Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont wore his repurposed wool mittens to the inauguration of Joe Biden. Sanders and his mittens went viral and drew national attention to Jen Ellis, a South Portland High School graduate who credits Jeannette Collett, her home economics teacher at Mahoney Middle School, with teaching her to sew. Saul Loeb/Pool via Associated Press

A South Portland High School graduate is crediting her former home economics teacher with giving her the skills to make the mittens made famous by Sen. Bernie Sanders at President Biden’s inauguration last week.

Sanders was photographed wearing the cozy brown and cream-colored repurposed wool mittens while sitting in a folding chair during the inauguration on a cold day in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

Jen Ellis Photo by Charity Clark

Jen Ellis moved to South Portland with her mother and brother in 1985, graduating from South Portland High School in 1996. She never dreamed a girl from a small city in Maine could ever achieve the attention she has received after hundreds of memes of Sanders wearing the warm mittens started appearing on social media around the country and world. In the meme, Sanders is sitting with his arms crossed, bundled in a winter jacket, wearing a face mask, and sporting the huge warm-looking mittens that Ellis gifted to Sanders about four years ago.

Since the inauguration, the photograph has been shared and even touched up. One meme inspired a bobblehead figure. Others show Sanders in a New York City subway, carried on the shoulders of a college football team, and another on a tropical island. One meme was made into a crocheted Bernie Sanders doll. It was a special moment – a well-known political figure wearing a pair of mittens that well, you might see the average joe wearing on a downtown street.

“It’s become a global joke. Bernie is laughing, too,” said Ellis, who teaches second grade at Westford Elementary School in Vermont. “It was an opportunity during this pandemic to take a moment to laugh about something.”

Sanders personally called Ellis on Sunday evening to thank her for the mittens. Sanders’ staff has begun printing the mitten picture on sweatshirts that his staff is selling to raise money to support Meals on Wheels programs in Vermont, a program to benefit seniors, many of whom are homebound, as well as other charities. Sanders has publicly stated that the campaign may raise $2 million.

For the 42-year-old Ellis, the entire chain of events has left her reeling, but grateful that her childhood teacher, Jeannette Collett, gave her a skill that she has been able to put to good use. After high school, Ellis moved to Vermont where she majored in English at the University of Vermont.

“When this happened. I went into shock,” Ellis said during a telephone interview Monday evening. “I’m just an ordinary person, who was thrown into extraordinary circumstances out of the blue. It has been a life-changing experience.”

Since the memes went viral, Ellis has received more than 14,000 requests for mittens, as well as being contacted by reporters from across the country and world. Ellis is flattered by all the interest and wishes she could respond to all the queries, but says there just isn’t enough time or mittens. Over the years, she has taken pleasure in making a few mittens in her spare time and giving them to family and friends. She makes the mittens from repurposed wool sweaters that have been discarded by their previous owners. She lines the mittens with fleece.

She remembers tucking a note inside the now famous mittens that she gave to Sanders about three years ago.

“I hope you run again,” the note said. Sanders was a Democratic Party candidate for president in 2016 and 2020. “I’ve always been a big fan of Bernie,” Ellis said.

She also gave a pair of mittens to Collett, her home economics teacher at Mahoney Middle School, about three years ago. Sewing is way for her to meditate on her life circumstances and the impact people such as Collett have had on her life.

“Mrs. Collett taught me how to sew. I decided to send her a note with the mittens that said, you forever changed my life,” Ellis recalled. “When you work as a teacher, you never know if you made an impact on a student’s life. I wanted her to know.”

Ellis decided to give Collett a phone call Sunday night to share her experiences with her former teacher. At first, the 66-year-old Collett, who retired from teaching four years ago, was unaware of the sensation Ellis’ mittens had caused.

But, now Collett, who taught in the South Portland school system for 39 years, is fully aware of her former student’s accomplishments. Collett taught home economics to children in grades 6-8 at Mahoney Middle School before teaching food and nutrition to high school students for the six years before she retired. She taught boys and girls the art of quilting.

“The kids were great and the quilts they made were amazing,” Collett said Monday evening in a telephone interview.

Her teaching philosophy was always try to be kind and loving toward her students, a style that Collett said seemed to resonate with her students.

“Yes, it was a job, but it was something that I loved to do,” she said.

Collett said she has been impressed with Ellis’ mittens and the comical impact the Sanders meme has caused.

“It’s really quite remarkable,” Collett said of the mitten photos going viral. Despite Ellis’ sudden celebrity status, Collett said her former student has not lost sight of what really matters in her life. “She loves her teaching job and she loves being a mom. What more could you ask of your student?”

For now, Ellis has no intention of leaving her teaching job to pursue a career in mitten making, but she is considering the good her sewing skills could reap. Ellis, who lives in Essex Junction, Vermont, said she is planning to auction off three pairs of authentic “Bernie” mittens this week. She made the mittens last weekend.

Proceeds from one pair will benefit Outright Vermont, an organization whose mission to is build a Vermont where all LGBTQ youth have hope, equity and power. The second pair of mittens will benefit Passion 4 Paws, a dog rescue shelter. The third pair will benefit Ellis’ daughter’s college fund.

After the auction, which ends Friday, Ellis plans to return to her normal, daily routines and to her job teaching young children.

“I’m not going to sit around and crank out mittens. That isn’t my life,” Ellis said.


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