If you love upcycling, Scandinavian chic, women-run businesses and staying warm in winter, you're going to love Steller Handcrafted Goods.
Founded in 2009 after Julie Steller bought a pair of wool sweater mittens from a fundraiser, fell in love with them and decided to try her hand at making some, the company now produces mittens, hats, purses, bracelets, dog collars and mitten-themed holiday decor. Steller's products are made from old sweaters and other materials found at garage sales, estate sales, thrift stores and antique shops. "We call it foraging," she says. One line of mittens is made exclusively from vintage Scandinavian sweaters.
Sports fans have extra reason to cheer: Steller makes a special Minnesota Memorabilia line of fleece mittens, available in Vikings, Twins and Gophers colors, all made with a piece of the Metrodome's iconic domed roof. (The stadium was home to all three teams before it came down in 2014.) Each Minnesota Memorabilia item comes with a certificate of authenticity saying that you now own a piece of the real thing.)
A stay-at-home mom and recreational maker for many years, Steller was one of the self-described "costume ladies" for her children's yearly Shakespeare productions. "We would repurpose old clothes for the plays," says Steller.
So the idea of using old items to make new things felt natural to her. At first, she made mittens at home by herself. Eventually she hired one of the other costume ladies and, for a while, it was the two of them. Today, Steller employs 14 women who sew part time from their own homes.
The business grew organically. "At first, I just sold a few to friends," she says. "The second year I made them, my youngest daughter [went to a school that charged tuition] and I thought, 'I wonder if I can earn enough to pay her tuition?' My first grandbaby also came along that year and I thought, 'I wonder if I can make enough to buy a plane ticket to see the baby?' "
The first festival Steller participated in as a vendor "was a stunning success" and, along with help from the business consultancy WomenVenture, the Minneapolis-based company that helps women establish profitable businesses, the company has been growing ever since.
Steller is having a blast running a Minnesota-based and Minnesota-focused business as part of her surprising second act. "I didn't start until I was in my 50s. I'm a late bloomer!" she says. "I could never have imagined I would do something as fun as this. I love the work. I love providing work for other women. I love our product. And I hear all the time that 'these are the nicest mittens I've ever owned!'"