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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Ely mitten maker has things in hand

Catie Clark
Posted 2/21/24

ELY- Ely’s fabled outdoors has spawned yet another entrepreneur and his cold weather apparel has already found a home at McMurdo Station in Antarctica and will be worn in the upcoming Iditarod …

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Ely mitten maker has things in hand


ELY- Ely’s fabled outdoors has spawned yet another entrepreneur and his cold weather apparel has already found a home at McMurdo Station in Antarctica and will be worn in the upcoming Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska, which gets underway a week from Saturday.
Ozzie Reif is a tall, soft-spoken Elyite who started the Ely Mitten Project two winters ago. Reif made the transition to full-time in December after two years of making prototype mittens and working on his start-up part-time. Reif currently makes all the mittens himself, which he sells through his Etsy website and at Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely. As a small one-man shop, Reif doesn’t have a big advertising budget, relying on word-of-mouth and his social media outreach on Facebook and Instagram.
The mittens
Reif got his start making mittens for scouting. “Two years ago this winter, me and a friend made 300 pairs of mittens for the Boy Scouts,” Reif said, referring to the local Northern Tier Boy Scout Camp, which does winter expeditions. Seeing an opportunity, Reif took advantage of the free business start-up consulting available through the Northland Small Business Development Center in Duluth. “They helped me set up an LLC and made sure I set up a business legally,” Reif explained.
Then he went through 19 prototypes before settling on the final pattern for his Type 1 mitten. “It’s based on a mitten made by an Ely firm called KMR,” Reif said, “that made the mittens several years ago.”
He got the pattern from Chris Hegenbarth. She “dissected” some KMR mittens to make the pattern from them. Hegenbarth works at Minnesota North College, but she is married to Peter McClelland from White Wilderness Sled Dog Adventures, where good mittens are a necessity.
“It’s a great mitten for mushing that lets you move your fingers inside … It’s super warm when it’s super cold,” Hegenbarth told the Timberjay.
Reif made his first delivery of Type 1 mittens to a retail store on Jan. 30. That was the day he dropped off a large box of mittens at Piragis Northwoods.
“We were originally going to sell them just during Ely Winter Festival,” said Jay Gustafson, retail manager for Piragis, standing next to a rack at the store with eight pairs of Type 1 mittens. “As you can see, they’re still here and still selling … People really like that they’re local.”
Reif also manufactures a Type 4 mitten “based on a mitten design made by Midnight Mushing,” an Alaskan firm. Heftier than the Type 1, the Type 4 was initially tested in -20 degree F conditions last year in the John Beargrease sled dog marathon by musher Kristen McCarty.
Next month, a pair of Reif’s Type 4 mittens will be worn in this year’s storied Iditarod in Alaska by musher Anna Hennessy. The mitts have also gone south—way south—to McMurdo Station. “I know that three pair are in Antarctica,” Reif said. “One pair I sold and the other two got there organically.”
Ozzie Reif
Elyites who frequent the Ely Folk School or trivia night at the Boathouse already know Reif’s cheerful face around town. He grew up in Milford, Del. and went to college in Portland, Ore., at Lewis and Clark College, majoring in International Affairs.
Reif discovered Ely through the Boy Scouts. “I took a canoe trip with the Boy Scout camp when I was 16,” Reif remarked. “I came back the next summer for a second trip.” The experience left Reif “really hooked” on Ely and the Boundary Waters. He spent his summers since either working at the Boy Scout camp or volunteering with the Superior National Forest.
When he graduated from college in 2019, he moved to Ely and got a job at Wintergreen, making outdoor wear for two years. Then he worked for Friends of the Boundary Waters for a year and a half before going full-time working on his mitten business.
“Living in Ely, I’ve come to prefer the winter now more than the summer,” Reif said. “The only drawback to winter in Ely is that it’s a bit hard to canoe.”
So how are sales going? Reif said he’s been able to pay the bills so far, although he acknowledged this year’s extraordinarily mild conditions likely haven’t helped his local sales this year. For this Ely entrepreneur it seem, the chillier the better.