When Marilyn Robertson first started her business making mittens out of recycled sweaters, she regularly haunted local thrift shops, searching for old pullovers and cardigans. She’d buy anything – the finest cashmere, ugly Christmas sweaters, sparkly monstrosities with “Dynasty” shoulder pads.

“I was the crazy sweater lady,” Robertson recalled. “I’d have a shopping cart full of sweaters.”

Robertson, owner of Jack and Mary Designs in York, now buys sweaters by the 1,000-pound pallet.

Recycled mittens. Courtesy of Jack and Mary Designs

Jack and Mary started out as a handbag business. Then, in 2009, a friend asked Robertson to make handbags as gifts for her sisters out of their late mother’s sweaters. Robertson used the leftover sleeves to make mittens, and that part of the business exploded. Today, she also makes other accessories, such as hats, headbands and scarves, as well as boot cuffs and “bun warmer skirts,” short skirts that are worn over leggings. She’s got a full-time employee who helps with sales, and nearly a dozen part-timers who help her cut fabric and who sew the mittens out of their homes.

The sweaters are washed and dried after they arrive at the Jack and Mary studio. Then Robertson, a former interior designer, sorts through them. She can work around a few holes, but if there are too many the sweater gets tossed. Weird designs do not deter her.

“You can literally take the ugliest sweater, and if you use it in a part of (the mitten), it can actually be really cool,” she said. “You can combine it with some other sweaters with different patterns or colors, and it works. So unless a sweater is just gross – dirty or so holey there’s nothing salvageable – we pretty much use everything.”

Most of her business is wholesale now, but she still does some custom work. Robertson just made 10 pairs of mittens for someone who sent her a box of his late grandfather’s sweaters. The customer plans to give the mittens to family as Christmas gifts. Robertson gets a lot of similar requests, and is planning to call this business-within-a-business “Memory Mittens.”

Mittens from Jack and Mary Designs cost $42 a pair for women’s, $46 for men’s and $26 for kids. They are available through jackandmarydesigns.com or in 275 stores nationwide. Locally, find them at Daisy Janes in York; Farm + Table in Kennebunkport, Maine Sport Outfitters in Rockport, Island Artisans in Bar Harbor and the Nubble Light gift shop in Sohier Park in York.