Occupation: Sewing-machine repairman

Thankappan Nair’s tiny electrical workshop near Kaithamukku is packed to the rafters with ceiling fans, pump sets, motors, rotors, mixies and grinders, and so on, all in various states of repair/disrepair. But it’s fixing sewing machines, the vintage mechanical ones (that run on motors activated by the movement of foot pedals) that Thankappan specialises in.

Pointing to old models of Singer and Usha sewing machines that seem to have pride of place amid the dense clutter, he says: “I have been repairing sewing machines for more than 45 years now. I learnt on the job. A lot of people in the city still seem to prefer the manual sewing machines as opposed to new-age computerised versions.” Thankappan spent most of his life as a repairman with Usha International (makers of India’s first indigenous sewing machine) at their outlet in Ayurveda college. “I started off as an apprentice learning the craft under master repairmen, and was later made permanent,” says the frail 73-year-old, who lives in Pattom. At age 55 he quit the job to open up his own shop.

“I’ve always had a fascination for tools and perhaps that’s what lead me to be a repairman,” he muses. Thankappan also repairs new-age computerised or electrical sewing machines. “Basically, apart from additions such as speed control, the electrical and mechanical ones all work more or less on the same principle. So if you can repair one, you can repair them all. And that goes for all other electrical appliances too,” he says.

Broken or misaligned needles, wear and tear of the shuttle, lint clogging inside the machine... there are a lot of minor things that can go wrong with sewing machines, says Thankappan. “In most cases, repair work is needed because sewing machines are not properly maintained. It’s the little things such as removing lint after finishing a project, oiling and greasing the parts regularly, replacing a damaged or bent needle, re-threading the machine and replacing the bobbin thread, and so on that help to increase the life span of a machine. Most importantly, though, you should run the sewing machine at least once a week and not every once in a while when you have to stitch something! The more you use it, the more it lasts,” he says.

Thankappan has taught his son Sanal Kumar all the tricks of the trade and they now manage the workshop together. But the repairman says that not many youngsters these days are keen on taking up an apprenticeship in repair works. “Perhaps it because they think that there is no money to be made. But, honestly, work has never been better. The two of us are actually so bogged down with work that we just can’t keep up with the demand.”

(A weekly column on the men and women who make Thiruvananthapuram what it is)

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