Fred Mitts founder makes a name for himself with a hands-on hobby
Nominative determinism refers to cases where a person’s surname apparently matches what they do for a living. Prime examples include a meteorologist who goes by Amy Freeze, an ornithologist named Carla Dove, and a vasectomy urologist who answers to Dr. Richard Chopp, or, ahem, Dick Chopp, for short.
We only mention this because Fred Foster, the 67-year-old founder of Fred Mitts, a home-based business that produces hand-sewn mittens largely from recycled materials, has grown accustomed to people assuming mistakenly that his surname is Mitts. then openly wondering if that’s why he got into the hand covering game in the first place.
Here’s the thing; before officially launching Fred Mitts in 2016, Foster was getting comments such as “Oh we love our Fred Mitts” or “I really need another pair of Fred Mitts” from people he made specimens for previously. When he and his wife Bev agreed he needed a nickname for his then fledgling operation, Fred Mitts, without an apostrophe-S, was the first thing that came to mind, he says, sitting next to Bev in the kitchen of their very own pinpoint Westwood abode.
“People always seem disappointed to learn that my last name is actually Foster, so much so that I don’t even bother to correct them anymore,” he continues, stroking a long gray beard that would even give thread to retaliate against Grizzly Adams. money.
“I mean, if they want me to be Fred Mitts, that’s fine with me, especially if they buy what I sell.”
Foster, who grew up in St. James, rose to prominence at Monarch Wear, a clothing manufacturer specializing in denim clothing, after leaving high school in the early 1970s. Describing himself at the time as a ” grunt,” he says his main job at the Ellice Avenue factory was to fetch supplies for the cut-and-sew managers.
“It was back when leather pants were all the rage (“Yeah, for about five minutes,” Bev snaps) and I guess I fell in love with the smell of leather, probably because I I had to walk hundreds of meters back and forth, day after day,” he explains.
Jump forward some 25 years; In the late 1990s, Foster, a professional plumber, had been in a new job as a foreman at a Manitoba correctional facility for about a year. He found the role very stressful and would often come home in the evenings looking for something, anything to distract himself from work. What he needed was some kind of diversion, Bev would tell him. One day, while leafing through a copy of the City of Winnipeg Leisure Guide, he realized what it could be.
The St. James Civic Center near their home offered an introductory course in mitten making. Half comfortable with a needle and thread, he signed up for the sessions—it turned out to be him and nine women, he said with a wink—and, a little more a month later, he was proudly sporting a pair of mittens that, while not too fashionable, were definitely functional.
He continued to hone his craft making mittens for his parents, his two daughters, Bev’s son, their grandchildren, neighbors… anyone who wanted a pair, pretty much. The problem was, despite the fact that he used second-hand resources for most of his wares – from the start, he and Bev regularly haunted thrift stores, looking for leather jackets and fur coats that he could not afford. he could convert into mittens – that was still a bit of an expensive hobby, given that he refused to accept even a penny for his designs.
In 2016, nearly 20 years after that first pair of mittens, Bev noticed there was going to be a farmers market in Elie, where her son lives. She shared the news with Fred and, after convincing him that his work was definitely worth charging, he agreed to rent a table there for the princely sum of $5.
Let’s guess: his designs were an instant hit, everyone wanted a pair and the couple returned home with wads of cash in their wallets? Uh, not so much.
“The market was in July and it’s not like too many people were buying winter clothes,” Bev says with a laugh. “We didn’t sell a single pair and spent most of our time pointing people looking for corn, beets, carrots, etc., in the right direction.”
Unfazed, the couple signed up for a second market, still at Elie, a little closer to the holiday season. What a difference a few months and a drop in temperature make. Fred Mitts was an unqualified hit in December, and by the time the following Christmas rolled around, Foster had become a familiar face at pop-up sales in and around town.
“Here, let me give you a quick tour,” he says, leading a visitor downstairs, where most of his stock is. Donning a fur hat — yes, he does, too — he holds out a pair of mittens made from a vintage raccoon coat, the fur of which he brushed to make it look brand new.
“There’s a funny story behind these,” he continues, picking up a different pair, black in color. “Someone I know had a bearskin rug in their basement, except their dog wouldn’t leave it alone – he was constantly barking at it – so they gave it to me, to see if I could. do something about it.”
Next, he shows off a pair of white leather mittens with matching tassels, revealing that the material we’re looking at is from a set of repurposed couch cushions. Plus, there are currently five oversized plastic bags in his workspace garage, each filled to the brim with leather scraps, gifts from a furniture factory manager who didn’t have the heart to toss the discarded coins, and reached out to ask if he was interested in getting them off his hands, free of charge. Was the comrade joking? He would be here in 20 minutes, was the reply.
The last sale the Fosters attended was in February 2020, weeks before COVID-19 turned the world upside down. Citing their age, Fred says he and Bev have chosen to lay low until things get back to “semi-normal”, not that he’s parked his needle for the past 22 months – far from it. (Bev laughs, noting that she offered to help him out last summer by turning on his sewing machine and helping him with the linings, only to be told that would be cheating and that they honestly couldn’t label their mittens as hand-sewn if they started cutting corners.)
“I basically used that downtime to stock up,” he says, noting that a representative from the Manitoba Museum recently purchased half a dozen pairs of mittens to sell in the gift shop, and that he also shipped a few to Australia at the request of a nephew who told him they would come in handy, no pun intended, when he and his buddies go fishing in the mountains.
In addition, those interested can contact the couple via their Facebook page.
“It’s a bit tricky because every pair is one-of-a-kind, and you practically have to try them on to see if they’re right for you or not,” she says. “But yeah, curbside pickup is something we’ve been trying to make work, given the current situation with COVID.”
One more thing ; if you run into the Fosters at a sale somewhere down the road, don’t be insulted if you compliment Fred on his expert work, and he silently nods in response.
“I’m deaf as a stone and I don’t always wear my hearing aids because of the ambient noise,” he says. “So I tend to let Bev do the most talking, while I sit there.”
“You mean, sit there looking good,” Bev said with a smile.
“Yeah,” he smiled back. “That’s what I was trying to say.”