Jen Ellis was a second grade teacher in the tiny town of Westford, Vermont, in 2021 when a pair of mittens suddenly made her famous.

And it wasn’t just any kind of fame. It was viral internet meme fame. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders wore her mittens – a gift from Ellis after Sanders lost the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination – to the inauguration of President Biden, and within hours, memes of Sanders wearing Ellis’ fuzzy mittens were everywhere.

Suddenly, everyone knew Ellis’ name. Her phone blew up with texts and interview requests from TV networks and newspapers. People online pretended to be her and offered mittens for sale.

“The sudden internet fame was so stressful, so I started writing at night just to clear my head just so I could go to sleep,” said Ellis, 45. “It was so unbelievable to go from living your ordinary life to dealing with this outrageous thing that was happening.”

Ellis, who grew up in South Portland, eventually embraced the platform her famous mittens gave her. She decided to write a book, called “Bernie’s Mitten Maker,” partly to explore the odd phenomenon of internet fame and how a photo of an old man wearing mittens could bring smiles to so many. The book came out in May, and Ellis will be at Longfellow Books in Portland on Wednesday to promote it.

Photo courtesy of Green Writers Press

Much of her book also celebrates the power of sewing and crafting, which Ellis says helped her through some traumatic experiences, including sexual abuse as a girl, coming out as a lesbian, and a miscarriage while trying to have a baby with her wife.


Besides writing a book, Ellis has helped raised more than $400,000 for Vermont charities by donating some of her mittens for charitable auctions and through a partnership with Vermont Teddy Bear, which makes mittens based on Ellis’ patterns and donates part of the proceeds. Ellis, who lives in Essex Junction, Vermont, with her wife and daughter, says she’s especially proud of the money raised for Outright Vermont, which supports LGBTQ+ youth.

Ellis has invited Maine family and friends to her Maine book events, including Jeanette Collett, the retired South Portland home economics teacher who taught her to sew. Ellis is also scheduled to appear at South Portland Public Library on Oct. 19.


Jim Minott, who was principal of Brown Elementary School in South Portland when Ellis attended, is hoping to be in the audience Wednesday night. He has kept in touch with Ellis over the years – she let him know when she became a teacher. She also asked him to read the book before it was published, including a story about the times when Ellis snuck out of Brown School an hour early, basically because she was bored.

“She wanted to know if it was OK to write about that, and I thought that was a nice thing to do. Jen has always been a special person,” said Minott, 72. “One of the things I think people will get from reading the book is how you can reinvent yourself. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Well, (Ellis) went beyond that; she made mittens.”

Ellis writes in the book that she was sexually abused by a man in her neighborhood, who offered her and other neighborhood kids ice cream when she was in the fourth grade. She wrote that she didn’t know how to ask him to stop and was ashamed to ask for help, and didn’t want to talk to anyone about it.


Over the next few years, she writes in the book, “Thoughts of the abuse occupied my every waking moment and stole the peace from my sleep.” She found comfort in eating, gained weight over the next couple of years, and felt like she had no real friends.

In the sixth grade at Mahoney Middle School, she had a class with Collett, who she describes as having “a kind face and a gentle way about her.” Ellis was put at ease by Collett’s manner and dedication, and quickly found comfort in sewing in her class. “Nothing else in my life was that measured or controlled,” Ellis wrote.

“The fact that that terrible part of my childhood so gently led to my love for my home economics teacher and sewing is, in itself, a kind of gift,” Ellis wrote. “I arrived in Mrs. Collett’s sixth-grade classroom searching for something, and she helped me to find it. The fabric was not the only thing she taught me how to mend.”

Former Mahoney Middle School teacher Jeanette Collett in 2021 with mittens made by her former student, Jen Ellis. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Collett could not be reached to talk about Ellis or her book for this story. But in 2021, after mitten memes took the internet by storm, she told the Press Herald she loved teaching and always tried to show kindness toward students. She called the fame Ellis was experiencing “remarkable” and was glad she seemed fulfilled. She also agreed to pose for photos wearing a pair of Ellis’ mittens.

“She loves her teaching job and she loves being a mom. What more could you ask of your student?” Colette said at the time.

After graduating from South Portland High School in 1996, Ellis attended the University of Vermont, majored in English, and thought she wanted to be a lawyer. But after entering the Teach for America program and working in rural North Carolina, she fell in love with teaching and decided to make that her career. She had been a teacher since 2002 when the mitten meme hit.


In the book, she writes about her life in Vermont, meeting her wife there, and having her daughter, Helen. She writes about the emotional roller coaster of trying to get pregnant, realizing she was, and then losing the baby.

She also writes about Vermont craft fairs and making things from old clothes. The mittens she made for Sanders were created from bits of an old sweater that a student’s grandmother had knitted for her grandfather. It had been eaten by moths and had mouse droppings on it, but Ellis thought there was enough of the distinctive brown and cream zig-zag pattern left for her to salvage and make something out of.

Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders wearing the mittens made by Jen Ellis for him at President Biden’s inauguration in 2021. Saul Loeb/Pool photo via AP, file


Ellis was a supporter of Sanders during his primary battle for the Democratic presidential nomination. After he lost to Hillary Clinton and Clinton eventually lost the presidential race to Donald Trump, Ellis decided to make Sanders the mittens as a “shout out” for his effort. Sanders’ daughter-in-law worked at Ellis’ daughter’s preschool, so she passed the present along through her.

The mittens got some early attention soon after they were gifted to Sanders when he was photographed with them at an event in New Hampshire. But the trickle of publicity of photos then did not prepare Ellis for what would come in January 2021. She had not thought about those mittens in years and wasn’t even sure Sanders still had them.

Much of the second half of the book is about what Ellis went through after her mittens became a part of a viral sensation. On Inauguration Day in 2021, while teaching her class remotely, her phone began “dinging” with constant texts. People were telling her they saw Sanders on TV with her mittens. Reporters wanted to do interviews. Others shared the memes.


During the inauguration, Sanders sat on a folding chair, a mask hiding most of his face and his arms crossed across his chest, displaying the fuzzy brown and cream-colored mittens. Memes showed Sanders sitting next to Spider-Man, in a psychiatrist’s office with fictional mobster Tony Soprano, on a bench next to Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump, and atop the Iron Throne from the TV drama “Game of Thrones.” A tiny Sanders with tiny mittens was shown perched on the head of former Vice President Mike Pence.

Meme generators were churning out what seemed like millions of them. You might have seen Sanders in your town or with a friend of yours. He turned up sitting in the gym at South Portland High School, Ellis’ alma mater.

People started showing up online pretending to be her, offering to sell mittens. Eventually, the Vermont attorney general got involved to try to stop the imposters, but Ellis thinks there are probably still people out there mad at her.

Jen Ellis, author of “Bernie’s Mitten Maker,” in Portland’s Old Port in July. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

She took advantage of her newfound fame to help local charities. One was Outright Vermont, which auctioned them and used the publicity to raise thousands of dollars. She worked out her deal with Vermont Teddy Bear – though she won’t disclose details – with a portion of mitten sales going to Vermont charities. She also plans to make some mittens for fundraising efforts for victims of the recent floods in her part of Vermont.

Ellis heard from Sanders after the mitten memes blew up: He called to tell her that his staff had created sweatshirts with images of him and the mittens – and sold them to raise some $1.8 million for Meals on Wheels programs in Vermont.

What started as writing to clear her head before bed convinced Ellis she might be able to write a book about her experiences, before and after the mitten memes. Green Writers Press agreed.  She stopped teaching and began pursuing a master’s degree in mental health counseling at UVM while writing “Bernie’s Mitten Maker,” with the hopes of becoming a therapist.

Since the 2021 inauguration, Ellis has gone from being overwhelmed by her mitten meme fame – scared by it, she admits – to using the opportunity to help charities and share her thoughts on generosity, kindness, and the power of creating. She is also planning to write a second book, a work of fiction, but does not have a book deal yet.

“I didn’t choose this fame, and I didn’t know how to manage it. And now, millions of people knew who I was,” Ellis wrote in her book. “There is a terrifying pressure and responsibility of being known. It is a platform and an opportunity, but I didn’t quite see that part yet. All I knew was that the quiet privacy I appreciated about my life was over, and I was scared.”

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