never failed. As soon as Jill Kaufenberg bought a decent pair of gloves for one of her three children, one of the gloves would go missing, time and time again.
Both of her daughters didn’t mind wearing mismatched mittens, but her son Kye, who was particularly prone to losing them, only wore a matching pair, she said. “There was no negotiation.”
Kaufenberg, 43, of Marine on St. Croix, began looking for companies that sold replacement gloves.
“I hate having to buy pairs all the time because it’s wasteful,” she said. “I searched the internet thinking there has to be a company doing this. Once I realized there wasn’t one, I decided to start one. It was really out of desperation.”
Kaufenberg launch chopper milla Stillwater-based e-commerce children’s mitten business earlier this year.
The mittens retail for $89. The sale price includes the company’s trademark re/PAIR replacement plan: the first Chopper Mill you lose, the company will mail you a free replacement.
Another plus: Parents can always buy a single mitten, for $45, in case their child loses another without having to buy another pair, Kaufenberg said.
‘A perfect pair of mittens’
Kaufenberg said he spent three years researching, developing and designing “the perfect pair of kids’ gloves.”
“There are a lot of good ones out there, but even with the best, I thought I could do better,” he said. “If the children’s hands are warm, they will stay outside playing in the snow a little longer. That is the goal.”
Kaufenberg’s three children: Finley, 12; Kye, 10; and Talia, 7, were his test subjects. They play hockey, skiing, sledding, and skateboarding. They attend River Grove Elementary School in May Township, where they go out for recess twice a day. “It’s the perfect testing area because those teachers are very committed to getting them out there,” she said. “They’d come home from school and I’d say, ‘Okay, give me all the details. They got wet? Were you able to grab things? Were you able to build things? What were the problems? Did the snow get into your fist? We did that for a year.”
Kaufenberg said he knew he was right when Finley came home one day and said, “Mom, all the kids at school want to know where I got my gloves,” he said. “I was like, ‘This is a good sign.'”
The mittens, which come in white and tan, are made from goat leather, which is supple and dries quickly; Cordura performance material; 3M Thinsulate, which allows them to withstand freezing temperatures, and a waterproof-breathable Hipora membrane, she said.
They were designed “pre-curved” for maximum dexterity, he said. “As a kid, a lot of times you want to grab sticks or make snowballs, and if you have a really warm mitten, sometimes it’s not made for that,” she said. “If the kid isn’t strong enough to make a fist, that’s a big problem, and they don’t want to stay outside and play. That was my number 1 priority: making sure it was something the kid could really feel like it was just an extension of their hand.”
Kaufenberg also designed the mittens with extra deep cuffs to keep the wrists free of snow and moisture. To get the length just right, he spent hours analyzing the angle at which they would easily pass over the different coat sleeves.
“The angle was more important than the length, honestly, because if a kid can’t stop it easily, it’s game over,” he said. “He really wanted them to be in charge of his destiny, with the ability to put his mitten on over his coat cuff.”
Chopper Mill mitt cuffs are uninsulated “because you don’t need it where your arm is, do you?” she said. “Especially for younger kids, they can more easily put it on instead of just going over the jacket that’s already insulated.”
The mittens feature extra-long Velcro tabs that children “can easily maneuver,” he said. “A lot of times, they take them off in the snowbank and then put them back on, so they have to be able to put them back on easily.”
Another kid-tested feature from Kaufenberg: carabiners that attach to backpacks, “so the kids and the gloves stay connected,” he said.
The mittens, which come in five different sizes, can be customized with a monogrammed velcro patch that can be removed or replaced when the mittens are slipped on.
“That’s my favorite part,” Kaufenberg said. “You can take it off and then give it to the next kid and now it’s Norah’s. Now Norah knows that this is her mitten, but the father can still keep the mittens and go on and know that the investment in the good mittens is going to be able to live.”
He liked fashion, he studied business.
Kaufenberg, who grew up in Austin, Minnesota, said she has always been interested in fashion and design. “I was reading Cosmopolitan before my mom wanted me to,” he said. “I’ve definitely been a Vogue subscriber for a long time. I think my secret wish was always to be able to draw and sew, and I just don’t have that talent.”
He went to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire where he majored in business management/entrepreneurship and minored in marketing. After working in medical sales, she founded the Lift Bridge Co-Work, a Stillwater co-working center that has locations at 310 S. Main St. and 109 E. Myrtle St. “That fueled my creative thinking because I was surrounded by everyone. these entrepreneurs. all the time,” Kaufenberg said. “I just felt inspired.”
The idea for Chopper Mill gloves came to him in 2017. “Every year I thought, ‘Why didn’t I start this business?’ ” she said. “Because I knew there was a need and I knew I could design a better mitt. I finally said to Justin (her husband), ‘I have to do it or I’ll regret it. I’d rather fail than not try. So here I am. Ha It was the most fun I’ve ever had in my entire career.”
Kaufenberg estimates that he has purchased anywhere from 75 to 100 pairs of mittens over the years in his quest to build the perfect pair. He would like the dexterity of one, the fist length of another and the ability to “write the child’s name on part of one,” he said. “But I never found one that had all the things he wanted, so when they were outside, I didn’t have to worry about his fingers freezing.”
Kaufenberg worked with a fabricator in Minneapolis who would refine his designs using computer-aided design software. The mittens are made in China, but are customized in the Minneapolis shop.
“We’d get a sample and I’d say, ‘I want to change this. I want to make the bracelet a little longer here. … Basically, it was a lot of trial and error.
“I don’t have any design background by any means, nor did I go to school for it,” he said. “But I know what works as a mother and I feel like that’s more important. I heard someone call me ‘The Mitten Lady’ the other day. I think it’s funny, but I’ll take it.”
Kaufenberg is the author of “The Mitten Thief,” a children’s book about missing gloves. The book, which was published earlier this year, is about “thieves manipulating the weather and making kids want to play in the snow,” he said. “When the kids aren’t looking, thieves steal their gloves to keep them warm in winter in their snow cave.”
Chopper Mill mittens (and the book “The Mitten Thief”) are sold online at choppermill.com and at WhatNot Boutique, 223 S. Main St. in Stillwater.
Each pair of gloves comes with its own cream-colored organic muslin bag, so they don’t get lost when thrown in a bag with dark-colored ski gear, he said. “It just makes it easier for people to find them,” she said.
The Chopper Mill mittens are designed to fit the youngest kids, ages 2 to 12, he said. Next year, he plans to sell mittens for teens and adults.
“We’ve been getting a great response,” he said. “It turns out that adults want to be in on this, too.”