At Emily Engel’s Western Massachusetts home last week, an eyeless, hairless replica of Animal — the frenetic monster drummer from “The Muppet Show” — patiently awaited her attention before it could be shipped off to a new home. Nearby, the green face of a Bunsen doll, soon-to-be decked out in his signature lab coat, stared at her through lensless glasses as it sat idly in a chair, bound for a similar fate.
Fabrics of all colors were piled up and stuffed onto shelves. A dresser brimmed with clothing fit for small children. Abundant supplies of thread and polyester fiber filling were close at hand.
At any given moment during the day — and often into the late hours of the night — Engel can be found in her two-bedroom apartment toiling away as she creates handmade plush dolls of many of the beloved characters in famed puppeteer Jim Henson’s universe.
And with the holidays fast approaching, requests for the self-taught seamstress’s intricate creations have gone into overdrive, keeping her hands moving as fast as Animal’s drum solos.
It seems any time Engel posts an image on social media of Dr. Teeth, the front man of the Electric Mayhem, the house band of “The Muppet Show”; a grinning Sweetums, the hairy ogre; or the Swedish Chef, with his bushy mustache and matching eyebrows, the inquiries — and compliments — start rolling in.
“I have a whiteboard hanging up with the list I need to get out the door, and I’m going through it one-by-one, and a separate list for Christmas orders,” said Engel, 37. “I work every day of my life. There are no weekends.”
The popularity of the niche products, which can take around two to three hours to make and cost around $250, has been building slowly for nearly a decade.
Engel, who grew up in Easthampton, never set out to become “that broad who makes Muppet replicas,” as her Twitter profile deadpans. But it’s where her career has landed her — and there’s nowhere she’d rather be.
“There are so few ways to make people happy these days,” Engel said. “And if I can do that with a Muppet, great.”
The first Muppet replica Engel made was in 2012, after a friend dared her to fashion a Dr. Teeth doll on a whim.
At the time, she was looking for challenges from people “to see if I could hone in on this skill that I seemed to have of just looking at a picture of something and being able to create it with needles and thread and fabric.”
Her success inspired her to create even more of the show’s characters, since nearly all Muppet fans have a favorite.
Since then, she has only taken two breaks from Muppet-making. During the 2016 presidential election, Engel went viral for creating the “Lil’ Bernie” doll of Senator Bernie Sanders, a project that occupied her time for a few years (she ended up making around 2,000 dolls). And when the pandemic hit and she lost her job as a local tailor, Engel spent much of 2020 making thousands of custom masks that she sold on Etsy.
Eager to return to more creative pursuits, she started making and sharing pictures of her custom Muppet dolls again in the spring. In May, when she posted a picture of herself standing in front of nine of the 18-inch-tall plush dolls, people quickly started inquiring about how to get their hands on one.
“If I would like to offer you money in such an amount that Beaker could come and live with me, what is that amount? Because these are amazing,” one person wrote in response to her tweet.
“How have I only NOW just found you?” another asked.
Since then, she’s been in full gear.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” said Engel, who credits various websites dedicated to Muppet fandom for bringing attention to her work.
When it comes to deciding which Muppets to bring to life, Engel gravitates toward what she calls “the secondaries.” Due to her “very strict” policy, you won’t find Miss Piggy, Kermit, or Fozzie and Gonzo in her lineup.
“I’d rather focus on the ones that” you can’t find anywhere else, said Engel, who often customizes each project. “I think that’s what gets people so excited. They finally see these characters in plush form that they’ve loved forever and they just couldn’t find.”
One of her favorite pieces materialized in July, when someone commissioned her to make Sir Linit, a spray-can character featured in a fabric finisher commercial from the 1960s.
“I loved every second of it,” Engel said of making the doll. “I had a lot of fun with it.”
Engel’s not entirely surprised by the unique requests and reactions she receives, since everyone seems to have a Muppet story or adores a certain character for reasons all their own, she said.
“[Muppet fans] are just so in love with Jim Henson’s creations, and they’re so in love with his magic, and it’s something we all grew up on,” Engel said. “They all can connect to it in one way or another, and that’s why I do what I do.”
But there’s also something else behind her drive: carrying on and honoring the legacy of her idol, who created hundreds of Muppets in his storied career. When she sits down and begins stitching or starts to pack a doll with filling, Engel always asks herself one question: “Would Jim like this?”
“I like to think Jim would approve,” she said.