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Trying to Keep Your Hands Warm? Choose Mittens, like Bernie.

The Vermont senator knows mittens are the best way to stay warm. Here’s why.

bernie sanders mittens
Created by Kory Kennedy using Getty Photos

There was a clear internet star at the inauguration, and it was not our newly installed 46th president, our barrier-breaking vice president, or the youngest inaugural poet to ever take the stage. No, it was Senator Bernie Sanders. Or, more specifically, his patterned wool mittens.

The Vermont senator and former 2020 presidential candidate showed up to the stately affair, manila envelope in hand, wearing a surgical mask, a Burton down coat, and the aforementioned mittens. The multi-colored mitts are the handiwork of Jen Ellis, an elementary school teacher in Essex Junction, Vermont, and craft hobbyist. She repurposed wool sweaters for the shell and lined it with fleece made from recycled plastic. A photo of Sanders sitting with his arms and legs crossed in a single folding chair safely distanced from other attendees quickly became the stuff of memes.

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On a day when many others sported designer labels, Sanders chose practicality over fashion. According to weather reports, Wednesday was the coldest inauguration since 2009 and quite windy. Sustained winds measured 20 mph, and with gusts up to 28 mph, the wind chill was 33 degrees. During an interview on CBS News, Sanders told Gayle King: “In Vermont... we know something about the cold, and we’re not so concerned about good fashion. We want to keep warm. And that’s what I did.”

So did he make the right choice? There’s an ongoing discussion about whether mittens or gloves are the better choice for keeping warm during winter. Shape goes a long way in dictating performance, but the materials, along with your intended use and natural circulation (or lack thereof) matter, too.

From a shape standpoint, Sanders’s choice of mittens instead of gloves was the right one. “Mittens are what you pack if you have a really cold day, if you’re going to be stationary for a long time, or if you have poor circulation,” Hanna Reichel of Gordini gloves says. In her role as strategy coordinator, Reichel is involved in the Vermont brand’s merchandising, marketing, and sustainability efforts. Much like a sleeping bag, mittens provide a large closed space where heat generated by your fingers is readily trapped within the insulation. They have less surface area and fewer seams than a pair of gloves, so there’s less opportunity for heat to escape or warmth-sapping moisture to make its way in. And then there’s the fact that manufacturers can simply fit more insulation into mittens than gloves, which prioritize dexterity and grip.

Don’t want to sacrifice warmth or dexterity? Choose a three-finger glove that keeps your index finger free. The hybrid design blends the strengths of mittens and gloves but not so much that it outperforms them. It’s popular among the ski patrol crowd that need to be able to tie knots but stay warm during their long shifts in cold, and sometimes inclement, weather.

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Shape can also dictate what insulation manufacturers use. Down boasts the best warmth-to-weight ratio of any insulator, making it a sought-after choice for cold-weather apparel like winter coats and even gear, such as sleeping bags. The key to down’s warmth is its naturally lofted shape. Still air between the filaments traps the heat generated by your body to keep you warm. Other types of insulation work similarly.

washington, dc   january 20 sen bernie sanders i vt wears mittens as he attends the inauguration of joe biden on the west front of the us capitol on january 20, 2021 in washington, dc during todays inauguration ceremony joe biden became the 46th president of the united states photo by jonathan ernst poolgetty images
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Water or too much compression—say by gripping a ski pole all morning—can cause down tufts to collapse, robbing them of their insulating ability. This poses a design challenge for down gloves, especially in the palm. To prevent a cold spot, manufacturers would have to add even more down to a glove’s palm and compromise dexterity and grip in the process. Instead, they often employ a mix of down and synthetic insulation. The man-made stuff, created by crimping straight polyester threads, isn’t as compressible, so it doesn’t have the same issue. And unlike down, it retains its insulating power when wet. That’s a good thing if you live in a wetter climate or intend to wear your gloves or mittens on the slopes.

As for wool, the organic material is a poor conductor of heat, meaning that the warmth it traps stays put very well. Unfortunately, it can absorb up to 30 percent of its weight in moisture. That water has the potential to freeze when the mercury dips or if you stop moving, potentially putting you at risk for frostbite. So save the wool for dry days and more casual use when you won’t be breaking a sweat.

In the case of Sanders’s mittens, wool can also be used as the exterior fabric. “Nothing screams cozy like wool, I think, to a lot of people, but the truth is, it’s not windproof,” Reichel says. The mittens’ fleece lining probably helped some, but given how windy it was, a wind- or waterproof membrane sandwiched inside would have been even better. (By definition, any waterproof material is also windproof.) For the warmest shell, choose leather.

It’s worth noting that a breathable shell can actually be preferable on milder days, during high-intensity activity (think nordic skiing), or depending on the rest of the construction. “In a very small amount of space, you’ve got a lot of layers of material, but they all have to work in tandem,” Reichel says. “Sometimes the most efficient gloves have a breathable exterior because they have thick insulation and an insert. You want the shell material to let as much moisture out as possible.”

All things considered, we give the senator an A- on his choice of outerwear. He lost some points on a likely-too-breathable shell, but the quintessentially Vermont style counts for something.

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