What started as a fun and cheap gift idea for family and friends has become a successful, socially conscious business for a Lakeville North grad.

Sarah Vandelist, who graduated from Lakeville North in 2011 and now attends Macalester College in St. Paul, began making "sweater mittens" during the winter of her senior year after receiving a pair as a gift.

"I was like, 'These are so cute and warm. I could make these,' " she said.

Soon, everyone wanted a pair of the toasty mittens, made from recycled sweaters on the outside and lined with fleece inside. After a crash course on sewing from her mom, she gathered a laundry basket full of old sweaters and went to work.

"It got really crazy around Christmas," she said. "Thinking back, that idea of crazy was like, five pair."

Vandelist eventually called her business Swag Mittens. Over three years, demand has grown steadily, and she now has a studio in St. Paul and a website to sell them on.

In all, she's made 1,000 to 1,500 pairs, including some sized for babies and children.

Now, she buys used wool or cotton sweaters in hundred-pound shipments from a national supplier, in addition to buying them from secondhand stores.

Making her first mittens took five hours, she said, but today she can finish the 10-step process in 20 minutes.

The holiday season is her busiest time — and sometimes there's just too much sewing to handle alone. "Whenever it gets really crazy, I call in the reinforcements, which is my mom," she said.

Socially conscious mittens

Making mittens is more than just a business for Vandelist, a sociology major and political science minor at Macalester College. It's part of a mission to use the billions of pounds of discarded clothing, or "post-consumer textiles," that Americans get rid of each year.

She believes that America's habit of consuming "fast fashion" — or cheaply made clothes that are bought and quickly thrown away — is bad for the environment. As she's learned about different fabrics and their durability, she's become "concerned with how our fabric that a lot of us are wearing … isn't the nicest and it's not built to actually last," she said.

As a result, the things we buy wear out quickly and we give them away, only to buy more. Vandelist is also concerned about poor working conditions in overseas factories where clothes are made.

That's why she suggests people consider buying higher-quality items of clothing that cost a bit more but also last longer, she said.

Her daughter's creative reuse of materials — called "upcycling"— and her attention to detail run in the family, said Lisa Vandelist, Sarah's mom.

"I come from a long line of extraordinary sewers," said Lisa Vandelist, recalling that her mother made her own wedding dress and created tiny, lined wool coats for Barbie dolls.

Sarah Vandelist said that, to some extent, "people's minds are starting to change" about buying things at thrift stores, and there's now a resale market for used clothing. And people have actually heard of sweater mittens, which were a "completely new thing" when she began, she said.

If customers want, Sarah will also make custom heirloom mittens out of a sweater that belonged to someone special, Lisa Vandelist said.

'A marketing genius'

With the exception of occasional sewing assistance, Sarah does "absolutely everything" related to Swag Mittens herself, her mom said. "She is a marketing genius," Lisa Vandelist said.

She remembered how in high school, Sarah had everyone wearing her mittens, from the homecoming king to the teacher who wore them during a talent contest. At football games, kids would wear sequin-covered Swag Mittens and they would sparkle in the lights, she said.

And she often makes mittens for the needy or donates them to charities, Lisa Vandelist said.

The mittens are sold mostly through her website, but she sometimes attends events with other craft vendors, she said. She also sells them at a Minneapolis vintage shop and two other accessories stores around the Twin Cities. She's considering selling them on Amazon, too.

After graduation from Macalester, she'd like to continue with Swag Mittens full time if there's enough demand, she said. "It's become a part of my identity, so it would be really hard to give it up at this point," she said.

No one has been more surprised by her success than Sarah herself, she said.

She loves hearing stories from customers who bought mittens years ago and are still wearing them. Her favorite part is "just seeing how my product, how this little pair of mittens, is making people's lives better, even if it's in a small way," she said.