Anyone searching online for someone to repair a sewing machine will find shops in Hutchinson, Wichita or Liberal. Since 1970, there has been a closer option for Kiowa County seamstresses. Melvin Miller, who has had a shop at Pratt since 1970, was mainly known through word of mouth. That method has likely also spread the news that he is moving to Ohio.
Miller has a simple explanation for his profession of 56 years.
“I was 20 years old and I needed a job.”
He didn’t know anything about fixing sewing machines, but had a natural mechanical ability and was willing to learn. His boss at the Singer Company in Hutchinson taught him, but more than that, he learned to think a problem through and find a solution.
“I took many, many sewing machines apart and figured things out — patiently, patiently,” he said.
He had grown up on a farm, and after 17 years at Singer, decided he needed to spend more time there with his four sons. Within nine years, the boys had all grown up and left the farm.
“My help was gone, I was broke, and I came back to the sewing machine business,” he said. “Plenty of people know how to produce food; very few know about sewing machines.”
Machines have, of course, changed over the last 56 years. If the problem is mechanical, there’s a good chance Miller can fix it. If it’s electronic, he won’t tackle it. The biggest problem with newer machines is they’re not made to be worked on, he said, but he persists. Taking the plastic housing apart may take longer than making the repair.
He gets along fine with sergers, and does okay with embroidery machines. He has worked on quilting and industrial machines.
“There are very few I haven’t worked on,” he said, “and a few I didn’t want to, but I usually won the argument.”
Miller drives from his home in Arlington to his shop at Joni’s Stitch by Stitch, 108 S. Main, in Pratt. He goes to Medicine Lodge and Kiowa one day each week and to Ellsworth and Great Bend another day. He travels to Dighton and Scott City once a month to work on sewing machines.
The itinerant repairman is “one of a dying breed,” he admits. His services are in less demand — very few people sew, he said. There are exceptions, of course: Mennonite women in Kiowa County still sew, as do the German Baptists in Pratt County. There is a strong quilting community in the region.
The kids thought it was time for him to retire — thought so a long time ago, he said. He had a heart attack and surgery two years ago and his wife had a stroke. Both have made good recoveries, but they’ve decided it is time to move closer to the children who “came one after another to take care of us when we were down.”
They have five children: one in San Antonio, Texas, one in New York State, one in Indiana, one in Ontario, Canada, and one in Ohio, where Mrs. Miller’s eight siblings live.
Full retirement isn’t part of the plan. They’re moving to Walnut Creek, Ohio, close to the largest Amish community in the world, and they all sew, Miller said. There are quite a few sewing machine repairmen in the area, but he thinks there’s room for one more.
He will probably be in Pratt through the end of the month, however.
“I thought I was about caught up, then three machines came in, and then I’ve got to clean all this out,” he said, gesturing toward a room packed with parts and the tools of his trade.