Mitten Smitten: Goodwill Sweaters Warm Woman’s Heart And Hobby

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For Laurie Gagliano, Goodwill’s stock of gently used sweaters is a godsend. Or part of a godsend, anyway.

After years as a schoolteacher, the pastor’s wife and mother of seven found herself in a new role: as stay-at-home day care provider to her grandchildren.

“I really prayed and asked God if he would give me something while I was at home, because I didn’t want to go out of my gourd while just watching kids,” she recalls.

One day she found the answer to her prayer lying on the ironing board in her sister’s home — a beautiful pair of handmade mittens. She grilled her sister about how the mittens were made and learned that the exterior parts were cut from wool sweaters and then stitched together on a sewing machine. A fleece lining prepared in the same fashion made them toasty warm.

“I fell in love with the mittens and the wool sweaters immediately, and the love is still there,” Gagliano says.

Finding the materials for her new passion proved easier and cheaper than she could have hoped. A veteran bargain-shopper, Gagliano was familiar with the Goodwill store near her home in Springfield, Tenn. When she learned that a large selection of sweaters was offered among the inventory Goodwill marks down to 99 cents on Wednesdays and Sundays, her new routine was born.

“The minute the door opened I would be there, trying to snatch up all the wool sweaters I could find,” she explains.

Gagliano’s hobby snowballed from there. She scoured Goodwill stores for her preferred types of sweaters — those made from lambs’ wool, cashmere, angora or Merino wool and sporting colorful printed patterns.

She gave her mittens to relatives, and her sister convinced the owner of a resale shop in Wisconsin to try selling them. That store sold 130 pairs last year, and now the mittens are available in two more stores as well.

With practice, Gagliano has become efficient at her craft and can now produce a pair of adult women’s mittens in 20 minutes. Ornate children’s mittens, in animal shapes like owls and foxes, take an hour. In total, she makes about 450 pairs per year.

Proceeds from the sale of her mittens allow her family to enjoy some extras, such as holding a large Christmas party for widows who attend her church. She also recently donated about 40 pairs of her mittens, and 15 hats she bought at Goodwill, for missionaries to distribute to needy villagers in a remote part of Alaska.

“It was really exciting to be able to send the mittens to somewhere they really needed them,” she says.

The mittens have also brought her a bit of notoriety. In May, Gagliano was chosen for a “Cheapest of the Cheap” award by Mary Hance, better known as Ms. Cheap, a columnist who writes about saving money for The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville.

“I was absolutely stunned, shocked when she called me,” Gagliano says.

Hance said she was “blown away” when she first saw Gagliano’s mittens.

“They were just so professional-looking. They’re so warm, they’re so soft — I mean, everybody I showed them to wanted a pair,” Hance said.

She said Gagliano is among a growing number of customers who scour Goodwill stores for gently used items that can be transformed into something entirely new.

“I do think that there’s a trend for people to come and repurpose things,” she said, “and I think Goodwill is such a great source for people because you have so much of everything that people can be creative with.”

Three years after she began making them, Gagliano’s mitten mania shows no signs of subsiding.

“Even when we go on vacation or travel up north, she is still looking for a Goodwill,” her husband, Frank Gagliano, says, recalling a time they followed a path cleared by snowplows to a store in Indiana.

Laurie Gagliano says its a compulsion that sometimes even drives her to  purchase a Goodwill sweater at the full price of $5.99.

“Ms. Cheap would not appreciate that, I’m sure,” she says but adds, “The sweaters inspire me. I find a sweater I love, and I can’t wait to turn it into a mitten.”

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