Questions like this are usually asked:
“We’ve got a spare room (or basement or garage) we don’t use. Can you tell me of any little businesses that my family could operate out of that space? We’re not really looking for a fortune. . . but we do need to pick up a few extra dollars every week to help us with today’s high cost of living.”
It sometimes seems that half the families in North America are looking for a way to wring some welcome bucks out of an otherwise unused back room.
Well, the very nature of that extra room usually rules out woodworking, welding, and dozens of other “dirty” but profitable moneymaking ventures. And such “artsy” crafts as ceramics and the manufacture of “gift” items— while clean enough to set up anywhere—are a glut on the market.
Michael M. Peterson, however, has come up with a very acceptable craft—the repair of tents, tarps, sleeping bags, and other sewed outdoor equipment—that is both neat and profitable and which makes an ideal “back room business”. And Mary Anne Underwood and Virginia Schmitz are anxiously waiting to give you a crash course in the establishment and operation of a home upholstery enterprise.
Either undertaking is easier to master than you probably think, can be satisfyingly profitable, and allows you to schedule your time as you see fit.
Michael M. Peterson Story:
In the cloudy May chill of the greenhouse shed, my neighbour Don Harris pushed a finger at the big rust blob on the frame of his cultivator—new last year—and aimed a kick at the corroded engine.
“One season,” the young gardener growled. “Just one season. And now. . . $600 shot.” He snatched up the cover— blown from the farm machine by winter gusts—and balled it in his fists. “If only I’d had some tiedown cords!”
As Don poured out this calamity to me over our property fence, I thought of the many damaged tarps and the bags and covers with torn straps or missing grommets I’d seen around farms and homes. Why, in my own attic I had a gashed brown leather satchel awaiting repairs. And then the idea came to me: Why not salvage some of these objects and make myself a dollar doing it?
Days later, I was in New York City selecting a rebuilt industrial-type sewing machine. . . a Singer, Model 31- with a new motor and work board and a price tag of $135 cash or $15.00 per month rental. (I ended up trying it a month, then paying off the balance.)
“This machine will take most any canvas and all the new fabrics,” the dealer boasted, “and you can use bulge- eye, diamond, or ball-point needles. We’ll teach you to run it in half an hour.” He beckoned a woman from the inner stacks. With her guidance, I pushed lightweight fabric under the presser foot and learned to change threads, stitch roll piping, and make curved seams. I practiced changing needles, too, because I broke two of them during the instruction.
After this lesson I bought a starting supply of findings.. small essentials such as threads, pipings, laces, and remnants. A collection of rayons, twills, leathers, and vinyls—plus canvas which I had to buy at a specialty store—finished my shopping, apart from some tools and fittings which I ordered later by mail. (See my note on “Supplies and Information”.)
Back home in our big old house, I started my mending business in a spare bedroom by setting up my Singer on a half sheet of plywood. The slab was supported by two carpenter’s horses that I built myself, and I solved the weight and vibration problems by anchoring the sewing machine right through the tabletop and into one of the sawhorses. After a couple of evening sessions and some direction from my wife, I was ready to take orders.
My first jobs came simply from talking with friends. Soon, however, I found more ways to make my services known: I took out a weekly one-inch display ad in the local paper and formed the habit of leaving two business cards wherever I stopped. Later—in the fall and again in spring—I had boys deliver and spread around bunches of big, splashy handbills that urged potential customers to bring in their work before the rush. And these days, now that I’ve got my hand in, I have several sets of before-and-after photos of difficult jobs I’ve done which I use to great advantage to prove the quality of my work.
Rack there at the start, of course, some of the orders that turned up in response to my advertising were trickier than I’d bargained for or called for supplies I hadn’t foreseen.
I was a bit alarmed, for instance, when—very early in my venture—a friend drove into the yard and unloaded armfuls of damaged and worn summer-camp equipment:  a torn green canvas partition about three feet wide in need of hanger hooks. . . which I didn’t have on hand,  a heat-up yellow boat cover fitted with No. 5 grommets. . . which I also didn’t have,  two tent flies, one too far gone for salvage, and  a ripped hammock that could be mended but not by a beginner. And—as if those repairs weren’t demanding enough—the camper then ordered a cover for a government-surplus telescope on a stand and two long, blue nylon duffels with zippers and hand straps.
When items like that hammock first came in I was glad that I had set up a “farm jobber”. . . an established firm that had agreed to do jobs for me on a 50% commission basis when the work was too big for my equipment or beyond my skill. If you want to go into the mending business yourself, I’d strongly recommend such an arrangement.
Even though some of the initial orders were too tall for me, I soon found that plenty of work came my way. . . mostly, I believe, because inflation and high prices have made people think “repair and save” instead of “discard and buy new”. The result is that many folks like my camper friend bring in damaged items which have long lain stashed away for want of grommets, straps, and repairs.
Organizations, too, are watching their budgets these days, and churches and clubs quickly became good customers. In fact, my first rug repair was done for the local Elks: I stitched a heavy maroon binding around a nine-foot circular piece from the club’s reception hall and finished two long runners with green trim. Then, later—when I pointed to rust in the oven of a range in the Baptist church and explained that a boot would stop most of it—the pastor’s wife was sold and ordered “a good big drape to keep out the wet”.
I’ve landed repair jobs with businesses, too, by showing the owners how I can help them do their work easier, faster, and cheaper. (Of course, I study the situation ahead of time, check the materials I’ll need, and think out what questions and excuses the proprietor may have so I’ll be ready with good answers.)
In my experience, people not only want to repair or prevent damage but are willing to pay well for work that increases their comfort and convenience. For instance, a lot of covers, straps, boots, bags, and holders are made so skimpily that they’re too tight or short. Many lack handholds and tie cords, also, or have too few grommets set too far apart. The owners are often pleased to have these faults corrected.
Along with normal repairs of this kind, I’ve had some pretty unlikely orders . – . like the time an official car pulled up in my driveway. “Got a monkey out here,” called a policeman friend. “The carnival people needed a special job, and I thought of you.” A showman climbed out of the car with a cinnamon animal on his shoulder and carried it into the basement, where—after some measuring and cutting— we soon had a harness basket made up for the little performer.
Another unusual request—and one I remember a little sadly—came from an elderly pastor who brought in an old white felt banner. “Here’s a gold and silver flag I used to carry in Sunday school parades,” he explained. “Can you repair it?” Unfortunately, I couldn’t. The long streamer, from a forgotten temperance society, was too fragile to hold even the softest threads of smooth yarn. The retired minister folded the banner under his arm and left.
Such “missions impossible” aren’t common, though, and most of the skills I needed to repair normal equipment came with practice. The dealer had already shown me all I needed to know about the sewing machine, and my other materials came with full directions. Also, the tools I ordered arrived with diagrams and explanations which I tore off the cartons and tacked up near my work table.
Even so, I made mistakes. For example, one of my early jobs was to punch grommets into the hems of a Boy Scout kitchen fly. That seemed easy enough, but the first wind tore down the cover.. . because, instead of punching directly into the edges, I should have stitched a 4” X 4” fabric reinforcement above and below each grommet piece. That’s the sort of thing one finds out only by experience, so—if you go into the repair business yourself—don’t let your early errors get you down.
What I learned from the Roy Scout incident was especially important because—apart from patching—most fabric repairs are concerned with eyelets and grommets. The former are those metal “holes” (as my grandson calls them) which are pr into cloth to take laces and cords. To install one, I simply pierce or punch the material in the right place. Then I fit an eyelet into the inexpensive tool that’s made for this purpose, shove the gadget into the hole, and press down.
Grommets—the heavier eyelets that protect perforations in tough materials—are set in rather the same way. First I puncture the cloth with a hammer and a little tool that comes with the metal parts.. or I sometimes use a leatherworker’s “wheel” punch. Then I place the toothed half of the grommet, teeth up, on the small anvil (also part of the kit) and press the fabric down on top. Finally I add the grommet’s smooth ring and give It a bang with the punch. . and there it Is, a finished-looking permanent job.
Grommets come in various sizes, and normally a separate punch is needed for each. Therefore, when I noticed that business was getting good, I invested $50.00-plus in a Barco Model 9307, which takes several sizes of grommets and snap fasteners. The tool rapidly paid for itself.
Where holes for lacing can’t be fitted in, gripper snaps are used to close fabric. I started out with a $2.00 Clinton Gripper set which has special seven-inch-long pliers, a supply of fifty No. 104 eyelets in several colors, six pairs of fasteners, and a small die that is placed in the pliers’ jaws for this work.
Other fastenings—like D’s and large hooks and eyes—are attached by turning over a corner of the material and cross-stitching it with sail cord. . . or, if the item isn’t to be placed near a corner or the edge, I use a strip of the fabric to hold the piece of hardware on.
As you can see from what I’ve told you, this sort of operation isn’t very difficult, and such work used to be a popular home business. As recently as 10 or 12 years ago several people in my community were handling leather, canvas, briefcase, porch cover, sling, and sail repair. Today, though, there’s not a single person besides me who’ll take that kind of mending.
“People are too fussy,” says my own shoe repairman. “And these new fabrics. – . well, I just can’t keep up with ‘em.” He’ll do an occasional job on his machines for me, but not for the public. Of course, this lack of competition is one reason why I find that the work comes in quite handily. In fact, business is so good these days that I’ve discontinued my newspaper ad!
As for the money, I avenge between $2.00 and S3.00 per hour and usually get in about two hours when I spend an evening on repair work. A neighbor boy helps me with grommeting and makes deliveries.
My spare bedroom enterprise has now spilled over into the basement, my customers seem to be satisfied (no complaints so far), and the future looks pretty good up our way. So, if you’re like me—hate waste and don’t mind a bit of extra money—why not give the fabric repair business a whirl?