A Sewing Machine Repairer in High Demand During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Stephen Potts knows a thing or two about repairing sewing machines.

From much-loved vintage varieties to the latest makes and models, his Sunshine Coast workshop is an Aladdin’s cave of sewing machines, sergers, and the parts needed to repair them.

And during the COVID-19 pandemic, he has seen a substantial increase in demand for their repair.

Mr Potts says that “three quarters of the time” a machine can be repaired.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Annie Gaffney)

When Mr. Potts left school and started working, training as a sewing machine technician took place on the job.

“Today it’s a bit more formalized but very, very difficult to get into,” he says.

Early in his career, Mr. Potts worked on vintage machinery from the 1870s and 1880s.

“They had what we called the bullet reel, which is a really long coil and looks like a bullet, nice and sharp if you can get one through your fingers,” he says.

“Probably the oldest I see now are machines that were made in the 1920s and they’re not uncommon, there are still quite a few.”

Although he repairs the most well-known treadle machine that people may remember their grandmother using, Mr Potts says they are still made today.

“There are a lot of countries in the world where electricity is an issue, so if you walk around villages in Africa, for example, or India, you’ll see a lot of pedals still in use,” he says.

Not All Machines Are Created Equal

After more than 40 years in the industry, Mr. Potts takes on the challenge of repairing old machinery.

Old black sewing machine with PFAFF 230 marking
Mr. Potts has been repairing machines like this one from the 1950s for over 40 years.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Annie Gaffney)

“The ones coming in today mostly work in electronics, they don’t care so much about mechanical machines which I tend to specialize in a bit more.”

He finds the machines made in Germany the most difficult to repair.

“The German manufacturing process seems to find a way to put 60 parts in an area where the Japanese process will put 20,” he says.

“It makes them very complex – it makes them reliable, but also when something goes wrong it’s a lot harder to fix it.”

The passion for sewing takes hold during the pandemic

Mr Potts says there are up to five sewing machine repairers working on older machines on the Sunshine Coast and possibly up to 200 across Australia.

Man standing in a room of broken sewing machines
Mr. Potts says most of his customers are women, but 5-10% of men also sew.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Annie Gaffney)

He is delighted to see a whole new generation embark on sewing.

“There are a lot of young people getting into it now and so we have sewing for the practicality, the making of clothes, the creativity, a lot of embroidery, a lot of quilting,” he says.

“It’s really nice to see because that’s how they’re designed to be used rather than having them sit in the closet for years at a time.”

Most of his clientele are women, but he estimates that about 5-10% of men sew.

“These are the men I don’t like dealing with because I’m often told how to fix it.

“I guess there’s a reason they brought the machine to me.”

Man in front of an old sewing machine trying to fix it
Mr Potts says parts are still available for sewing machines that are up to 50 years old.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Annie Gaffney)

Like many other trades and industries during the pandemic, Mr. Potts has been hit by a global spare parts shortage.

It’s a problem he was able to alleviate by using parts from the machines destroyed in his Sunshine Coast workshop.

“I have a lot of wreckage,” he says.

“Because I’m a specialist technician, my interest is in fixing the machine, whereas a retailer who maybe sells machines and repairs them is often more interested in trying to sell you a machine.”

Maintenance of your machine

Mr. Potts says the best way to keep your sewing machine from ending up in a workshop is to use it.

“Every month or so take it out and run it for a minute – you have nothing to do with it,” he says.

Close-up of hands fixing an old sewing machine
Mr Potts says the craft – with aspects of electricity, editing and filming and engineering – is “very difficult” to get into.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Annie Gaffney)

This is advice that Mr. Potts has yet to adopt.

“I have a serger at home, which I looked at the other day, and realized it had seized up because I hadn’t used it for so long,” he says.

“The last thing I want to see when I get home is a sewing machine.”

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