By the 11th month of sheltering in place, I thought I had explored every corner of my house for amusement. But it was the photo of Bernie Sanders, wearing mittens at the January 20 inauguration, that launched the memes that led to my discovery of new material – in my sock drawer.
Sanders’ mittens, upcycled from an old sweater, got me thinking of some hand-knitted socks that I bought from a street vendor in Turkey, on my honeymoon, 29 years ago. Though I rarely wear them – they’re too itchy and bulky – I have kept them because they are beautiful folk art and have sentimental value. Seeing the picture of Sanders, taken by Brendan Smialowski, a photojournalist for Agence France-Presse, made me wonder whether the colorful Turkish socks could find new life, as mittens.
Six days after the inauguration, I posed this question to Jen Ellis. She’s the second-grade teacher in Westford, Vermont who made the now-famous mittens, and gave them to Sanders as a consolation prize for losing the 2016 democratic primary. Only after he wore them to President Biden’s inauguration did the memes multiply and Ellis become a media darling.
When it came to converting my socks to mittens, however, this was not a good fit. “I am trying to harness all of my deals to help organizations that have been adversely financially affected by the pandemic,” Ellis said in an e-mail. “If this is a story that you plan to sell, or that you might make money on, I would like to request that a percentage of the profits go to a charity of our mutual agreement, or, maybe I could do two pairs of mittens using these socks and one would go to an auction for a charity.” (A newly sprouted website describes her evolving mission.) A few days later the Vermont Teddy Bear company announced a partnership with Ellis to produce what are now called “Vermont Swittens.”
While exploring other options, I developed a sudden fascination with the Turkish tradition of sock knitting – something that had never before piqued my curiosity. That leg of research led me to Vedat Karadag, an Istanbul-based tour guide and textile maven. Though I couldn’t remember exactly where I bought the socks, he speculated, based on photos that I sent him, it had been in Cappadocia, and that they were made in one of the towns in the area. Indeed, my husband and I had spent several days in this magical region in central Anatolia, dotted with mushroom-shaped geological formations. So this seemed a likely scenario.
Socks resembling mine had traditionally been a dowry item, Karadag explained. Then, during the heyday of Turkish tourism – roughly between 1995 and 2015 – locals “sold them because they needed money, and tourists were buying them and using them as slippers on cold winter days.” If the socks felt soft or silky, they were probably knitted from the wool of local angora goats, or lambs, he said. Thus informed, I had an epiphany that my itchy socks had been produced for travelers with itchy feet, just like me.
Karadag was too diplomatic to say so directly. “If the socks are itchy, they are for sure knitted of hard wool,” meaning wool from the back of the sheep, where the animal has a lot of fur, he explained. “The best wool of the sheep is in the lower-body neck and stomach area – wool from these areas is very soft, fine and tender.” I got his drift.
Still, he hastened to add that Turks would certainly use hard wool for their own garments, too, like jackets, gloves and caps. With socks knitted from this material, they would wear a thin cotton layer underneath, to make them more comfortable.
Wendy S. Goffe, a lawyer and fashion-forward friend in Seattle, suggested that I wear the socks with Birkenstock sandals – a look she said was popular with neighborhood dog walkers. (She assured me that this was a good thing.) But by then serendipity had delivered a better option, also transmitted in an e-mail from Seattle.
It came from the Refugee Artisan Initiative, which employs refugee and immigrant women to make handsewn goods. In what now seems like an eternity ago, but was actually last September, I ordered a face mask from them, embroidered with the word “Vote.” Extremely well crafted, it has been a conversation piece, both in the run-up to the presidential election, and more recently because when anyone asks why I am still wearing it, I tell them I am anticipating the midterms.
At RAI, Bernie’s mittens had also sparked creativity, and they were now offering hand-knit, fleece-lined mittens made from upcycled sweaters. The mittens cost $35, customers can choose jewel tones or earthy colors, and each pair is one-of-a-kind. For every pair purchased, the organization will donate a pair to a homeless person. I promptly shipped them four pounds of no-longer-loved sweaters to support their effort.
Then, without mentioning that I was writing a story, I asked whether they could turn my two pairs of Turkish socks into mittens. Leela Manon, RAI’s program manager, after checking with their sewing coordinator, replied, “WE CAN DO IT! Go ahead and send them to us.”
Before taking the plunge, I had one more question for Karadag: From a folk art perspective, would this be sacrilege?
“To recycle your textiles is now much more accepted than before, as nomad people never throw away anything,” he wrote, in what may have been a further expression of diplomacy. “Doing this would not be sacrilege, because you are still respecting and using it. This way your memories will live for a longer time with you. This is surely a nice thing.”
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide.