By Melinda Munson
“My sister made Bernie’s mittens!” boasted Ryan Ellis in a Jan. 20 Facebook post.
He was referencing the chunky brown and white mittens Sen. Bernie Sanders wore to President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
The handmade mittens, a gift from Ryan’s older sister, Jen Ellis, stole the spotlight from more refined fashion choices such as Vice President Kamala Harris’ all-purple ensemble and former first lady Michelle Obama’s mauve pantsuit.
Since the inauguration, memes of Sanders, sitting in a chair with his arms crossed, sporting the cozy mittens and a medical mask, have made thousands of appearances, including the bridge of the Starship Enterprise and more locally, inside Skagway Brewing Company’s dining room.
Jen, a second grade teacher in Vermont, sewed the mittens out of old sweaters. She knew a relative of Sanders, and asked that the repurposed textiles be passed onto the senator.
“That’s something that Jen would do,” Ryan said. “I wasn’t surprised.” He described his sister as “a strong, creative personality.”
“I was proud of her. She’s talented. She works hard.”
Ryan first came to Skagway 12 years ago as a seasonal employee for White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad.
“I come from a family of train fans,” he said. The allure of working for an Alaskan railroad attracted him to Skagway, the people keep him coming back each year.
“It’s adult summer camp,” Ryan said. He and his wife, Megan, spend their winters in Montana and frequently travel. Their last trip was to Florida, where they met up with Jen, her wife and their young daughter.
Since the inauguration, Jen has received 18,000 requests for mittens, many of the messages asking for multiple pairs. The response was so overwhelming, Jen had to shut down her email account.
Unwilling to stop teaching, Jen partnered with Vermont Teddy Bear, which will produce the hand apparel, with a portion of the proceeds going to Make-A-Wish Foundation of Vermont.
“I want my collaboration to have some kind of charitable component. I already have a job,” Jen said, noting that getting report cards out was her current priority.
Jen now has a manager to oversee media requests and is planning to write a book. She has auctioned off several pairs of mittens for charity and was thrilled when Sanders’ mitten merchandise raised $2 million for Vermont’s Meals on Wheels, an organization the Ellis’ grandmother once utilized.
An island of blue in a deeply red state, Skagway supports Bernie like few Alaskan towns. In the 2016 presidential caucus, Sanders garnered 105 votes while Hilary Clinton received just four, according to KHNS. The Bernie mitten memes inundated Skagway Facebook groups, giving joy to a town burdened with Alaska’s highest unemployment rate.
While Ryan might not be back this summer due to COVID-19, he’s planning to return in 2022. Skagway hopes he brings his mittens.