By Sara McBeen.
It happened about 10 months ago.
I was sewing the hem on a pair of pants and when I went to press the reverse on my sewing machine, and the lever broke off completely. My sewing machine is a WHITE brand. It has 30 different stitch options (90% of the time I use only 1!), and it’s encased in plastic. Handles, levers, needle threader, foot pedal—all plastic. For 10 months, my machine has sat now, with sewing projects pilling up in a bin. I consider myself a pretty handy lady. I built a kitchen table when I moved back to California from New York over a year ago. I changed out a horrible light fixture in our new living room. But this? This hunk of a machine with hundreds of mechanisms and moving parts? This was beyond my abilities. This would have been something for the Fixers’ Collective.
The Fixers’ Collective is “a social experiment in improvisational fixing and aggressive asset recovery.” Based in Brooklyn, New York, Fixers’ is a community group that meets once a month with the intention of helping you fix your broken stuff. Lead by a group of master fixers, all volunteers from the New York area, Fixers’ is not so much one-stop-repair-shop as it is support group, empowering you to affect the life of your objects.
I began attending Fixers’ Collective as research for my thesis when I was receiving my Master’s in Industrial Design from Pratt Institute in 2010. I was interested in the ability of design to instill value in our possessions as a way of combating object obsolescence. Repair was one means I had discovered that worked to endear our objects to us so that they were not so easily discarded.
When I was attending Fixers’, it was a motley crew of about 5 regular members: Vincent knew computers, Sarah was a sewing expert and had made all her own clothing for the last 3 years as an exercise in self-reliance, John was a film producer and professor at Pratt. He knew about motors and electricity and so did Joe, a retired science teacher and perpetual tinkerer. Tony owned his own contracting business, so he knew everything about wood and construction and power tools. Between the five of them they could attempt an educated fix on just about any object that was brought in.
Once, my roommate brought in her old CD player that could no longer rewind. After finally getting it apart, we found that there was a little plastic nub inside that had worn down and no longer engaged where it needed to. To fix it, we cut a piece of plastic from a Q-Tip that was just about the same size and glued it in it’s place. Unfortunately, when we put the thing back together, it would no longer turn on.
This kind of thing was par for the course, especially with electronics that were not meant to be hacked open. More often than not, you would break something else just by trying to get the thing open so you could get a look at what was wrong in the first place. No matter what though, you were guaranteed to learn something about your object in the process, and you would always come away feeling empowered by your efforts.
On a different occasion, a guy brought in a paper shredder that no longer functioned. After it was determined that the motor was fried, Tony got out his MIG welder and welded a hand crank onto the gears so that the shredder could still be used, one piece of paper at a time, using a manual crank.
After attending Fixers’ for about a year, I learned that repair did indeed instill value in our objects, but that value didn’t just come from fixing what was broken, it came from the intimacy that developed between object and owner in giving it the attention needed to see what was failing and trying to fix it. Like patients are to their doctors, our objects are vulnerable to us, and when we take the time to offer them our care, that is when a relationship is truly formed. I also learned that as designers, it is important to design things that are made well and don’t easily break. Obviously. But in turn, I learned that it is natural for objects to break through normal use, and it is equally important that we designers make things that can be repaired when needed.
It’s embarrassing to me that my sewing machine still sits in a corner unfixed, crippled at my hand. Part of me just wants to get rid of it, go back to using my mom’s old featherweight, no fancy stitches—all metal and built like a tank. But why am I finding excuses to resent this machine? As their mission statement says, “the Fixers’ Collective promotes a counter-ethos that values functionality, simplicity, and ingenuity and that respects age, persistence and adequacy.”
Maybe it’s embarrassment that’s making us toss things away so carelessly, disposing of the evidence of our own inadequacies or poor product choices. The shame of it all, our over-consumption, our lack of knowledge of the ways things work, that is really what the Fixers’ Collective was best at combatting. They showed people that it is normal to have things break and that fixing them is just part of the contract of stewardship that we have entered into. By caring for our objects, we not only extend their lives and add to their value, but we empower ourselves and each other to have control over our own consumption.
All photos by Vincent Lai.