Sarah Vandelist, a Macalester student and 2011 Lakeville North graduate, created a successful business by making mittens out of old sweaters.
Sarah Vandelist, a Macalester College student and Lakeville North graduate, started a business while in high school creating mittens from old sweaters. Years later, she has her own studio and a thriving business called Swag Mittens.
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.