At Sew N So Alterations in north Fresno, the steady thrum of mechanized needles is a good sign. It means business is finally starting to pick back up again.
Owner Patrick Tran points out several machines that are used to make alterations.
“Those three are overlap machines where after you cut it, you overlap so it doesn’t fray,” he says gesturing to a row of machines on the back counter.
His family owns two more stores in the area. Tran says he learned the trade from his parents, who met in Vietnam.
“My mom and dad, they meet each other through learning how to sew, same class,” he says.
Sewing helped his parents survive. It was a lifeline when they fled their homeland after the Vietnam War.
“When we escaped Vietnam, we went to Thailand. That’s when they start using their skill, so we’ve been sewing ever since,” he says.
Once the family settled as refugees in Fresno, they started sewing in their home, making hand tailored garments for the local Asian community. They had so many customers that they were able to open their first business 37 years ago. At that time, Tran was 10 years old and eventually, he learned the trade.
“During high school, I would come and help them, my parents, doing very simple stuff and then gradually doing more difficult things,” he says.
Tran walks to the back of the small, narrow shop past his wife Mai, who is stitching together a white dress shirt. He and Mai have run this store for 20 years. Three other family members work here, all relatives that Tran sponsored from Vietnam. Tran points to another machine.
“That one is a double stitch where you sew it on a T-shirt or something stretch,” he says.
After clothes are tailored, they’re steamed and pressed. Today, his sister-in-law stands at the ironing counter, making perfect creases on a pair of pants. But this past year during the pandemic, the shop wasn’t this noisy.
“No parties, no wedding, no school. So, most of our alterations is based on those events so we have no customers,” he says.
Tran shut down his business for a short time. He thought the lockdown was only going to last for a couple of weeks. Any longer than that, and he knew he was going to have to use his savings to pay bills.
“After one week, we have nothing to do. We see on the news a lot of people that’s elderly that doesn't have any masks so we start making masks and giving out to senior citizens,” he recalls.
Some of those senior citizens receiving free masks were at a nursing home where one of the relatives of a resident happened to work for the city of Fresno.
They heard about the masks and tracked down Tran’s shop. After approving the design of the masks, Tran was awarded a contract to make them for city crews.
“So that keep us by for several months, and then they place the second order so that helped us to complete the whole year,” he says.
And the store is still making them. On this day, Tran’s relatives sit at their sewing machines, busily stitching together face masks.
The masks come in several sizes, diverse colors and designs that include sports logos and cartoon characters. After they’re sewn together, each mask is bagged in plastic and labeled for sale.
“Yeah, the masks kind of help us balance our business, actually help us a lot,” he says.
Tran sifts through a pile of face masks and says as much as 60% of his business last year was due to this product alone.
This addition to his business has attracted new customers.
“People start noticing how our masks fit and feel, so they keep coming in,” he laughs.
And as restrictions have eased, Tran says he’s also relieved to see regular customers return to his shop.
“People been coming here for 19, 20 years, and even their kids, their grandkids. We have a lot of loyal customers, yeah,” he says.
The year has been tough, Tran says, but with new and old customers, the family is piecing together a steady recovery.
This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.