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February 21, 2010

Michael Swaine: He sews real good for free


It's amazing what putting a sewing machine in a public place can do.

Here's Serge Debrebant's wonderful "First Person: Michael Swaine" feature from the January 30, 2010 Financial Times.

Above, Swaine and his machine.


First Person: Michael Swaine

I’ve always liked clothes that had a life before me. Most kids hate having to wear hand-me-downs, but I was different. I thought my brothers’ trousers were cool. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I’ve been mending people’s clothes for free for nine years now. Every 15th of the month, I set up my self-made sewing cart at a corner in San Francisco and hem trousers, patch jackets and sew on buttons.

It all started when I found an old treadle sewing machine lying on the sidewalk in a well-to-do neighbourhood. I’m a ceramics artist, but I was also into sewing. I got excited immediately, put the machine in my truck and took it to my studio – as it turned out, all it needed to work was a new belt.

In 2001, a San Francisco art college invited me to take part in an exhibition about generosity. I bought some wheels, metal frames and fabric and built a sort of ice-cream cart, except that it had the old sewing machine on it. I also added an umbrella and a neon sign with the blinking word “sew”. 

For a week, I pushed the cart through the city. In addition to normal clothes that people asked me to mend, I fixed a kneepad for a dancer and a sleeping bag for a homeless man. And I talked to them. Sewing, it turned out, was the perfect entry point for conversations.

Then the Luggage Store, a non-profit arts organisation, asked me to set up my sewing cart in the Tenderloin, a rough area with drugs, street crime and prostitution. Occasionally, I would watch drug deals go down. Once, a guy ran by, put something under a van in front of me and ran away. When the police came and reached under the car, they found a gun. It was a scary moment. But apart from that, I like the Tenderloin and feel safe. It’s one of the liveliest areas in the city and certainly the one with the best food.

But it wasn’t easy at first. People were suspicious of me – until some of those same people remembered that they had some trousers that needed fixing and ran off to get them. And Tony, a big, friendly guy who is a sort of unofficial mayor of the block, was so happy with my work that he started telling people about me. Slowly, I built trust.

I wouldn’t have kept up with this project for so many years if it wasn’t for the people. Mending time is story time. It’s amazing how many honest conversations I have had with strangers who would normally just walk on by: a street kid with a broken backpack, a man with the jacket of his best friend who had passed away, a woman whose daughter was pregnant and who wanted a sweater altered to fit a big belly.

I started my mending as an art project, but today it’s something different. My cart has created a little community. For a while, I gave sewing lessons to Antoine, a neighbourhood kid. Merlin, a musician, joined us and played the violin, and Eric made coffee. One day, a businessman, a homeless man and a minister stood in front of my cart and discussed their memories of sewing machines. It was one of these beautiful little moments that reminded me that we are all from the same thread.

My most loyal client is Veronica, a woman in her thirties. She comes every month with a big bag of clothes. Once she brought along a newspaper photo of Jackie Onassis, her fashion favourite, wearing a fur-trimmed jacket. Veronica wanted to imitate her outfit and asked me to sew fake fur on to the hood of her pink velour jacket. I did my best.

One day she said, “I really like coming here because you listen to me.” I looked at her pile of clothes, and it hit me. Sure, she needed clothes mended, but more, she needed someone to talk to. 

February 21, 2010 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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And I thank you too Joe, You have some of the greatest little stories on the web.

Posted by: JY | Feb 22, 2010 10:23:19 PM

It is nice to see something now and then that makes sense in this insane World we live in...

Posted by: Fritz | Feb 21, 2010 9:01:34 PM

good one, Joe, tx for posting this

Posted by: rob | Feb 21, 2010 8:33:33 PM

This, is living life so much more than a lot of us!

What a great reading book this could become only if some idiot co-writer would not embellish it!

Can you imagine the signing (in an elite area), man with sewing machine, static electric hair, flannel on whatever...Zen!

Posted by: Joe Peach | Feb 21, 2010 6:16:07 PM

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