Nominative determinism refers to those instances when a person’s surname seemingly matches what they do for a living. Prime examples include a meteorologist who goes by Amy Freeze, an ornithologist named Carla Dove and a urologist specializing in vasectomies 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 venture that turns out hand-sewn mitts largely made out of upcycled material, has grown used to people mistakenly assuming his last name is Mitts and then openly wondering if that’s why he went into the hand-covering game in the first place.
Here’s the thing; before he officially launched Fred Mitts in 2016, Foster was on the receiving end of comments such as, "Oh, we just love our Fred mitts," or, "I really need another pair of Fred mitts," from people he’d made specimens for previously. When he and his wife Bev agreed he needed a moniker for his then-fledgling operation, Fred Mitts, sans an apostrophe-S, was the first thing that popped into their heads, he says, seated next to Bev in the kitchen of their neat-as-a-pin Westwood abode.
"People always seem disappointed to learn my last name is actually Foster, so much so that I don’t even bother correcting them any longer," he continues, stroking a long, grey beard that would give even Grizzly Adams a run for his hirsute money.
"I mean, if they want me to be Fred Mitts, that’s fine by me; especially if they’re buying what I’m selling."
Foster, who grew up in St. James, caught on at Monarch Wear, a clothing manufacturer that specialized in denim wear, after leaving high school in the early 1970s. Describing himself back then as a "grunt," he says his primary task at the Ellice Avenue plant was to fetch material for those responsible for the cutting and sewing.
"This was when leather pants were just coming into vogue ("Yeah, for about five minutes," Bev snaps) and I guess I fell in love with the smell of leather, probably from having to schlep hundreds of yards of it back and forth, day in and day out," he explains.
Skip ahead some 25 years; in the late ’90s, Foster, a professional plumber, was a year or so into a new position as a job foreman at a Manitoba correctional facility. He found the role highly stressful, and would often return home at night looking for something, anything to take his mind off work. What he needed was a diversion of some sort, Bev would tell him. One day, while leafing through a copy of the City of Winnipeg Leisure Guide, he hit on what that might be.
The St. James Civic Centre, close to where they live, was offering an introductory course on mitt making. Semi-comfortable with a needle and thread, he signed up for the sessions — it turned out to be him and nine women, he says with a wink — and, a little over a month later, he was proudly sporting a pair of mitts that, while not overly fashionable, were definitely functional.
He continued to hone his craft by crafting mitts for his parents, his two daughters, Bev’s son, their grandchildren, neighbours … anybody who wanted a pair, pretty much. Problem was, despite the fact he was utilizing second-hand resources for the bulk of his wares — from the get-go, he and Bev routinely haunted thrift stores, on the look-out for leather jackets and fur coats he could convert into mitts — it was still a somewhat expensive hobby, given he refused to accept even a penny for his creations.
In 2016, almost 20 years after that first pair of mitts, Bev noticed that there was going to be a farmer’s market in Elie, where her son lives. She shared the news with Fred and, after convincing him his handiwork was definitely worth charging for, he agreed to rent a table there for the princely sum of $5.
Let us guess: his creations were an instant hit, everybody in attendance wanted a pair and the couple drove home with wads of cash stuffed in their wallets? Err, not so much.
"The market was held in July and it’s not like too many people were shopping for winter gear," Bev says, laughing uproariously. "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."
Undaunted, the couple signed up for a second market, again in Elie, a bit closer to the holiday season. What a difference a few months and a dip in temperature makes. Fred Mitts was an unqualified success that December, and by the time the following Christmas rolled around, Foster had become a bit of a familiar face at pop-up sales in and around the city.
"Here, let me give you a quick tour," he says, leading a visitor downstairs, where the bulk of his stock is kept. Throwing on a fur hat — yes, he makes those, too — he holds out a pair of mitts fashioned out of a vintage raccoon coat, the fur of which he brushed the "heck out of" to make it appear brand new.
"There’s a funny story behind these ones," he continues, reaching for a different pair, black in colour. "Somebody 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 there was anything I could do with it."
Next he points to a pair of white leather mitts with matching tassels, revealing the material we’re staring at came from a set of repurposed couch cushions. Furthermore, there are currently five oversized, plastic bags in his garage-of-a-workspace, each filled to the brim with leather scraps, gifts from a furniture plant manager who didn’t have the heart to chuck the discarded pieces out, and reached out to ask if he was interested in taking them off his hands, free of charge. Was the fellow kidding? He’d be there in 20 minutes, came the reply.
The last sale the Fosters attended was in February 2020, a few weeks before COVID-19 turned the world on its head. Citing their age, Fred says he and Bev are choosing to lay low until things return to "semi-normal," not that he’s parked his needle these last 22 months — far from it. (Bev chuckles, noting she offered to lend him a hand last summer by firing up her sewing machine and assisting with liners, only to be told that would be cheating, and that they couldn’t honestly label their mitts as hand-stitched if they started cutting corners.)
"I’ve basically used this downtime to build up stock," he says, noting a representative from the Manitoba Museum recently purchased a half-dozen pairs of mitts to sell in the gift shop, and that he’s also shipped a few to Australia at the request of a nephew who told him he they would come in handy, no pun intended, when he and his buddies go fishing in the mountains.
Also, interested parties are able to contact the couple through their Facebook page.
"It is a bit tricky because every pair is one-of-a-kind, and you pretty much have to try them on, to see if they’re right for you or not," she says. "But yes, curbside pickup is something we’ve tried to make work, given the current situation with COVID."
One more thing; if you do run into the Fosters at a sale somewhere down the road, don’t be insulted if you compliment Fred on his expert workmanship, and he silently nods in response.
"I’m deaf as a post, and I don’t always wear my hearing aids because of the ambient noise," he says. "So I tend to let Bev do most of the talking, while I just sit there."
"You mean, sit there looking good," Bev says with a smile.
"Yeah," he grins back. "That’s what I meant to say."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.