Sewing Machine Companies Seek New Markets

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Dean Shulman of Brother International and the company's Innovis 5000D sewing machine. i

Dean Shulman of Brother International and the company's Innovis 4000D sewing machine. Jim Zarroli, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Zarroli, NPR
Dean Shulman of Brother International and the company's Innovis 5000D sewing machine.

Dean Shulman of Brother International and the company's Innovis 4000D sewing machine.

Jim Zarroli, NPR

Fifty years ago, most American households had sewing machines. But sewing machine sales began to decline as more and more women left to work outside the home. In recent years, however, sewing machine companies have tried to reverse the decline by reaching out to a new market.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Fifty years ago, American households that could afford them had sewing machines, and most girls learned to sew early on.

But as more and more women left home to work, sewing machine sales began to decline. By the 1990s, some of the world's biggest manufacturers were losing money. In recent years, however, sewing machine companies have tried to reverse that decline by reaching out to an entirely new market.

NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI reporting:

Several times each week, customers come to Burns'(ph) Sewing Machine Shop in suburban Philadelphia to take sewing classes. Today, the crowd includes retired school secretary Helen Vince(ph), who's here for an embroidery lesson.

Ms. HELEN VINCE: I'm embroidering a picture. It's of a garden with a window looking out onto the garden and a tree.

ZARROLI: Vince has brought her sewing machine to the shop. It's the Inovis 4000D, made by the Japanese company, Brother International. As sewing machines go, the 4000D is a technological wonder. It can thread a needle, sew a buttonhole, or stitch a hem within seconds. It can embroider a picture of a flower or a dog, and when connected to a computer, it can take a picture of your favorite grandchild, digitize it, and convert it into an embroidered likeness in a flash.

Operating the machine takes virtually no skill whatsoever.

Ms. VINCE: You can see it stitching the leaves on the tree there.

ZARROLI: So you mean, all you're basically doing is putting the fabric in there and then pressing a button? It's that...

Ms. VINCE: On a hoop. Yes, you put your fabric, with stabilizer, and you just press the button and away it goes.

ZARROLI: The 4000D is also very expensive. Basic sewing machines cost a few hundred dollars. The 4000D costs more than $5,000.

Nearly all of the big manufacturers have comparable machines these days. It's part of an effort by the industry to adjust to some new realities.

Storeowner Debby Burns(ph) says attitudes towards sewing have changed enormously since the 1950s.

Ms. DEBBY BURNS (Owner, Burns Sewing Machine Shop, Philadelphia): Back then, people made clothes all the time. It was unheard of, really, not to have a sewing machine in your house. We've come a long way from that, where some people don't even know what a sewing machine looks like almost.

ZARROLI: But sewing machine sales started to decline in the 1970s. More women started working outside the home and lacked the time to sew.

Perhaps more important, the proliferation of cheap, imported clothing, from places like China and India, means it no longer really makes economic sense to sew your own clothes. Karen Koza(ph) is a spokesman for the Home Sewing Association, an industry group.

Ms. KAREN KOZA (Spokesman, Home Sewing Association): There's a very old picture of my father. He was a die-hard Ranger fan, and he was such a fan that my grandmother had to sew him a Ranger jersey, so that he could feel like one of the team. And I mean, today, you probably can't step within 20 feet of Madison Square Garden without being bombarded by jerseys.

ZARROLI: Sewing machines still sell well in the developing world, but in wealthier countries home machine sales have long been stagnant. For the industry, one ominous trend is that many schools no longer teach sewing as part of home economics.

As these changes have occurred, manufacturers have tried to go after new customers by making their machines a lot easier to use. There are people like 32-year-old Patty Hillman(ph). Until a year ago, Hillman didn't know how to sew at all, and none of her friends did either. But she's discovered quilting and she spends a lot of money on her hobby.

Ms. PATTY HILLMAN: You can do it for cheaper, but I tend to like all the bells and whistles; so I spend a little bit more.

ZARROLI: Any idea how much you spend?

Ms. HILLMAN: In a month I probably spend $200 to $250.

ZARROLI: Manufacturers are hoping they can hook people like this on sewing as a hobby, and they'll buy more and more expensive machines over time.

Dean Shulman is senior vice president at Brother International.

Mr. DEAN SHULMAN (Senior Vice President, Brother International Corp.): What happens is that the average sewer and embroiderer has probably somewhere between seven and eight machines over their lifetime. So, again, they develop the skill, they go on to the next. They expand their capability, and it's an upgrade process.

ZARROLI: Shulman believes a lot of people are tired of mass-produced clothing and want to personalize what they wear. He points to the current trend of embroidered jeans. He says such people represent a big, untapped market for sewing machines.

Tokyo-based analyst Morten Paulsen, of CLSA, says the steep price of the new sewing machines is likely to discourage a lot of people from buying them.

Mr. MORTEN PAULSEN (Analyst, CLSA): Even the cheapest ones, I think, start at $1,500. So right now I still think that the pricing point is probably not yet right for those machines to sell big-time. But I think that's, from a strategic point of view, it is the right way to go.

ZARROLI: Paulsen says over time the manufacturers' strategy could succeed, but he doesn't expect these companies to see big growth anytime soon.

The sewing machine may never disappear entirely, but it's unlikely to have the kind of central role in American life that it once had.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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