Jen Ellis, a second grade teacher at Westford Elementary School. She sewed the mittens for Sanders after he lost the 2016 Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton. She hoped it would cheer him up.
Ellis’ sudden fame turned her life upside down. She was flooded with interview requests and thousands of mitten orders that overwhelmed her. She ultimately struck a deal with Darn Tough, which made the “Jenerosity” socks, which sold out in a day and resulted in thousands of meals being donated to the Vermont Foodbank. She partnered with Vermont Teddy Bear which continues to make the iconic Bernie Mittens.
Jen Ellis has written a book, Bernie’s Mitten Maker, which tells a deeper back story. Ellis is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. It was in an elementary school sewing class that Ellis “started to develop the skills I needed to save myself.”
Ellis told The Vermont Conversation that she shared this story in her book because “the longer people remain silent about this, the more it is able to spread as an epidemic.”
“The world might have learned about me because of some mittens I made,” she said, “but there’s a whole intricate backstory that people don’t know, that is interesting. And that has a theme of empowerment and generosity and kindness, and it has a path in the end to joy.”