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- Dave Atkinson
In the spring of 2020, it seemed like anyone with a shred 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 scrap of elastic at South Burlington’s Joann fabric and crafts store. Demand for new sewing machines skyrocketed and made them scarce, so many Vermonters were turning to older machines.
“People were dragging their old high school graduation gift sewing machine out of the closet that they got in 1980 — and, lo and behold, it didn’t work so well,” said Dave Atkinson, a Jericho-based independent sewing machine repairman. “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. Every time he finished repairing a machine, a new one — or three — popped up on his waiting list. Atkinson stopped answering his phone and used his voicemail greeting to advise customers that wait times were long. At one point, more than 80 people were waiting for repairs. Wait times stretched to months.
These days, the list is down to about 20, but Atkinson doesn’t want to take on new customers. He works part time, has plans to scale down and might quit the business altogether.
Therein lies a problem: Atkinson is one of just a handful of people in Vermont who repair sewing machines. Nobody appears to be waiting in the wings to take over his 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] is 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 focus on [repairs] anymore.”
Torres has been in the sewing machine business for 20 years and, since 2013, has offered sales, service and education. Both the increased demand for repairs and the supply chain issues that have caused a shortage of new machines have made the pandemic boom “overwhelming,” she said.
Early in the pandemic, she was getting 10 to 15 calls per 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 repair machines for her customers, so she’s been contracting with Atkinson.
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- Dave 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 learning about the machines.
“We started acquiring machines, and I was the designated tinkerer,” he said. “I found myself oddly fascinated by them.” There’s a lot of mechanical ingenuity to 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 an authorized repairman of Viking brand machines. He regularly posts puzzling sewing machine problems, tips and tricks on his Facebook page. A vintage machine repair might be as simple — though unpleasant — as cleaning out wads of lint or rodent droppings, or he might need to rewire a decades-old light bulb.
Many modern sewing machines are computerized, making Atkinson’s tech experience valuable. On a basic computerized sewing machine, he said, the software actually makes the machine’s operation simpler. But many machines aren’t simple. Manufacturers tend to add more and more features, such as automatic threading, tension adjustment, thread cutting and buttonhole sewing.
“You can end up with a high-end machine with eight or nine motors,” Atkinson said. Generally, repairs on a computerized machine require replacing whole circuit boards. Computer parts are more difficult to find than analog parts, and the life expectancy on computerized machines isn’t as long.
A standard tune-up doesn’t take long, but a recent repair took him six to eight hours over the course of three weeks as he emailed back and forth with the manufacturer’s customer service department. Eventually, he diagnosed the issue: A broken sensor that locates the machine’s mechanical pieces was sending the wrong information to the machine’s computer.
Johnson’s Steve Engel, who has repaired sewing machines for 40 years, has also been feeling the pressure of both the pandemic and the technological evolution of sewing machines.
“I haven’t been this busy in all the years,” he said. “I’ve stopped, for the time being, doing computerized machines, because they take up more time.”
Engel, 70, is continuing his family’s 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 in a Singer factory in New Jersey. “Working in the factories taught me more than I could ever learn anywhere,” he said.
While at Singer, he did repairs on the side in New York City’s garment district, and he still specializes in commercial-scale machines. He supervised production at Johnson Woolen Mills for several years and now does repairs there, at Vermont Teddy Bear and at smaller clothing companies.
Engel has thought about offering classes in sewing machine repair but says he’s simply too busy. He has tried to train individuals, but he didn’t find anyone who had a particular knack for the business. Engel credits his repair acuity to his time as a child tinkering with old junk, taking apart machines and learning how they worked.
Luckily for the businesses that rely on him, he doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon.
“I’ve got myself into a corner here, but that’s OK,” Engel said. “I’ll do it 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 repair the old, perhaps signaling a new direction for the industry.
“I never thought I’d see the day where sewing machines are so disposable,” Engel said.