By The Herald News
This article was published in The Herald News June 13, 2021. We are sharing because it illustrates the workforce development issues facing the sewn products industry. As the article explains, its subject is "one of the few people left standing who are qualified to repair, service, assemble and sell industrial and commercial-grade sewing machines." The article also features SPESA member Charlie Merrow.
FALL RIVER — There aren’t many mortals who still do what John Tallmadge has been doing for more than four decades.
“Everybody’s either dead or retired,” he said.
Tallmadge, 66, was referring to the fact that he’s one of the few people left standing who are qualified to repair, service, assemble and sell industrial and commercial-grade sewing machines.
Those machines are used to stitch materials incorporated into products ranging from clothing and auto upholstery to Army tents, baseball gloves, ankle braces and horse saddles.
But the sole proprietor of JNT Holding Corp. — which for the past 32 years has been located near Globe Four Corners in a former textile mill building at 951 Broadway — says it’s been years since he’s relied solely on sewing equipment in terms of revenue.
“I sell hundreds of products,” Tallmadge said, including parts and devices used in the manufacturing of imaging-based “vision systems” for high-speed cameras and lasers and “busway” prefabricated electrical distribution systems.
The Rhode Island native and resident was recently interviewed in his 6,000-square-foot, no-frills assembly and distribution workspace.
He also leases another 3,000 square feet for storage inside the imposing mill building that once housed Bristol Knitting Mills, U.S. Luggage and Griffin Manufacturing Company.
Down the hallway from Tallmadge’s second-floor work area is a space formerly occupied by the now-defunct Dan-Mar Sewing Supply Company, whose owner, Tallmadge said, has since retired.
Tallmadge says he also designs seemingly mundane yet indispensable components such as industrial clamps and fixtures.
As more and more domestic clothing manufacturing in recent decades either moved overseas or simply ceased operations because of off-shore competition, Tallmadge said he adjusted by no longer relying solely on the sale and service of sewing machines, which he notes still accounts for 60 percent of his business.
“I had to diversify,” he said. “If you make just one thing you’re not going to survive. You’ve got to be creative.”
Tallmadge says from the mid-1980s to around 2000 there were busy periods when he employed a dozen workers, including two full-time salespeople, and generated $5 million to $6 million in annual sales.
He now has two full-time employees and says annual revenue has been running between $800,000 and $1 million. But Tallmadge notes that his overall profit margin now runs higher as compared to years ago.
That may have something to do with the fact that he personally drives or flies to a client’s manufacturing site to deliver, set up and ensure that the machines he’s selling work properly.
“I refuse to sell crap,” he stated bluntly in describing the quality of his product.
Tallmadge says he’s used to driving his delivery truck to customers in New Hampshire or Maine. For larger items and bigger orders he sometimes hires a flatbed truck shipping company.
He describes what he does as “application engineering.”
“I put together a plan,” Tallmadge said. “There are different styles of machines for different jobs. They (customers) need certain machines. I order them, assemble and adjust them and deliver them in a truck.”
He said competition is about the last thing on his mind. Except for a handful of professionals scattered throughout the country, Tallmadge says full-time, commercial sewing machine service and sales businesses are a rarity.
“Infrastructure is disappearing in the country,” Tallmadge said. “It’s a small industry, and everybody knows everybody.”
He says he does nearly all repairs on site where the equipment is used. Tallmadge charges $70 an hour, which he says is reasonable: “It takes a lot of labor to work on a $30,000 machine,” he said.
Fall River Clients
The handful of Fall River apparel manufacturers that still use industrial sewing machines have come to rely on Tallmadge’s experience and expertise.
Charlie Merrow, co-owner along with brother Owen of Merrow Manufacturing and Merrow Sewing Machine Company at 502 Bedford St., said he can’t overestimate Tallmadge’s role in the ability of their businesses to function and flourish.
“He’s immensely important,” Merrow said of Tallmadge. “He’s an inventor, an engineer and a designer of machine parts and has an unmatched capacity to improve manufacturing.
"John Tallmadge is a significant reason manufacturing soft goods is possible in New England in 2021."
He says Merrow Manufacturing currently utilizes as many as 1,000 sewing machines to make a myriad of products including sweaters, helmet linings, lingerie and industrial covers.
And when there’s a problem, Merrow says it’s Tallmadge who gets the call.
“Without John Tallmadge there is no textile manufacturing in New England,” he said.
The Merrow and JNT businesses have had a long-term working relationship. JNT Holding Corp. for years has been a distributor and seller of sewing machines manufactured by Merrow Sewing Machine Company labeled with the Merrow name brand.
Before the Merrow company relocated to Fall River in 2004 from Connecticut — where in 1881 it invented what’s known as overlock stitching — John Tallmadge’s grandfather Louis was an engineer for the company.
And John's late father Will later was a distributer for Merrow.
Charlie Merrow says he has a license plate that once belonged to Will Tallmadge from a Mercedes Benz he owned back in the days when Will worked for the company in Connecticut.
Merrow says the personalized plate simply says “Merrow.”
Tallmadge says he sells industrial sewing machines made in China, Japan, Germany, Vietnam and Turkey with popular brand names such as Brother, Jack, Juki and Mitsubishi.
But he says except for a handful of manufacturers in large metropolitan areas like New York and Chicago, Merrow Sewing Machine Company is set apart from the domestic crowd.
“Merrow’s the only one left for all intents and purposes,” Tallmadge said.
Assorted Local Clients
Tallmadge says he provides design and repair services to other Fall River manufacturers besides Merrow that rely on sewing and stitching machines.
Among those are Anchor Uniform Manufacturing; Precision Sportswear Inc; New England Shirt Company; Frank Clegg Leatherworks; and Hertling, a high-end trouser manufacturer that recently moved to Fall River from Brooklyn.
Tallmadge says he also upgraded sewing machines at the Joseph Abboud men’s clothier in New Bedford so that their speed increased from 4,000 to 5,000 revolutions per minute.
“It’s what the girls wanted,” he said, referring to the company’s female stitchers. “The machines are good, but they wanted them to be faster.”
In terms of larger companies, Tallmadge says he designed a machine for California-based Patagonia Inc.
“It took me three to four months to design a stitch for them,” he said.
Tallmadge also says he helped design a new fabric-knitting system for the USA division of Britain’s Velcro company: “I did their second machine a few months ago,” he said.
One of the more memorable jobs, he said, was for the former Griffin Manufacturing Company — which started in Fall River in 1944 as A&A Manufacturing, and at different times operated at the Globe Four Corners mill building and then inside 502 Bedford St. until being bought out by Merrow Manufacturing.
Tallmadge says he helped former Griffin Manufacturing owner Gene Laudon when Laudon got the contract to manufacture what then was called a “jogbra” and which later became known as a women’s sports bra.
The 1977 concept and prototype was the brainchild of a Vermont theater costume designer and her female assistant and friend, who initially referred to their invention as a “jockbra.”
Tallmadge, who as a young man had aspirations of becoming a professional hockey player, and who still plays in a league, says he helped Laudon with the machinery he needed to manufacture both the Lycra sports bra and a men’s jockstrap.
“I got it off the ground for them. I was the sole provider of their equipment, and I used their jockstraps when I played hockey,” he said.
Tallmadge says when he got out of high school he attended Bryant University but did not graduate and was more or less preoccupied with becoming a pro hockey player.
But he says he was always mechanically inclined and began working for different manufacturing companies as a plant manager.
His specialty became sewing machine repair and service. At one point he says he realized he could make a living going into business for himself.
Tallmadge says he can envision the day when he hands over the reins of his business to his general manager Bill Pacheco.
“Bill would be extremely difficult to replace,” Tallmadge said. “I expect him to take over the business in a few years.”
Pacheco, 48, says he grew up in Fall River and has been doing commercial sewing machine repair and service work his entire adult life since graduating Durfee High School, where he graduated with both a standard diploma and a vocational program diploma.
He says there should always be enough work for him in the world of industrial sewing machines, in large part because of his experience in what has become a very exclusive field of endeavor.
“There’s no schools for this because there’s not enough work,” Pacheco said.