Among the collage of faces on Bernie Sanders’s website is Emily Engel of Ludlow. On her shoulder is a little old man doll named Lil’ Bernie. Someone brought this to her attention just prior to the New Hampshire primary Tuesday.
Lil’ Bernie’s button eyes, disheveled white hair, and dark-blue tie have seemingly become a symbol of the Democratic president candidate’s devoted fanbase.
“I could not have predicted the last five months of my life,” Engel said. “[The doll] is a connection piece between people who support Sanders.”
Engel created the stuffed democratic socialist politician by hand. As soon as she put the doll up on her Facebook and Instagram accounts, the images went viral and people began clamoring for them. The self-taught seamstress sold 108 dolls in eight days for a total of about $2,700, the cap for an individual contribution to a presidential candidate during the primaries. She’s also donated work, creating for auction a Lil’ Bernie riding a purple unicorn based on a T-shirt that read, “Bernie Sanders is Magical.”
After shutting down her Etsy account because she couldn’t keep up with the orders, Engel sent out an online S.O.S. for someone to help her meet the demand. She eventually gave up on her idea to mass produce the doll. People told her she’d never get anywhere unless she broke with her ideals and agreed to outsource the job.
“I had terrible luck finding a US-based unionized manufacturer,” Engel said. “It was like a needle in a haystack . . . to stay in line with Sanders’s campaign, philosophies, and ideals. People asked, ‘Do you know how much money you could make?’ But that’s not the point of this.”
Meanwhile, “I’ve been banging them out by hand.”
The Lil’ Bernie dolls represent what grassroots activism means to Engel: one idea by one person shown to a few people and passed on to a few more people until it snowballs. It has also turned Lil’ Bernie into a commodity. It took Engel from September to December to get the first batch of dolls out the door. The day after Christmas, she opened up sales again, selling 25 dolls within one minute and 200 in 11 hours. The dolls sell for $50 each, plus $7 for shipping. They’ll soon be on sale again at Lilbernie.com.
Katie Levesque, 34, of Chicopee, was the very first person to order a doll.
“I keep Lil’ Bernie near my [car’s] rearview window,” Levesque said. “I went into a Subway and when I came out someone had left a Bernie 2016 sticker on my windshield.”
Engel tries to make between 10 and 15 dolls a week. She’d like to increase that number to 20 per week, while making time to eat, sleep, and run her tailoring and alterations shop, Bx Custom Sewn. She gave the real Bernie Sanders a Lil’ Bernie at his rally in Springfield last year.
“I’m working through the rest [of the Lil’ Bernies] as fast as I can,” Engel said. “I’m trying to get to the people in the primary states for their Super Tuesdays.”