Andi Barney teaches people how to repair and maintain their sewing machines.
This article originally appeared in Meg Cox’s newsletter, Quilt Journalist Tells All. Subscribe here.
“For many of the people who stopped by our booth at QuiltCon in Atlanta in February, it was the first time they saw the inside of a sewing machine ever,” said Andi Settlemoir Barney, with a chuckle. “We were trying to raise awareness of what we do at the Sewing Doc Academy and we had four sewing machines with covers off for people to examine. It attracted a lot of attention.”
Even without her trademark green hair, Andi is starting to get noticed for the unusual and worthwhile work she’s doing. Having been a professional sewing machine repairperson in Georgia for years, she is now in the business of teaching people how to take care of their own machines. Or, for those who become as geeky about sewing machine repair as she is, they might consider going into business themselves. She would especially love that! Andi started the academy because she believes there is a serious dearth of sewing machine “doctors” these days and because she loves teaching what she loves doing.
“From having run a brick-and-mortar repair shop, I know everybody is tired of schlepping their machines off to some shop that is miles away,” Andi told me during a long Zoom interview.
Featherweight Machine Repair
“As for owners of vintage and antique machines, there is almost nobody left who fixes those. Our shop used to specialize in vintage restoration and we were working 12-hour days trying to keep up.”
She began about 15 years ago by learning how to repair and restore Featherweight machines, which is the focus of some workshops she runs. But right now, the academy’s most popular workshop is called “Remove Your Covers.” Andi said that a huge share of the repair jobs she used to do on contemporary sewing machines (post 1980s) could have been avoided if their owners had taken better care of the machines. But it’s daunting to even remove the outer shell on a mechanical or computerized machine. The Sewing Doc Academy teaches how to remove the covers safely, without damaging the computers inside, along with how to clean and lubricate the mechanical parts. “Essentially we teach preventive maintenance, showing the methods we used in our shop.”
Formal Teaching Program
During Covid, demand for sewing machine repair was so off-the-charts that Andi and her husband Paul (also her partner in business), would sometimes sleep on the shop floor. Starting a formal program to teach sewing machine repair has been a long-time dream of hers, so last fall they closed down their physical shop to concentrate purely on virtual teaching. Andi had already begun to build up an archive of video lessons, but now it’s becoming more formal and organized. Between the free and paid courses, the academy now has well over 1,000 students and that’s likely to grow quickly. When Andi taught “Remove Your Covers” in her shop in person, there was so much demand she offered the workshop two times a week.
And the industry is starting to take note.
“Recently we were invited to attend the convention of the Vacuum & Sewing Machine Dealers Trade Association in Las Vegas,” Andi said, where some referred to the couple as “industry interrupters.”
Indeed, they are. Most businesses that repair sewing machines also sell them, but Andi never wanted to be a dealer. Which means she has no built-in conflict of interest: she’s only ever been interested in fixing the machines her customers already had.
Introducing Women to a Male Dominated Trade
She had long noticed that this trade is male-dominated, and that she’s far from the only woman ever to have been patronized by a mechanic. “I’ve got so many memories of being dismissed by technicians. I paid $120 once for a service guy to tell me my issue was that I was using the wrong bobbin. But he didn’t even tell me what was the right bobbin! Often techs don’t teach you the right way to do things if you are doing them wrong. We never did that in our shop and we always took photos of the insides of the machine so the customer could see what was wrong.”
Andi feels strongly that what she is doing now empowers women. Most of the academy’s students are women aged 65 and over. Says Andi, who is about to turn 47, “I really love that!”
“I never thought of myself as mechanically inclined, but after my husband bought me my first Featherweight, I saw the local quilt shop had a class on how to service it. That first machine really sparked something in me and since Paul and I spent a lot of time in antique stores, I started collecting old machines.” While her itch to fix her machine took her by surprise, Andi later realized that maybe her apple was pretty tree-adjacent: her father spent a career building new cars at Chrysler, and for fun, he restored old cars at home.
Andi and her husband Paul turned the huge demand for sewing machine repair into a virtual program for well over 1,000 students.
In the early years, Andi just fell into the work of fixing machines. As a new mom, she had a side gig sewing t-shirt quilts for money. But when she got heavily involved in local guilds, news of her expertise spread fast. “Someone at guild would say, I’ve inherited this treadle machine from my grandma and it’s heavy. Can you come to my basement and take a look?” Andi would charge a token $25 for the house call.
Andi didn’t take up quilting until the age of 33, when she got pregnant and decided to make a baby quilt. She realized right away her sensibilities were more modern than traditional. “I love bright colors and negative space.” She attended the earliest meetings of the Atlanta chapter of the Modern Quilt Guild and became its first president. She still loves quilting, but has been too busy with work to make much lately. Like many, she rediscovered the joys of handwork during Covid and is hand piecing a Dear Jane quilt with all modern fabrics. “I call it Covid Jane,” she said.
Andi’s life is tightly concentrated on sewing machines and family. For the past four years, she and her husband and their son (now 13) have been living together in an RV. During Covid, the couple bought an old ambulance with the idea they could fix it up into a mobile sewing machine repair business and make house calls. It needs more mechanical repair itself to be safely drivable, but the inside has been fixed up to become Andi’s workshop and recording studio. She has taped quick social media announcements here as well as recording tutorials for the Sewing Doc Academy. Not only does she have a workspace just feet from her home, but the ambulance helps convey her suggestion that future sewing machine fix-it businesses could easily be mobile, for example using an old school bus. (The photo below will show you my view of Andi during our recent interview.)
“One big reason we went virtual with our instruction programs is that we don’t just want to give people a course, even a 3-day intensive, and then just send them out into the world,” Andi said.
“We are creating programs with lifetime access and also making a structure so we can continue to help our students long term.”
Teaching After-Prison Skills
Her vision includes providing targeted training to a very particular audience: people coming out of prison. “I am a previously incarcerated person and we really want to build programs for ex-prisoners. Most prisons don’t give you any tools or real training and it’s hard to get a job with a record. I made this path for myself with very low investment. My goal is to teach a program on how to do this work and provide scholarships for the training. This will take a village and grants to accomplish and won’t happen overnight. l’m talking to possible partners, especially organizations that teach a variety of after-prison life skills.”
Andi’s workshop and recording studio is a renovated old ambulance.
This isn’t an article about Andi’s 18 months in state prison, but that experience shaped her priorities and deepened her determination. She’s never hidden this part of her past but it is something that happened almost 20 years ago. About a decade ago, she wrote some blog posts about prison and what landed her there: if you want to delve into the details, you can click here. What impresses me about Andi is her work ethic and her resilience (she also survived a brain tumor right after she got married in 2008.) I think her business plan and goals are brilliant and creative. As sewers who often have trouble getting our machines serviced as well or as quickly as we would like, I think we can all agree her work is valuable. I think Andi Barney has a lot to teach us.
The Sewing Doc
For starters, I’m totally ready to be empowered by Andi’s excellent virtual lessons. Whether you just want to be able to clean and lubricate your own machine or someday start your own sewing machine repair business, I urge you to check out the Sewing Doc Academy website. Here is a link to a free 40-minute video with 5 Tips on using your Featherweight, but you can also sign up for a thorough Featherweight Repair workshop for $149. And here is a video providing a 20-minute introduction to her Remove the Covers virtual workshop. And here is a video testimonial from one of the academy’s students.
Last but not least, here is a link to some upcoming live events, including this week. In about a month, Andi will be doing a live talk online about “what it looks like to have a service-based business, from a retirement income at the kitchen table all the way through working for a service shop.” Sign up for her list and she’ll contact you with the date and details.
Reprinted with permission from the April issue of Quilt Journalist Tells All! By Meg Cox
Author and quilter Meg Cox is a sought-after speaker at guilds and museums and a staff writer for Quiltfolk magazine. Her journalism has been published by dozens of national magazines and the Wall Street Journal, where she was a staff reporter for 17 years. A past president of the national nonprofit Quilt Alliance, Cox serves on the advisory board of the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska. She has published her monthly newsletter Quilt Journalist Tells All! since 2008.
What a fantastic service Andi is offering! I have taken a Featherweight maintenance class and love that I never need to have anyone else work on that machine for me. The thought that I could learn to maintain my other 4 machines -more than dusting and oiling – is so enticing. The cost of the class is less than 2 annual services at my local Janome/Juki dealer.
Hi, We would like to talk to you about training. My husband is very technical and mechanical. We have gone to several courses with a lady here in Texas on Featherweight maintenance, as we have 2 machines.
My husband is going to retire shortly and we will need extra income and I found your information through a friend from Australia who mentioned you on her website.
I really hate typing, and so is there a chance you can call us to have a conversation about your training programs.
We have Janome, Bernina, Innova, Featherweight, various machines. As I am a avid quilter and sewist.
Please give us a call as soon as possible.
Thank you and looking forward to speaking to you.
Carol & Bill Derwostyp Anderson, Texas
Hi, It would be best to reach out to Andi directly. She may not get the message here since this is not her website.