Pandemic Highlights Shortage of Sewing Machine Repair Professionals | Business | Seven days
In the spring of 2020, it seemed like anyone with a bit of sewing talent wanted to make cloth face masks. People were sending masks to family members, donating them to hospitals and nursing homes, and buying every piece of elastic at Joann’s fabric and craft store in South Burlington. Demand for new sewing machines skyrocketed and made them scarce, so many Vermonters turned to older machines.
“People would pull out of the closet their old high school graduation gift sewing machine they got in 1980 — and, surprise, it didn’t work so well,” said Dave Atkinson, a self-employed sewing machine repairer. sew based in Jericho. “So there were a lot of panicked calls.”
Atkinson, 66, has been repairing sewing machines since 2014 under the name Dr. Dave’s Sewing Machine Hospital. The pandemic caused a boom in his business. Each time he finished repairing a machine, a new one – or three – appeared on his waiting list. Atkinson stopped answering his phone and used his voicemail greeting to let customers know that wait times were long. At one point, more than 80 people were waiting for repairs. Wait times stretched for months.
These days, the list is down to about 20, but Atkinson doesn’t want to take on any new clients. He works part-time, intends to reduce his activity and could simply leave the company.
Therein lies a problem: Atkinson is one of the few people in Vermont who repairs sewing machines. No one seems to be waiting in the wings to take on their share of the work, he said, so Vermonters may soon have even fewer options.
“I don’t really know what the fate of [the repair business] going to be,” said Lisa Torres, the owner of Sewing machines and more in Berlin. “It’s a big concern for me, because I don’t see any point in [repairs] more.”
Torres has been in the sewing machine business for 20 years and since 2013 has been offering sales, service and training. Increased demand for repairs and supply chain issues that caused a shortage of new machinery made the pandemic boom “crushing”, she said.
At the start of the pandemic, she received 10 to 15 calls a day from people who wanted to make masks. Torres estimates that she made at least 5,000 masks herself.
Torres couldn’t find an in-house technician to fix her customers’ machines, so she contracted with Atkinson.
Atkinson got into sewing machine repair after retiring from a career as a software engineer for IBM. When his wife took up quilting, he began to learn about the machines.
“We started acquiring machinery, and I was the designated handyman,” he said. “I found myself strangely fascinated by them.” There’s a lot of mechanical ingenuity in sewing machines, Atkinson said, and figuring out which little detail went wrong reminded him of debugging software.
He traveled to Missouri to receive training at the White Sewing Center, and Torres sponsored his trip to Tennessee to become a licensed Viking brand machine repairer. He regularly posts puzzling sewing machine problems, tips and tricks on his Facebook page. A vintage machine repair might be as simple — albeit unpleasant — as cleaning up lint or rodent droppings, or it might need rewiring a decades-old light bulb.
Many modern sewing machines are computerized, which makes Atkinson’s technical experience invaluable. On a basic computerized sewing machine, he said, the software actually simplifies the operation of the machine. But many machines are not simple. Manufacturers tend to add more and more features, such as automatic threading, tension adjustment, thread trimming and buttonhole sewing.
“You can end up with a high-end machine with eight or nine motors,” Atkinson said. Typically, repairs on a computerized machine require the replacement of entire circuit boards. Computer parts are harder to find than analog parts, and the lifespan of computerized machines is not as long.
A standard tune-up doesn’t take long, but a recent repair took him six to eight hours over three weeks, as he emailed the manufacturer’s customer service department. Eventually, he diagnosed the problem: a faulty sensor that located the machine’s mechanical parts was sending the wrong information to the machine’s computer.
Johnson’s Steve Engel, who has been repairing sewing machines for 40 years, is also feeling the strain of the pandemic and changing sewing machine technology.
“I haven’t been this busy in all these years,” he said. “I stopped, for the moment, making computerized machines, because they take more time.”
Engel, 70, carries on the family sewing machine legacy. His great-grandfather was a tailor who made Civil War uniforms, and his father was a salesman for Singer. Steve Engel worked as a quality control auditor at a Singer factory in New Jersey. “Working in the factories taught me more than I could ever learn anywhere,” he said.
At Singer, he did repairs next door in New York’s garment district, and he still specializes in commercial-scale machines. He oversaw the production of Johnson Woolen Mills for several years and is now carrying out repairs there, Vermont Teddy Bear and in small clothing companies.
Engel thought about offering sewing machine repair classes, but says he’s just too busy. He tried to train individuals, but he couldn’t find anyone with a particular talent for the business. Engel credits his repair acumen to his childhood time tinkering with old junk, dismantling machines, and learning how they worked.
Luckily for the companies that rely on him, he doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon.
“I got stuck here, but that’s okay,” Engel said. “I will until the sky falls.”
Atkinson and Engel charge the same amount for a standard sewing machine tune-up: $89. But basic sewing machines can cost less than $150, so some people will buy a new one rather than fix the old one, possibly signaling a new direction for the industry.
“I never thought I would see the day when sewing machines were so disposable,” Engel said.