Bringing sewing machines back to life

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By Meaghan Downs

The Mad Hermit of the Hill brings sewing machines back to life in the basement of a spacious, two-story Lawrenceburg log cabin.
His patients — the black swans of antique Singers and their white and squat modern offspring — wait in queue for Nelson Maynard, the one-stop repair shop at Nelson Maynard Sewing Machine Service and Repair.
Maynard himself sits perched on a stool in front of a modern Singer 5825 C model, pausing a moment to snap a photo of a common sewing machine problem for his Facebook page.
He’ll later post this cautionary tale for the online community of sewers and sewing machine enthusiasts: check for lint or thread caught in the tension spring of the bobbin case, a common thread tension problem for sewers that cause machine malfunctions.
“Tensions are very mysterious to people,” Maynard said, explaining how the sewing machine pulls thread at the same rates of tension to produce clean, smooth stitches. “It’s all about balancing forces in opposition.”
Nelson Maynard is not really a mad hermit, though he said he sometimes feels that way.
He’s an Eastern Kentucky native who goes to work every day wearing jean overalls, an affirmed symbol of a worker’s capability engrained in him from childhood.
“A guy who’s wearing bibs looks like he knows how to fix things,” he said.
He’s a walking sewing machine library who quotes Latin and occasionally likes to snack on marshmallow Peeps.
To me, everything about sewing machines — the machinery, the history, especially the sewing — is in Latin.
Maynard frequently apologizes for diving into technical topics of mechanics.  
He could write a long, tedious book on sewing machines, he said.
After all, he’s a former Baer’s Fabrics sewing machine technician with more than a decade of experience in a niche market that’s still in demand.  
Maynard said he fixes and restores about 200-300 sewing machines a year, and if you include his semi-weekly contract work with Austin’s Sewing Center in Louisville, the total has climbed close to 500.  
His favorite machines are antiques, built in the days when beauty and utilitarian function were not necessarily exclusive, he said.  
Not all antique sewing machines come along prettily to Maynard’s shop.
Maynard said he’s particularly proud of his work on an 18th century antique Singer sewing machine rescued after almost rusting to nothing in a chicken coop.
Or the time he reclaimed an antique sewing machine from the same era that burned in the heart of a house fire.
He couldn’t erase all the effects of the fire, but Maynard said he restores these kinds of sewing machines as closely to what they looked like when they roll out the factory as they do now, “with the acknowledgment that they’ve seen some tough times.”
 “Very rarely is there anything as a hopeless case,” he said of the chicken coop case. “I knew if I could get one thing to move on this machine, I could make it sew.”
But some sewing machines don’t make it off Maynard’s operating table.
“There is one poor thing sitting on my shelf that has been my white whale for several years,” Maynard points to a curvy white sewing machine tucked away on a high shelf. The replacement part for this broken machine can longer be found, he said.
“It’s like a little memento mori — it reminds me that I’m human,” he said.
Maynard’s most important tool for his repair business (formed about five years ago) can’t be bought.
“Patience,” Maynard said, “because [sewing machines] can be very fussy sometimes. Mechanically, they’re very straightforward but some of the adjustments can be very fiddly.”
Never showing any mechanical affinity as a child, Maynard said he started the life of a sewing machine technician by accident.
Most of the sewing machine technicians he knows are men, he said. Men related to women who owned sewing centers and required someone, anyone to fill the role of sewing machine technician on staff.
But Maynard had gotten a job at Baer’s Fabrics in Louisville in the early 2000s, after several odd jobs including a gig as a manager of a mall chain bookstore and a security guard.
The odd jobs gave him an appreciation for those who do grunt work in society, he said.
When Baer’s suddenly closed in 2008, Maynard found himself having to “shift for myself,” and worked toward making sewing machine repair a full-time job.
By January 2010, Maynard was able to support himself full-time with sewing machine repair orders.
Positive referrals and repeat customers are the lifeblood of his mobile business, so his job is most rewarding, Maynard said, when his customers tell Maynard that the machine works better than it did before they left it in his hands.
“There’s no drudgery involved in it at all,” Maynard said of his work. “There’s always problems to solve.”
After every issue is addressed and every cranny cleaned, Maynard prints out the customer receipt: a piece of muslin he sewed himself with contrasting thread to show that each stitch is in working order.
His calling card, however, is a shiny gold sticker with his name and business information, pasted on a discreet section of sewing machine.  
“It’s like an artist signing their finished work,” Maynard said. “I’ve put my name on this machine, I stand behind it, vouch for it. It means something to me. It does.”
The occasional column series “Downs on the Job” will feature the minutiae, rewards and frustrations of working in Anderson County. Have suggestions for the next column? E-mail News Editor Meaghan Downs at mdowns@theandersonnews.com.