STATEMENTS: Medialia Gallery & The Ethyr Presents: Aim, Destroy, Transform: Play for Change Toy Show :: November 2017 :: NYC :: Lil' Bernie by Emily Engel

“Demand for Bernie – the doll and the real guy – may be high for some time to come.”
– TIME Magazine

“The Lil’ Bernie doll represents 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.”
– The Boston Globe

“The stuffed doll that charmed a nation.”
– The Guardian

My name is Emily Engel and I am the creator and sole producer of Lil’ Bernie. I am a self-taught professional seamstress and own/operate a tailoring and alterations shop in Ludlow, MA which opened in 2013. Along with mending clothes, I’ve been making dolls for six years and also cross-stitch.

Lil’ Bernie is not just a handmade doll created in the image of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, it is a symbol of the revolution we’ve all been fighting for. Close to a thousand dolls have been made and shipped across the country and Canada, all slightly unique, and all a representation of our movement.

When the Sanders campaign first came to light, I knew I wanted to support it any way I could, and what better way than with a needle and thread?

Lil’ Bernie was born on September 15, 2015 and presented to the public via social media during the very first GOP debate.

The doll stands at 1-ft tall and 6-inches wide. His eyes are made of black hook buttons and the clothing and glasses are handmade.

In late summer of 2015, I created a line of custom dolls made in the image of the tattoo artists at Nite Owl Tattoo in Northampton, MA and dubbed them “Lil’ Inkers.” The feedback was fantastic. On September 15th, I received an e-mail from my father in regard to my aunt and uncle commending my work. Specifically, they had written “LOVE Emily’s dolls, cannot imagine where this will all lead her at some point.” I had already toyed with the idea of making more dolls, and very suddenly, the idea of making a Bernie Sanders doll just sort of happened. Mind you, I read this e-mail quite early in the morning while I was still in bed, so I sleepily responded to my father with “Maybe I should make a Bernie doll.” He wrote back shortly thereafter with “That’s an excellent idea!” That night, Lil’ Bernie was born.

My father, Michael Engel, is a political science professor emeritus, self-proclaimed socialist, author, politician, and former Congressional candidate. He has been a Sanders supporter for as long as I can remember. Very rarely did I see him excited about a candidate and actively involved in a campaign, so his enthusiasm was contagious. I tend to go very much against the grain when it comes to how I live my life; I am the epitome of grassroots, which was the essence of Sanders campaign. My entire life revolves around the motto “Make do and mend.” I fix the old and make it new again. I create from nothing, using my own hands. I believed that Sanders could do the same for this country.

In the first eight days of Lil’ Bernie being available to the public, 150 dolls were sold and the maximum of $2,700 was donated to the campaign. The second round of orders opened up the day after Christmas 2015 with 25 dolls IN ONE MINUTE and an additional 175 in eleven hours. On April 1, 2016, the third round, 250 dolls were sold in 17 minutes. Two years later, I still receive the occasional e-mail asking if I’m still making them!

All told, over one thousand dolls were made, one by one, by me and only me.

Never in my wildest of dreams did I anticipate the success and magnitude of Lil’ Bernie. The hundreds of e-mails, letters, photos and personal stories I received are priceless and has culminated in an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life.

Lil’ Bernie has been featured in TIME Magazine, The Boston Globe, The UK Telegraph, The Huffington Post and The Guardian, among countless local media outlets in Massachusetts. He has been photographed with Nina Turner, Simone Sanders, Cornel West and of course, Bernie Sanders himself.

~ Emily Engel 

AIM, DESTROY, TRANSFORM: Play For Change: A group show of toys, games and figures at Medialia Gallery