Mittens, Memes & Metaphors

(Alternate caption: When you’re told the project pays in “exposure.”)

I wrote a piece about wool mittens in November, and a few days before the zine was set to launch, another pair of wool mittens went viral. AFP photographer Brendan Smialowski snapped an image of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders sitting on a folding chair at President Biden’s inauguration. The Senator’s arms and legs were crossed, placing his wool mittens front and center. It’s not a particularly stunning photograph; in an interview, the photographer himself said he didn’t even like the image. But the internet pounced, and before the ceremony was even over, I scrolled through meme after meme of Senator Sanders.

The memes one saw seemed to reflect one’s tastes and algorithmic interests. For me, there were the high fashion memes: Bernie sitting beside Cardi B and Anna Wintour at a fashion show, Bernie on the steps of the Met for the Gossip Girl reboot, Bernie beside Miranda, Charlotte and Carrie as if a promo for the SATC reboot. Then there were the television and movie memes: Bernie on a bench with Forrest Gump, Bernie on the Iron Throne, Bernie with the family from Schitt’s Creek, Bernie sitting in the cafeteria with the mean girls from Mean Girls, Bernie sitting in the cafeteria with the vampires from Twilight, Bernie on the set of Star Trek, Bernie as one of the Avengers, Bernie in a boat with a blindfolded Sandra Bullock.

And then there were the local memes, like Bernie ice fishing in Wisconsin. My favorite involved Racy’s coffee house here in Eau Claire. In a black and white photo, Bernie is perched beside the benches outside the cafe where folks tend to sit and smoke. The caption calls out all those social smokers who never have a pack of their own, and is also a clever callback to another viral Bernie meme: “I am asking you once again for a cigarette.” (The first meme was pulled from a 2019 video where the Senator says he is, “once again asking for your financial support.” He seems to be wearing the same coat in the video that he donned at the inauguration — a repeat outfit offender.)

In a sea of high fashion garments like Prada jackets, Miu Miu dresses, and J.Lo’s head-to-toe Chanel, Senator Sanders stood out for his practicality. He wasn’t alone, but the long, puffy jackets and sensible gloves worn by former chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen and Senator Elizabeth Warren did not spark a blaze of memes.

As Study Hall noted, some interpreted it as “misogyny”, while some companies “co-opted the meme to sell shit.” One artist extrapolated on Instagram, “He’s wearing the same cheap, ugly blue surgical mask we all have to wear. He seems to understand how absurd and disconnected pop grandiosity can be in the midst of a pandemic where most of the population doesn’t have $400 or health insurance or the money to stay safely home. He is still sitting strong in true moral solidarity with the working class and all disenfranchised people of this country.”

The thing about a meme is: it can be whatever you want it to be. We project our wants and desires and struggles onto whatever image is easily taken out of context and mold it to fit our needs. That’s partly what makes them catch like wildfire. A picture of a man sitting still trying to stay warm becomes a metaphor for boredom, for the absurdity of American culture, moral solidarity, slow fashion, high fashion, misogyny, or nihilism.

Senator Sanders seemed amused, if not altogether unimpressed, telling CBS’s Gayle King how Vermonters are familiar with dressing for winter weather, “And we’re not so concerned about good fashion. We just want to keep warm.” When Seth Meyers asked if he’d seen the memes, the Senator says, “Yeah, I’ve seen them.” Meanwhile, Sanders told NBC News, “It makes people aware that we make good mittens in Vermont.”

Jen Ellis, who doesn’t really use Twitter, tweeted in 2020 that she used repurposed wool sweaters and lined them with fleece made with recycled bottles. She gifted a pair to Senator Sanders about three years ago, and received a surge of emails in 2020 when photos of the mittens resurfaced. Ellis told Slate she was remote teaching in her classroom on inauguration day, then drove home through a blizzard, and as soon as she walked in the door her partner told her the news. “We don’t watch TV — we’re intentionally a non-TV family — but we had taken the TV out of the closet so that our daughter could watch the inauguration,” she explained. “We found our bunny ears and we found a local station that would allow us to watch.”

I felt a little eerie reading Jen Ellis’s interview, like she was describing my childhood growing up in the woods of New Hampshire without cable and wearing mittens sewn by my mother. Like Ellis, my mother sewed patchwork mittens from scraps of fleece and wool fabric. But I felt (still feel) guilty because I did not consider the mittens to be cool. Even though #cottagecore and quilt coats are all the rage now, in the 90’s I was embarrassed to wear something homemade when all my classmates had store-bought mittens.

When the mittens went viral, Ellis’s email was flooded with requests for mittens. “I don’t have anymore,” she told Slate, “and I don’t have much of a mitten business anymore because it really wasn’t worth it. Independent crafters get really taken for a ride by the federal government. We get taxed to the nth degree, and it wasn’t really worth it pursuing that as a business, even as a side hustle.”

My mother quit her job at a fabric store when I was twelve and went back to work as a nurse. A few years ago I toyed with a made-to-measure clothing business but quickly found it to be a lot of work for very little money. My sewing machine has been tucked in a closet for a year now. Writing is no jackpot either, but at least there’s less overhead and I can write from anywhere.

In November, Lee asked me to contribute to a zine called Quotidian, which reflected on “the persistent presence of the mundane” and “the ways in which everyday life builds up in layers around us.” When she told me the first issue’s theme was “Layers,” I immediately thought of a pair of wool mittens I miraculously still own. Socks, scarves and sunglasses have all gone missing over the years, but somehow these mittens remain in my possession, almost a decade after they were given to me by a man in Scotland. Much like Senator Sanders’s mittens became a metaphor for boredom, culture, or solidarity, these mittens became something else: they came to represent the undoing of a relationship, the layers needed to survive winter, and an interrogation of the adage ‘cold hands, warm heart.’

But I hadn’t remembered the mittens my mother used to sew for me, and I hadn’t remembered — or had chosen to overlook — how painful it is to toil in a creative profession within a society whose economic system undermines your endeavors, and then profits off your unpaid labor. Or, in the words of meme culture: I am once again asking for your support in paying artists a living wage.

writer, editor, & bookstore co-founder —

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