Otago Daily Times
Sewing mechanic has retirement stitched up
SUE McDowell knew her husband, Murray, was a keeper when she met him at 20.
Mrs McDowell, who dislikes sewing, had made herself a skirt but got the waistband wrong.
Fortunately, she had met industrial sewing machine mechanic Murray McDowell, who was handy not just at repairing the machines but at sewing too.
‘‘He unpicked it for me and resewed it,’’ Mrs McDowell (63), said.
‘‘And I thought, ‘Yes, got one here. I’m going to hang on to him.’ ’’
After 50 years of servicing and repairing sewing machines, Mr McDowell (67) will wind up his business, Sew Right, at the end of next month and retire.
The former Bayfield High School pupil began serving his apprenticeship as an industrial sewing mechanic at clothing manufacturer Sew Hoy and
Sons in 1971.
His mother was a cutter and designer at Sew Hoys and had told him there was a job going in the workshop.
Sew Hoy and Sons was a major company in Otago, employing up to 600 staff at factories in Dunedin, Balclutha, Kaitangata and Christchurch.
Women heavily outnumbered men in the factories.
‘‘It was very interesting for the first six months going into those factories with all those girls,’’ Mr McDowell said.
‘‘Some of them used to like to see how red they could make you go. They would talk about their boyfriends and see what sort of reaction they got.’’
Mr McDowell trained in his apprenticeship under Viv Laws.
‘‘He taught me my trade. He was great.’’
When certified trade qualifications were introduced, Mr McDowell sat his examination among a group of electricians and plumbers.
He was only the second person to get the New Zealand Trade Certificate in industrial sewing machine mechanics in 1984.
Like other New Zealand manufacturers, Sew Hoys relied heavily on protective tariffs and the industry soon imploded after tariffs were reduced in 1988.
Sew Hoys had a lingerie line among its many garment products.
‘‘At Sew Hoy at one stage, we were making women’s briefs for 20 cents, putting them into packs of six,’’ he said.
‘‘But we couldn’t compete with the Chinese [imports].’’
After the company went into receivership, Mr McDowell worked at Undercover Clothing for two years.
In 1992, he went out on his own and in the early years of his business, he worked long hours.
However, an economic downturn cost him some major clients.
The loss of big factories led to the emergence of niche garment manufacturers, such as Charmaine Reveley and Company of Strangers.
The biggest employer Mr McDowell had as a client was Otago Polytechnic.
‘‘I have just serviced all their machines and it took me 25 hours to do them all.’’
Mr McDowell still enjoyed showing customers how to get the best out their machines.
On Tuesday, a customer was so pleased, she handed him some mutton on top of the invoice.
Life could have been quite different for Mr McDowell, who played golf for Otago.
‘‘At one stage, I was hoping it would be nice to be a pro golfer. But it was really a pipe dream.’’
Mrs McDowell, a retired teacher aide, has managed the business’ books over the years.
The Fairfield couple have been married for over 40 years and have two daughters, three grandchildren and another on the way.
They enjoy trout fishing together, ride ebikes on the Central Otago Rail Trail, have started playing petanque and are contemplating buying a caravan to see more of New Zealand.