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The story behind that much-liked photo of a child-size vehicle covered in handmade Bernie Sanders dolls

On Monday, Shelly Haynes shipped the last of the 42 Bernie Sanders dolls she spent six weeks crocheting. (Shelly Haynes)
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Forty-two heads, torsos and jackets.

Eighty-four feet, arms and mittens.

More than 1,980 stitches.

Those are the numbers that have filled Shelly Haynes’s days and nights for the past six weeks, ever since she was tagged on a Facebook page for Northern Virginia parents next to a crochet pattern of a Bernie Sanders doll.

Her phone, she recalls, pinged sometime after 9 p.m.

“Then I got tagged again, and again, and again,” she tells me when we talk on a recent afternoon. “I had my phone blowing up until 3 in the morning.”

One request for her to make a Sanders doll turned into two and, within hours, two turned into 42.

She finally stopped taking orders at that point because of another set of numbers: There is only one of her, and she has two young children, ages 2 and 5, at home. (She also had a limited supply of a plastic piece that’s needed to make the senator from Vermont sit properly.)

In the past several days, you might have seen a photo of a child-size vehicle covered in handmade Sanders dolls. The image appeared on Facebook and landed on the coveted front page of Imgur, where it drew more than 83,000 likes.

Haynes took that photo and her friend shared it. But you wouldn’t know that by looking at it. It doesn’t identify Haynes as the maker of those dolls or explain the significance of that child-size vehicle to her family.

Haynes says she asked her friend to keep her identity private because she knew what would happen once that photo went public: People were going to want more Sanders dolls.

“I did not expect Bernie to take off like that, and to still be taking off like that,” she says. “I could easily make another 40 and they’d be gone in minutes.”

There are some iconic images that leave little doubt they will long linger near the front of our communal photo album. And then there is mitten-wearing Sanders at the presidential inauguration. The image, captured by Brendan Smialowski, has made its way onto masks, mugs and even prayer candles.

How the senator came to occupy Haynes’s life for the last month and a half is just one of the many stories that have grown from that inauguration image. It is also a poignant one. The 39-year-old’s family was hit hard by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, and that little vehicle represents one of the first times in the past year that she has been able to splurge on her children.

Haynes doesn’t have an Etsy shop. She crochets because it helps relieve her stress and anxiety and because she enjoys seeing people’s reactions when they receive handmade gifts, she says. People have told her that she doesn’t charge enough for commissioned items, she says, but she purposely keeps her prices low because, “I know I wouldn’t be able to buy something like that if it was $60.”

Haynes learned how to crochet when she was 7 but didn’t really pursue it until she was in her late 20s. Now, she can look at a photo and replicate it in the form of stitches.

That skill led to her developing connections with other parents in Northern Virginia long before the inauguration, or even the pandemic.

She has crocheted clothes for their children and she has crocheted animals in the likeness of their pets.

When a family in the community lost an 11-month-old baby — a girl named Claire whom I told you about in a previous column — Haynes crocheted two dolls. One was made to resemble Claire and the other, her big brother. The dolls, which are pictured on Haynes’s Facebook page, wear matching green and white pajamas, just as the siblings did on their first and last Christmas together.

Claire’s Journey: Their 8-month-old daughter was admitted to the hospital for a common virus. Then they discovered her brain was ‘shrinking.’

Haynes used to live in Northern Virginia but no longer does. The year before the election, she says, was one of the most challenging for her family. Her husband lost his job, the family lost its home, prompting them to move to West Virginia, and then the pandemic made everything harder. In November, her husband started a full-time engineering job with Procter & Gamble but before that, she says, the family went about 11 months without steady income.

All of that was going on in Haynes’s life when she received those 42 requests to make the Sanders doll.

She bought the pattern from TobeyTimeCrochet and estimates that she spent about six to eight hours on each doll — not that she ever had the chance to work on any of them for hours straight. Sometimes she worked with a child sitting in her lap. Other times she got up at 5 a.m. to work before anyone else woke.

She recalls days when she’d be counting stitches — 136, 137, 138 — and hear “Mom!” She would then have to start counting again.

“I just started counting louder and louder,” she says.

When she crochets too much, her wrists tend to swell and her hands cramp, and she says she ended many nights feeling that way. But then she would get up early the next day and start working again.

Her process involved making the same body part for all of the dolls at once before moving on to another part. At one point that meant making 84 arms attached to 84 mittens. She also made 42 coats and 42 patches of hair, which her 15-year-old daughter helped comb out using a dog brush.

Haynes charged $30 per doll and says that covered the material and left her with enough money to buy the mini-vehicle when she saw it on clearance at Walmart.

Her children ride around their neighborhood in it, and it has appropriately been dubbed “the Bernie Mobile.”

On March 3, Haynes finished the final stitch of the final doll. And on Monday, she mailed the last batch to people who had placed orders. Her dolls now sit, or soon will, in homes in Northern Virginia, Maryland, Texas, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

“With that last one, I was in tears,” Haynes says. “The emotions just flowed.”

After the photo of the Bernie Mobile appeared on Imgur, Haynes decided to share it on that parenting Facebook page that started the entire experience for her. This time, she included her name.

She also began and ended the post with a disclaimer: She was not making any more Sanders dolls, at least not for a while.

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

Some objects will remind us of the pandemic long after it’s over

If we had a communal pandemic time capsule, these items would go in it

A dying fish, a beloved dog and a parenting lesson, of sorts