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The Sharing Economy: San Francisco's roving tailor

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The door to the Luggage Store Annex in San Francisco's Tenderloin district is unlocked on the 15th of each month, rain or shine, fog or wind, and a converted tamale cart is rolled onto the sidewalk. The man pushing it into place is Michael Swaine.

“People either call me the Sewing Guy or The Roving Tailor,” he says.

Swaine's roving days are over. After he was awarded an arts grant to develop the cart, he pushed it through various neighborhoods, offering to mend clothing, without charge.  Soon, he says, it became obvious that the Tenderloin “had the most holes that needed mending,” so that's where he works exclusively now, as he has since the spring of 2003.

The project sprang to mind when he and a friend spotted an old treadle sewing machine that had been tossed out. Soon after that they noticed a vacant lot, and the friend asked him what he'd do if the property were his. “Because the sewing machine was so fresh in my head, the first thing that came to mind was, 'Oh, I'd put my sewing machine in the lot and mend for free,'” Swaine says.

But is mending clothing worthy of an arts grant?  Bonnie Grossman of Berkeley's Ames Folk Art Gallery knows as much about “outsider art” as anyone. Her opinion?

Artists certainly don't have to show in a fancy gallery or museum to be considered artists. But she also wonders about calling what Swaine does “art.” If he were doing creative patching and piecing various materials together to make one-of-a-kind clothing, Grossman says, then she'd accept it as art.

Swaine estimates that 60 to 90 percent of his work is just plain old mending of tears and sewing on of buttons, and he's extremely familiar with “creative patching.”  For example, one of his regular “customers” likes to dress like Jackie Onassis. She brings old photos and newspaper clippings for Swaine to use as guides, along with, perhaps, a women's suit, and maybe a fur collar from another source. Swaine then tries to match the printed model. 

This fits Grossman's definition of an artist, but Swaine doesn't claim the title. He gives the credit to the Jackie-wannabe. “She has the vision and the dream,” Swaine says. “I'm just the guy who pushes the pedal on the old treadle sewing machine.” If you must put a label on what he does, Swaine says he’s more comfortable calling it “collaborative art.” 

Drive by Swaine's sidewalk cart and you might not even notice him. Walk by, and you may only see someone mending a pile of old clothes, using an even older treadle sewing machine. But if you stop and listen for a while, you'll discover that Michael Swaine really operates a “talking machine,” a machine that threads people together and weaves a community space. So call it art if you like, or call it mending if you like. In either case, Swaine's monthly service is helping to mend a community in need of repair.

Click here for other stories in our series on The Sharing Economy.