Edmonton sewing surge: Interest in age-old practice spikes during pandemic

Sewing businesses in Edmonton say the renewed interest first came from hobbyists with extra time. Now, as the pandemic enters its sixth month, they say more customers have a singular interest: face masks.

Repair backlogs, machine supply shortages as hobbyists and mask-makers take up sewing

Sewing businesses are seeing a surge in interest as handmade masks become a prominent part of life under the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Peter Konidas)

In 50 years of business, Johnson's Sewing Centre in Edmonton has seen the public's interest in sewing fluctuate, up and down like a needle stitch through fabric. 

There was waning business during the economic downturn of 2008. Quilting frames saw a resurgence in recent years. 

But even a business with five decades of experience could not anticipate how the COVID-19 pandemic would reawaken interest in the age-old practice of needlecraft. 

"Demand for the product went up and the inventory flow has a void in it," said Brad St. Pierre, owner of Johnson's Sewing Centre. 

It's a story playing out across the industry's supply chain, with the biggest manufacturers and sellers reporting a sewing machine shortage. In a matter of 24 hours, Walmart's 100-day supply of machines was whittled down to just five days worth at the outset of the pandemic, according to a CNN report. All 56 models of Singer sewing machines — the brand that first introduced sewing machines to millions of households at the end of the 19th century — were nearly out of stock at the beginning of April, the company told the Washington Post

Six months into the pandemic, the sewing surge has sustained itself in Edmonton, according to local businesses. There are lines outside fabric suppliers, weeks-long service backlogs at repair shops, and empty shelves at retail stores. 

"The supply rates right now are starting to pick up, but it's going to take a while to catch up with demand," said St. Pierre, with some orders only expected to be filled by suppliers in early 2021. 

Kaelyn Dixon started working at the A.B. Sewing Machine Repairs in March, just before business started to take off. 

"All I know is this huge boom of tons of people coming," she said. 

Early in the pandemic, Dixon says most of the customers were hobbyists with extra free time. Self-isolation, CERB and physical distancing were new phrases in the Canadian vernacular. People were looking for ways to fill their days as businesses closed and public health officials cautioned people to stay at home when possible.

But as weeks turned into months, Dixon noticed a trend as Edmonton joined cities across the country in mandating public face coverings to limit the spread of COVID-19. Customers were increasingly arriving on a singular sewing mission: face masks. 

"It's fixing. It's creating. It's helping the community in the way of making masks. So it's really cool to see more and more people are sewing, or it's becoming less of a hobby," she said. 

The turnaround time for machine repair has stretched from a week to three weeks, as the small Fort Road shop tries to keep up with demand, Dixon said. 

At Marshall Fabrics, it's not uncommon for a small lineup to form before the store opens, a sight unseen before the pandemic, manager Patrick O'Shaughnessy said. 

"It's cool to see because it's not necessarily a dying industry but I guess it was stagnant for a while and it's kind of reinvigorated," he said. 

"It completely caught us by surprise." 

The most sought after items are cotton and elastics, mask-making musts. The store has seen around a 25 per cent spike in business, O'Shaughnessy said. 

It's fixing. It's creating. It's helping the community in the way of making masks.- Kaelyn Dixon, A.B. Sewing Machine Repairs

Back at Johnson's Sewing Centre, the decades-old business is still coming up with new product ideas. The latest is a DIY kit with supplies for four masks. 

"A lot of people who buy a machine aren't necessarily sewers, but it's a thing to do right now," he said. "To make masks. To protect their people." 

With files from Adrienne Pan