Politicians usually dress to convey gravitas. So it was something of a surprise to see Bernie Sanders at the inauguration last month looking decidedly unceremonial. While other high-profile attendees donned sharp suits or stilettos, the Democratic senator dressed for the below-freezing temperatures in a sensible anorak and a pair of patterned mittens.
Huddled on the risers, he resembled a grumpy grandad at a five-a-side football match in need of a blanket and a hot brew rather than a politician at one of the most-watched events in recent US history. The internet lapped it up. Eagle-eyed photoshoppers swiftly superimposed Sanders on to everything from Star Wars stills to Leonardo’s “The Last Supper” and the sofa from Friends.
It was the mittens that made the meme. Childlike and homespun-looking, these Fair Isle-style gloves brought a sense of joyful naivety that was a light respite from the seriousness of the global situation in the run-up to the event. They also proved a palate-cleanser from Trump-era bling.
Within a day, the Vermont-based teacher Jen Ellis, who had made and gifted them to Sanders, was inundated with requests from keen shoppers, which she politely declined. A copycat knitting pattern by Traverse Bay Crochet on Etsy was being added to baskets hundreds of times a minute. One keen crafter, Tobey Perales King, crocheted a three-dimensional version of Bernie and auctioned it off for charity, raising more than $20,000 for Meals on Wheels, a non-profit organisation that delivers food to the elderly and others unable to leave their homes.
“The juxtaposition of Bernie’s tech jacket and the mittens got people’s attention because there’s a practicality behind what he is wearing,” says New York-based menswear designer and fellow mitten lover Emily Adams Bode. She’s been wearing her vintage pair on repeat; she says they’re ideal for outdoor dining as you can put hand-warmers inside each glove.
This season, Bode launched a patterned mitt as part of her new wool collection. “They’re inspired by some 1960s children’s mittens from the Himalayas,” she says, of the blue and cream Aztec-print mittens that are hand-knit in Peru and retail for a rather luxurious $245. “It’s hard to find playful gloves for men, they’re all cashmere or leather and sleek. These are much more fun,” she says.
There’s a good argument for menswear to become more jovial in this Covid-era, where brightly-coloured or patterned clothes have been touted as true mood-boosters. Ordinarily, a mitten without tech-enabled fingertips would be impractical. But with commutes on hiatus for many, there’s never been a better time to seize the silly mitt.
Mittens have long been crafted by those living in cold climates; fingers conduct heat better when kept together, making them warmer than gloves. Inuit people in the Arctic have historically donned versions crafted from hide — called pualuuks — while woollens are favoured in mountainous regions such as the Himalayas and the Andes. Patterned versions, like those Sanders wore, originated 6,000km west, in Norway. In 1857, a young girl living in a mountain region near Lake Selbu crafted some with a starry print and took them to church. Seventy years later, the local town was knitting 100,000 pairs of Selbu mittens a week and exporting them all over Europe , making them Norway’s answer to the Aran jumper.
Modern-day amateur knitters, sitting at home during various iterations of lockdowns, are picking up the needles and attempting to craft their own cosy wares. Amy Lutton, a 31-year-old primary school teacher from Belfast, has been knitting to decompress from the stress of teaching remotely. “Instead of bingeing another Netflix series, I’ve been listening to a podcast and knitting as it’s so relaxing,” she says. Becky French, creative director of Jermyn Street bespoke shirt-makerTurnbull & Asser, has just finished knitting a blanket. She says it helps her switch off from the “constant decision making” involved in steering a shirting brand through a pandemic.
A report by Harvard Medical School found that knitting lowers the heart rate by an average of 11 beats per minute, inducing what it calls an “enhanced state of calm”. I can personally attest to this ongoing state of Zen; my unflappable grandmother Mary has knitted her way through many crises. Last year, she made me a light cream sweater vest using wool I’d bought from a local farm, after I’d called her one day feeling incredibly homesick. She’s now attempting to teach me to knit my own socks over Zoom.
For those without a crafty grandmother, The Woolmark Company has an online knitting program. British label Wool and the Gang, which sells knitting kits with easy-to-follow instructions (from £18), has also seen a surge in sales from first-time buyers. “It adds value to the item when it has been made by the wearer,” says Amy Powney, founder of fashion label Mother of Pearl, who collaborated with the brand on kits to craft her best-selling Blake cardigan — a plain, button-free style that’s perfect for slouching on the sofa (kits start from £130 while the complete cardigan is £395).
Brendan Girak, a 28-year-old from Perth, uses social media to encourage his 61,400 Instagram followers to stitch their own wares. He knits his own crew-neck sweaters and beanie hats, and is trying to make knitting more of a male-friendly pursuit by selling his patterns online. “I’m not much of a fashion person, but I enjoy oversized garments and cable knits and that’s something I can easily achieve with my knitting,” he says.
The trend for hand-knitting plays into the shift towards slow fashion and more conscious consumerism. “Creating something by hand is a labour of love,” says Anna Veglio-White, head of brand at Wool and the Gang. “By teaching people to make their own clothes, we cut out the entire production process.”
Ellis made Sanders’ mittens using an old sweater that she repurposed. She’s recently announced a partnership with a Vermont-based company to craft 18,000 pairs; proceeds will go to Make-A-Wish foundation. Lutton, the teacher from Belfast, is meanwhile attempting to make her own version. “Bernie’s mittens have inspired me to try to make a more complex pattern than a simple scarf,” she says. “I’m going to make tiny Bernie mittens for all these lockdown babies my friends will soon be having.”
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