SOUTH PORTLAND – Sitting at a 40-year-old Juki sewing machine with a piece of rubber-backed upholstery fabric under the needle, I stepped on the machine’s foot pedal to get the needle to move.

With a machine-gun-like burst, the needle went up and down in a blur, pulling the fabric along as I tried to keep the stitches straight.

I failed.

“You just want to put a very slight pressure on the pedal with your foot to get it to go slower,” said Nancy Seiler, seamstress and owner of The Drapery Trading Co. on Broadway.

So I tried again, and again I got a burst of speed. Then I tried again, and this time my touch was so light, the needle didn’t move.

“Just a slight amount of pressure. Try again,” said Seiler, 63, of South Portland.

I must have tried seven times before I finally got the needle to go at a manageable speed that allowed me to guide the fabric and get straight stitches while being fairly confident I wouldn’t puncture my fingers.

Once I got the speed under control, Seiler and Dana Ben — the other seamstress who works in the two-person shop — showed me how to do corners.

“This is some pretty heavy fabric, with the rubber backing, so it’s not the easiest thing to work with,” said Ben, who was sewing the fabric as part of a reupholstery job on an old sofa.

At The Drapery Trading Co., Seiler and Ben focus on custom sewing. They make drapes, curtains, sheers, fabric panels to divide rooms, insulated shades, cushion covers — just about anything a customer could want made out of fabric.

“The focus is on doing custom work. Somebody comes to us and they have a window that’s 72 inches by 80 inches, and they have a certain idea of what they want there,” said Seiler.

That includes sitting down with a customer and designing the piece.

Seiler and Ben work in a storefront space near the corner of Broadway and Elm, so people can walk in anytime to see how something is progressing. Seiler likes it when they do, because they won’t be as likely to be surprised when they see a finished product.

As Seiler and Ben work — on side-by-side sewing machines — they often lament how sewing seems to be becoming a lost skill.

Both of them learned the basics as youngsters in school and over the years honed their skills enough to make it into the source of their livelihood.

“I still remember my teacher, in seventh grade, giving us lined paper to practice on,” said Seiler. “We’d have to stitch, following that line, and until we could do that, we couldn’t move on to fabric.”

Part of what Seiler does requires incredible patience. Because she restores and re-covers pieces for people, she often has to take old covers apart delicately, stitch by stitch.

When I was in the shop with her and Ben last week, Seiler had a stack of circular stool cushions she was re-covering for a family.

The top of each cover was a needlepoint design made by different family members in the early 1970s. But the sides and back were a faded pinkish fabric that needed to be replaced.

So Seiler’s job was to detach the needlepoint part from the rest of the covering, stitch by stitch, without damaging the needlepoint.

She did this by using a small tool called a seam ripper. It was the size of a small pocketknife, with a tiny, sharp blade that forms a little hook.

The trick, as Seiler showed me, was to tear the seam just a little bit with your hands, until the thread pulls out a little. Then take the seam ripper and rip out as many threads as you can before having to pull by hand again.

I worked for about 10 minutes and got maybe 4 or 5 inches of the way around the cushion.

At one point, the stitches were in the same color thread as part of the needlepoint design. So I handed the cushion back to Seiler, for fear of destroying a family heirloom.

Seiler said she didn’t mind spending the time to rip seams.

“I don’t mind doing something sort of mindless like this for a while,” said Seiler. “Because I know the next day, I’ll be doing something different.”

 

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]