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This Colorado Seamstress Keeps Your Busted Outdoor Gear Out Of The Landfill

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Stephanie Paige Ogburn
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KUNC
Phyllis Grimm readies her sewing machine to repair a torn ski coat.

The base camp for Stitchlines outdoor gear and wetsuit repair is a house off South Broadway, just over the line dividing Denver from Englewood. A vacuum repair shop sits nearby, and a weathered sign marks the store's location.

Inside, a large room resembles what a roomful of REI returns might look like -- if a tornado hit it, or a 14-year-old girl used it as her closet. In other words, it's kind of a disaster. The shop is packed to the gills, with tents, sleeping bags, and wetsuits, all in various stages of dismantling or repair. Gear covers every available surface. It is piled in cubbies (they have a rough organization, ranging from wetsuits to backpacks to camera carrying cases) and flows over countertops. It drapes sewing machines and carpets the floor.

Peering out from the maelstrom is Phyllis Grimm, a bright-eyed seamstress whose daily job involves wresting order out of the surrounding chaos. The proprietress and operator of Stitchlines, she has been dismantling and reconstructing damaged gear for over 25 years.

"We take anything that needs stitching in outdoor gear, whether it's camping, backpacking, kayaking. We also do wetsuit repair," said Grimm.

It's an unusual business and demand is high. There's only one other gear repair store open to the public in the Denver Metro area. Outdoor gear is expensive, and even in America's throwaway culture, many folks would rather get a pricey ski jacket repaired than buy a new one.

"Even if you buy it on sale… try and replace it. You are not going to pay $200, you're going to pay $600," said Grimm. "Back when I was growing up, $600 was a cost of a car, not a jacket!"

Grimm didn't train as a seamstress. In the 80s, she worked as a respiratory therapist, but her schedule had too many night shifts and wasn't working for her family life. She had sewed forever -- "Way back when I was in school, home ec was there," she remembers. When Grimm moved to Colorado from Michigan, she made friends active in the outdoors, and had been repairing their busted gear.

"They said, 'you ought to do this for a business,'" she recalled. Grimm did some research and found only one other repair business, in Boulder. "I thought, well let's try it and we'll see what happens. And one thing led to another."

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Credit Stephanie Paige Ogburn
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Gear in various stages of repair sprawls across every available surface at Stitchlines.

The door chimes as a young woman walks in, bearing a backpack lid. Since Grimm spends most of her time doing repairs, the hours when customers can catch her are few -- she's open from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Tuesdays through Thursdays.

Grimm turns the lid around, taking a closer look. The zipper won't close. Without even seeing the brand name, she identifies the pack's manufacturer saying "This is Osprey," and tells the customer, Kristen Mullane, she needs a new zipper.

At first, Grimm recommends Mullane contact Osprey, since the pack is probably under warranty. But Mullane's on a deadline. She's a nurse, soon to be traveling abroad with Doctors Without Borders.

"It's been broken for months now. But those hours are… different and it's hard to get in that 2-hour window," said Mullane.

Grimm tells Mullane she can fix it in about five weeks. It's not that a zipper takes a long time, but winter is busy. She's eager to help the young nurse, who isn't yet sure when she has to fly out.

"If that [timing] doesn't work, call me," she said.

Another ring at the door, another customer enters. John Crabb is picking up a pair of bibs.

"These ski bibs here are probably 20 years old. My wife is wondering why I would come down here to get them repaired again," Crabb laughed. He's been a customer for 15 years, bringing in bibs and sleeping bags. (His cats sometimes pee on the bags, lucky for him that Grimm also does cleaning work.)

Taking a look at the repaired bibs, Crabb smiles. "Ooh, I think I'm good for another 10 years."

With the customers gone, Grimm turns back to her work, hoping to make a small dent in the pile. She holds up a bright-orange ski jacket with a giant tear in the back, about 8 inches. Maybe its owner got caught by a tree on a downhill run, a common cause of rips.

One of the hardest parts of repairing gear is figuring out how to take it apart.

"You have got to take it apart at the right place because if you take it apart you have to put it back together," said Grimm.

If it's a something like a down sweater (a lightweight item prone to tears), she also has to do this without a flurry of feathers escaping from the jacket -- not an easy task.

"So I've got to get in there, figure out how to repair it," Grimm said. She opens up the orange jacket at the bottom, and searches through a box of thread to find a color to match, sighing about the new, bright colors that are now in style. The lighter and brighter the color, the harder it is to match thread and fabric.

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Credit Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC
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KUNC
Phyllis Grimm threads a needle with orange thread, attempting to match a neon coat. Bright colors are the hardest to match in repairs.

"I tell you, these fashion colors, it's for the birds," Grimm grouses. "We're outdoors. Does it really matter?"

She turns the jacket inside out, holding the torn edges together, and places them under the sewing machine. Grimm sews carefully, reversing her stitches at each end to hold the threads in place. Once that's done, she'll tape the seam so water can't get in.

"You turn it around; you tape it; you don’t really see it. That hole is gone."

She holds it up. All that remains of a gaping slice in the jacket is a nearly invisible line, impossible to see from a yard away.

 

Grimm has enough of a reputation that she receives repair requests from far-flung places. She's had jackets sent up from Antarctica, and is working on a pair of Patagonia pants from a guy in India. He made the fatal mistake of ironing them.

"You don't iron those pants. All the [waterproof seam] tape came off," she sighed, half exasperated, half laughing.

Another pro tip: Stay away from fire.

"You get all these dots. Those are embers. Any time an ember lands on nylon, it melts."

And in the case of gear, your dog is not your friend. An energy bar left in a jacket pocket can lead to a chewed up mess.

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Credit Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC
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KUNC
Sign outside of Stitchlines gear repair shop, which is next to a vacuum repair and a pay-per-scoop Chinese restaurant.

Outdoor companies take advantage of Grimm's skills; she's long done warranty repairs for brands like Marmot and Patagonia. Rick Sayre, who manages repairs at the Patagonia store in Denver, said the company's Common Threads program, which encourages customers to repair their gear and keep it out of the landfill, has pushed more customers to bring clothes in. That's increased the business he sends to Grimm.

"Right now, she hasn't been here in about a week, week and a half with the holidays. And I'm just looking at the mountain of stuff for her to pick up," said Sayre.

Grimm's can-do attitude makes her easy to work with – she likes a challenge and rarely turns down a repair.

"She's just kind of an institution," Sayre said. "And you just don't see people, businesses like that stick around for that long. It's probably a credit to the work she does and the flexibility she has."

Grimm agrees that she'll take on almost anything. Her latest challenge is building new booties for a customer's dog. The canine got hit by a car and now has to wear a leg brace, so traditional booties don't fit.

The customer tried calling various manufacturers to see if they could make something for his dog, but got nowhere, she said.

"So, I said, fine. I'd try it."

While some may see sewing as monotonous, for Grimm the variety and problem-solving keeps her interested.

"There isn't too many things I've turned away. I like a challenge."

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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