Meet your merchant: If Deby Hendrickson can’t fix your sewing machine, chances are it isn’t broken
Deby’s Sewing Machine Repair
245 E. Main St., Grass Valley
Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Thursday
9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Fridays
Deby Hendrickson was just 12 years old when the family car broke down.
“We were raised by a single mom in Turlock and there was no money for a mechanic,” she said. “My mom said, ‘See if Deby can fix it.’ So I did. It had to get fixed, so I fixed it.”
As a young child, while other girls were learning to sew, so was Deby. But she was also taking apart the sewing machine to see how it worked. By high school, she was repairing and maintaining the sewing machines in her home economics class.
“See if Deby can fix it,” became a common refrain, but when she signed up for auto shop, she was told it was only for boys — plus, she would’ve had to wear pants.
When she made her own sophisticated pair of wool-lined pants, she was suspended for wearing them to school, as girls were only allowed to wear dresses.
But Deby didn’t stop there.
“The next week, in solidarity, 250 girls showed up in pants,” she said, with a laugh. “Then they changed the rules.”
After high school, Deby easily landed a string of jobs that required fixing and maintaining sewing machines. On the way to one job interview, the starter in her 1970 Dodge Charger went out.
“I ran to an auto parts store and put in a new starter right there in the parking lot,” she said. “I was all dressed up for the interview, wearing nylons — the whole bit.”
When she arrived at the interview, she asked if she could wash her hands, explaining, “I had to throw a starter in my car on the way here.”
Needless to say, she was hired.
Not only was Deby good at her job, she was an expert seamstress — an extremely rare combination. She worked at a pillow making factory, then a baby quilt factory. While Deby was paid $1.35 an hour, the other workers were paid by the pillow, or quilt. When a machine broke down, workers ran to Deby in a panic.
After spending 24 years working at a Modesto factory, it finally closed. As a result, Deby packed up and moved to the foothills in 1984, where she became the manager of the store, “U.S. Sewing Machines” in Grass Valley. It was there that she built up a local reputation for her sewing machine repair skills. Several years after leaving that job in 2000, Deby opened up her own business, “Deby’s Sierra Sewing Machine Repair,” out of her own home. She has since dropped the word “Sierra,” and her daily workload is busier than ever.
“People tell me, ‘My machine needs to see you and no one else,’” said Deby. “I don’t have a website and I don’t advertise. No ad is worth as much as word of mouth.”
Despite an internet-driven society, this appears to be true for Deby, as customers have sought out her expertise from as far as Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, Southern California, San Francisco and even Korea.
Continuing a ‘lost art’
Deby’s workshop is filled with a full inventory of sewing machine repair parts — roughly 10 companies make around 100 common machines today, all made in Asia. But to complicate matters, each machine requires its own specific parts. Someone always figures out a new way to goof up a machine, she said, which means — even after 40 years — she learns something new every day.
Her living room also serves as a showroom for used sewing machines for all budgets. Also included are a few gems, such as an 1875 German pearl inlaid machine, a treadle machine and a rare, 1919 electric hand-controlled machine designed during the polio epidemic for people unable to use their feet.
“It doesn’t matter how much this one is worth,” she said, gesturing toward her 1919 machine. “It means a lot to my heart.”
Meticulous when it comes to maintaining her own sewing machines, Deby is horrified by the condition of some that come through the shop door for servicing. In fact, she keeps a “Dirty Picture Book,” where she photo documents the filth found inside many machines, complete with baggies of lint attached.
“I consider every machine that comes to me for repair as my baby,” she said. “For the hours it’s with me, it’s mine.”
Deeply saddened by the thought of her trade becoming a lost art, Deby has worked with two apprentices, most recently 21-year-old Zachary Towles, who said working with Deby is the best job he’s ever had.
“I dress a little differently — I wasn’t sure what some of Deby’s customers would think,” said Zachary, who boasts an impressive array of piercings and tattoos. “But I think it’s worked out.”
“Are you kidding? My clients love Zachary — they want to take him home,” countered Deby, proudly. “The most rewarding part of this job is seeing people happy with their sewing machines. For some it’s like personal therapy — when their machine’s not working, they’re not happy. People are so grateful to get it fixed. I get flowers and candy — I have a stack of thank you cards four inches thick. It means a lot to have someone appreciate what you do.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.
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