Walter Breindel, Sewing Machine Repairs & Rentals
Walter Breindel knows everything there is to be known about sewing machine repairs & rentals – more than anyone else alive, probably. So how long has he been in the business? “Take fifteen – the age I started – from seventy-six – the age I am now,” proposed Walter, “that leaves fifty-one.”
And then a voice from the other side of the mass of sewing machines that filled the room – like a flotilla of yachts crowding a harbour – yelled, “Sixty-one, Walter!” correcting him. This was the voice of Alan Stroud, a sewing machine mechanic who has been around Walter, working on a self-employed basis for twenty-six years. “I’m sixty-six, I’ve been doing it over fifty years,” volunteered Alan cheerily, chipping in. Completing the trio at Cruisevale Industrial Sewing Machine Rental in Hessel St, Stepney, was Al Jaw, driver and electrician, who has been part of the company for thirty-six years. He sat with Alan, tinkering with a sewing machine silently, not wishing to get drawn into this one.
“I worked for the company in Osborn St, Whitechapel, for thirty-nine years until they went broke and I bought it from the liquidators.” continued Walter unruffled by Alan’s interjection, maintaining his composed expression with arms crossed, perched upon a precarious tall stool at the counter, and speaking with perfect diction and well-articulated consonants, “I live in Hendon, I press the knob on the car and it automatically gets me to the East End. I would have given it up, but my wife died six years ago and it gives me something to do.”
Then Alan delivered me a swift cup of tea with a pleasant smile. “I got a job when I was fifteen, because there was clothing factory in my back garden, and I was the tea boy. Now I’m making tea at sixty-six – I’ve gone full circle!” he quipped, “I went to a funeral the other day and this guy said, “Look, there’s ‘the boy’!'” Walter nodded in sober agreement, “They’re all dead now.”
“We’re the only two alive, and Geoffrey,” Alan qualified. And then they commenced a litany between the two of them -”Pinky’s gone” – “Alfred’s gone” – “Charlie’s gone” – “Monty’s gone” -”Lou’s dead” – ”Rhoda’s dead” – “Most of them who worked for the old company are dead.”
Yet in the workshop there were sewing machines of sixty and eighty years old, still in working order, sturdy and shining, and ready to go.”That one is good for another hundred years,” declared Walter with a flourish to a Reece Keyhole Buttonhole machine. “Yes, but the mechanic won’t be!” protested Alan, prompting Walter to shake his head, accepting there are some things beyond human control. “Sewing machines have two faults,” he confessed to me, “They were made too well, so people don’t need to change them. And the costs for fixing them have always been set too low, half the price of car repairs. We’ve not followed the American way, buy it, throw it away and buy another. We’re not like that, we are used to cleaning up rusty old machines and putting them back together.” And he appeared almost apologetic of a business policy that would strike many as enlightened.
“I joined the company in 1950, they were established in 1896 and were the largest sewing machine rental in the country at one time – now I have one employee.” Walter continued, with a deferential nod to Al, before turning elegiac,“The Jewish Board of Guardians in Middlesex St got me the job, I started on a Wednesday and they paid me six pounds a week. And because I was unable to work Saturdays on religious grounds, they made me come in on Sundays and clean cars. We called the governor ‘Uncle,’ and the first thing he asked me was, ‘Would you pick up a penny?’ I said, ‘On these wages, I would pick up a ha’penny.’ So he said, ‘Pick up that screw.’”
Not to be outdone, Alan revealed that although he also started work at fifteen, and although it was ten years later than Walter in 1965, he was only paid three pounds a week with ten shillings a week taken off for tax. A comment which occasioned considerable controversy between the pair, although I could not ascertain which way the rivalry went between the higher and lower wage. “With me it was the girls,” Alan enthused, revealing a youthful spirit, and shifting the terms of comparison as he outlined the origin of his passion for the sewing machine rental business, “There were so many women! As a mechanic, you were always out on the road – the independence you had was unbelievable – and you had a new car every three years.” he admitted. And he gave me a sly grin, that left me to draw my own synonym for his euphemistic use of “independence.”
“I never had a day off in thirty-nine years,” Walter announced in a dry dignified tone, “But I had my lunch paid every day, a new car every two years and all the Jewish holidays off with pay.” And then he led me into the office where he brought out cherished back copies of Sewing Machine Times for which he was once advertising manager. There were yellowed copies going back before his time to the nineteen twenties when sewing machine companies also sold mangles and prams. Then suddenly his eye fixed upon a button hole machine illustrated in one of these pre-war publications, “Look!” he cried spontaneously in wonder, “Alan come here!” And Alan rushed in, and together they delighted over the illustration of an early model that they still had in service, exchanging mutual smiles of excitement, unified by their lifelong passion for sewing machines.
“I was in sales, I once walked from here to Stratford and went into every building down Commercial Rd – there and back – and it was a clothing factory.” recalled Walter, growing enraptured, “There wasn’t a home that didn’t have a factory in it, you could walk from one building to another. They used to say you could walk down the Kingsland Rd and earn a day’s wages, going in and out of the factories, working as you went. But the clothing industry has gone, there were sixty to seventy machine rental companies and now there are just three. We are the only one left in the East End.”
“Somebody walked in that door yesterday who hadn’t been in for twenty years, and I could remember what machines they had in their factory, but I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, isn’t that strange? ” he said, turning contemplative and casting his eyes over the ranks of sewing machines, as if they were witnesses to his life in the business. “There was a togetherness – even if on the financial side we were always fighting.” he mused, thinking back over the years with pleasure, “I used to enjoy it. It was a trade at one time.”
Walter shows off his machine for sewing tarpaulins.
Charlie Sparks used to say, “With sewing machines, you’re never going to be rich but you’re never going to be poor.”
“Everyone I know is dead”
Al Jaw, Alan “the boy” Stroud & Walter Breindel of Cruisevale Industrial Sewing Machines.