Sew perfect

When Linda Harrell was still in school, she sewed all her own clothes—even prom dresses and college formals. Later, she ran a quilt shop and taught quilting, including special classes for children. Her work life took her into the corporate world for several years, but when the business moved its headquarters and she was laid off, she had one thought in mind: to get back to the thing she loved—sewing.

And boats. “My other half of 22 years [Ivar Skoglund] is really into the marine lifestyle and had even lived on a sailboat as a child,” she says. When his boating friends discovered her sewing ability, she helped them out with repairs, and she loved the work.

So she started looking for a marine canvas business to buy. “They’re just not for sale, but I was on a mission. I got online and I found one that was local!”

The owner had been in business for 18 years, wanted to retire and was willing to work with Harrell for a few weeks to help her get started. “Things are meant to be,” she says. Soon after she bought Marine Canvas America, Skoglund was laid off of his job of 20 years. “I said, ‘come work with me on weekends.’”

She recruited him just in time. The previous owner left and Hurricane Wilma hit. “I can’t tell you how much business that brought in,” she says. With Skoglund’s boat know-how and her sewing expertise, they rose to the challenge.

Do what you love

“When you make your own clothes, you know how to pattern anything,” she says, and Skoglund “knows a lot about building things and working with wood,” which really helped her out with installation. There was still a lot to learn, though, and Harrell dove in.

“I went to every single class I could and three MFA [Marine Fabricator Association] conventions,” she says. “That helped so much.” I bought the manual from MFA; I bought books on canvas.”

Today she keeps five people on an “on-call” basis—all experienced in specific areas to meet the variety in her clients’ needs.

It soon became clear to her customers that this was more than a business for Harrell and Skoglund. “They know that we love it,” she says. “I believe we’ve gotten jobs because they see that we truly love the water. We own a boat and we know the expense. We can figure out a solution because we know how it will work. People feel comfortable with us.”

They also answer the phone and respond to messages right away. She credits their commitment to good communications—and standing behind their work—with getting and maintaining a loyal clientele. “Over 90 percent of our business is repeat and referral,” she says.

Familiar, but new

Not one to rest on her laurels, someday she’d like to take six months off and work in a larger shop that does fine specialty work, “so I could tune my skills and learn new things,” she says—Terri Madden’s shop, Sand, Sea & Air Interiors, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in particular (see Specialty Fabrics Review, May 2011). One-of-a-kind work in sport fishing boats, “hand-making something beautiful that no one’s ever made before,” is a special interest.

Harrell and Skoglund will stay close to boats when they retire someday, too. “My dream would be living in a place like Costa Rica, working just a simple job and sport fishing whenever possible.”

Which isn’t terribly far away from what she’s doing right now.

by Janet Preus, editor, Specialty Fabrics Review