While businesses and industries across the state have shuttered in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, for one repairman in Johnson, business is booming.
Steve Engel fixes sewing machines. And in the world of sewing machines, the past few weeks have been nothing short of a renaissance.
In the face of a global shortage of medical masks and increasing public health recommendations to wear cloth masks, thousands of Vermonters are digging out old sewing machines to make their own at home.
But, Engel said, when people retrieve their old machines from cabinets and closets and wipe off the cobwebs, they’re often finding the machines don’t work as well as they used to. Sometimes they don’t work at all.
“People are pulling them out of basements and attics and garages,” Engel said. “They haven’t been used for years, they’re stiff and need to be oiled and cleaned. Some of them were broken when they were put away, but people have forgotten all about it.”
That’s where Engel comes in.
Each morning, a small stream of customers arrives at his shop in Johnson, broken machines in hand.
When they arrive, Engel has the customers stay in their cars, and he comes out in gloves and a mask to retrieve each machine. Back in the shop, he carefully wipes down each machine with disinfectant wipes, discards his mask and gloves, and then gets to work.
Engel said he’s been charging for more complicated cases, but when people just need a quick fix or over-the-phone advice, he’s happy to do that pro bono.
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According to Engel, most Vermonters have what he calls “modern” machines — meaning they were made within the last 40 or 50 years. But even if they are older, Engel says he can find parts for just about any machine.
But Engel said no matter how many of the same machines he fixes, there’s always new facets of the work to discover.
Last week, he started fixing one machine that he suspected might have something stuck inside — maybe a few pins or needles. Instead, when he pulled the top off the machine, he found himself starting down at a diamond ring — a first in his world.
“I called up the owner of the machine and told her, and she started yelling and hollering: ‘‘That’s my engagement ring, it’s been missing 35 years,’” he said. “I’m just glad it’s going back to where it belongs.”
For Engel, sewing isn’t just his career — it’s his legacy. Both his brothers have spent much of their careers in the sewing machine industry, as did his father. His great-great grandfather, Engel said, sewed uniforms for the Union Army in the Civil War.
“That’s a proud heritage in our family,” he said.
For the past 41 years, Engel has worked as the repairman for the machines at the Johnson Woolen Mills. He also does freelance work on the side, both for individuals and for a number of different companies that work with textiles, including Vermont Teddy Bear, the Vermont Flannel Company, Commando and Vermont Glove.
Many of those manufacturers have also shifted their operations toward masks and medical gowns, so Engel’s commercial work hasn’t dried up. But he said the slew of new customers has made business as busy as it’s been in a while.
In the entire state of Vermont, Engel said he’s the only sewing machine repairman with a master certificate, meaning he’s done 5,000 hours of training in a factory setting. He said if anyone else wanted the certificate in Vermont, they’d have to learn the trade from him.
“I’d like to pass along some of my knowledge, I’m not getting any younger,” Engel said. “Right now, there’s nobody.”
Engel said he’s glad to see people getting back to their old machines, especially if it means that more people are staying safe and wearing masks.
“In Vermont, we’re very, very fortunate to have people cooperating and keeping the numbers low,” he said, noting that he thought Gov. Scott’s handling of the crisis has been “fantastic.”
“If his wife had a sewing machine,” he said, “I’d fix it for her just for being the governor’s wife.”
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