Written by S. SarahLee, CNN
This story originally appeared on CNN.com
Fifteen years ago, Siwetha Chan bought a Sanyo sewing machine. Now she runs a home-based sewing shop in London selling cheap garments and uniforms.
“I would not know where to look if I didn’t own one of these machines,” says Chan. “My mechanic would not be able to tell the difference, and neither would my cleaners.”
Chan is part of a growing cohort of home-based sewing exporters making clothes with ancient sewing machines.
Scam of the century
But automated sewing machines, often bought at low prices, have wiped out home-made garments in recent years, particularly for a range of ethnic and heritage clothing brands.
Mahesh Srinivasan, owner of Y-Sew , a small, scrappy and privately funded sewing company based in Chennai, India, is one of the few surviving home-based manufacturers with an original, environmentally friendly sewing machine.
Mahesh Srinivasan’s sewing machine. Credit: Irina Donskikh
One of Srinivasan’s machines was the subject of a recent chapter in a book on the evolution of the contemporary home-based clothing industry. The book describes how Srinivasan discovered an inexpensive sewing machine online and was forced to abandon it, after he was warned it may be a scam.
“Fortunately, I found a very simple and cheap machine, a Sewrite, at my friend’s place,” says Srinivasan. “It was a train wreck, as it was probably the worst machine ever designed.”
Srinivasan made his own machine, and not only did it work, but he learned how to repair it, a skill that still aids his business today.
Srinivasan runs his company online and takes orders around the clock. The machines can be used in about as many as seven colors at a time.
Mahesh Srinivasan works from home. Credit: Irina Donskikh
Customers can pick their own fabric (often colored with recycled material such as watermelons), or choose from a list of pre-cut patterns. The resulting garment, often in monochrome or neutral shades, is often compared to a cheap piece of the low-cost outerwear that is always too small for its wearer.
“It’s cheaper to make the clothes because you can cut and shape the fabric, but I have to cut everything for the finished product myself,” says Srinivasan.
Use it or lose it
Both Srinivasan and Chan recommend that consumers take a second look at sewing machines before buying.
Even when purchased online, they recommend looking at the sewing machine’s history and taking one apart for a closer look, so you can see if it even works.
Siwetha Chan of Home Sew. Credit: Sujata Vivas/ Cácuta
“I feel that people should try them first,” says Chan. “They don’t feel sentimental about the machine. They feel that they don’t want to waste it, or they don’t want to spend a lot of money on a machine that they will never be able to use.”
Both Chan and Srinivasan think demand for small, single-purpose sewing machines is on the rise, and their machines were a necessity in the past.
“It’s not only just about cost any more,” says Srinivasan. “There is no cost ceiling, it depends on the need.”
For Chan, making a profit is a secondary concern.
“Selling a dress isn’t important, just selling it means we’ve sold one,” she says. “The main reason to have a sewing machine is to make something unique and beautiful for yourself.”