Matt Davidson, aka Ranger Stitch, is a chain stitcher out of Nashville, TN. We met up with him at his East Nashville home and chatted over sandwiches and sewing machines about his craft, how he got started, thoughts on industrial machinery, and what he's working on now.
We even learned a few things on the old chain stitching machine. Read our interview/sewing lesson with Matt below and learn a few things yourself. Find Ranger Stitch's Ford Ranger at a pop-up near you! Or on the internet at rangerstitch.com and Instagram @rangerstitch. You can also pick up a custom, one-of-a-kind, chain stitched guitar strap by Ranger Stitch from our new collaborative collection at originalfuzz.com/chainstitch.
All photos by Emily Quirk.
So, why did you pick this up?
Well, like I said, I saw this fellow I knew in Arizona. He had some work done and I was like, “That’s amazing. I’ll have to figure out what that is,” and so I hunted for one of these machines for a long time, like a year or so. I finally found one—this one.
What did you pay for it?
Well, I paid $1,000 for this one.
Yeah, so these are actually pretty expensive?
They’re getting more expensive.
Even more expensive than that?
Yeah, they’re kind of in demand right now. This was the first one I got, but it came with a table. It came with, like, boxes of thread, felt, and stuff like that.
Do you think it’s like vinyl—like the internet age, there’s a desire to go back to some of the more handmade stuff?
Yeah, there’s definitely a market for hand-crafted things. That was a giant help because you could feasibly do any of this with a big, computerized machine if you really wanted to and every piece would be identical.
Is that how most stuff is done, that you see embroidered in Target, or wherever?
Oh, yeah. Any commercial stuff you see is done that way.
[Points to the sewing machine against the opposite wall.]
What’s in that other machine, that zig-zag stuff, that’s kind of like, in the 40s you got your towels monogrammed and there was some lady sitting in the basement of Woolworth’s doing that.
So, they were a pretty big thing. Yeah, I just thought it would be interesting and then once I got into it, all my buddies wanted a jacket. I was like, “Well, $1,000 into this, I’m going to have to start charging people someday.” Once I did, people were excited about it.
Are you doing this full time now?
Yeah. Yeah, about January, I think, I started doing it full time.
That’s awesome. [Watching the machine work] How do you control where you’re going with that?
So, under of the table…I’m just going to let you sit down here and try it. Under the table is a handle. That kind of controls what direction I’m going in.
What is that tool called?
It’s called a hook-y [Phonetic] knife, like a dental pick. Works exactly the same.
This made me really uncomfortable thinking about putting that in my mouth. How did you learn, just by trial-and-error or were there tutorials on YouTube?
No, not really. There are a little bit now, but when I got my machine, nothing. There was one video of this guy in Indiana making a giant raccoon face. He just shows you how he threads the machine. He’s got this little template ready to go with a raccoon on it and they speed up the whole process and he just zips out this raccoon face.
And that was it. And then there are a bunch of weird Japanese videos that show a few seconds of everything.
[Demonstrating on the machine] If the crank is lined up with this, so if this is facing you, it’s a walking foot, so you’re going to pull it towards you, right? If you turn this crank, now it’s going to go that way. So, you can watch this turn around. It’s better if you turn it while the machine is going. If you stop and then turn it, that’s not going to hurt anything, it’s just harder. So, if you make your turns while you’re moving and it’s a clutch too, so I’m going real slow right now. You can go pretty quick.
That’s how it works. So, if I were going to make something and fill it in like this, you know, you overlap the thread…to get that, those real crazy spirally looking fills.
Is it hard to thread that thing?
No, it’s pretty easy to thread, actually. They’re old machines. They’re a little bit persnickety, you've got to be nice to them. The older ones are a little more temperamental. This is a later model that tends to always work nicely for me; there’s a single thread. There’s no bobbin. It comes up from the bottom and then goes along this little, kind of, predetermined route into a tensioner. Then, it comes up through the bottom. If you don’t know how to thread it, yeah. If someone sat this machine down in your shop and said, “Have fun,” you’d probably take a couple days before you figured out how to thread it.
Are they making these anymore or are they just pretty much not?
They do. I guess they’re made overseas and they’re kind of low quality. Like, the machines just kind of rattle themselves apart.
It’s a lot of vibration. Machines kind of rattle themselves apart then some parts fit, others don’t. Back there is that old [sewing machine]. It’s got the big, crazy springs sticking out of it. Parts for that machine, don’t necessarily fit this machine. But little things like the needles are getting hard to get. The nipple is this little part down here where the thread pulls up into. There’s a guy in Michigan who, literally, makes nipples, like, sells them for $40 a piece. The needle screws in. It’s a threaded shank and it screws into this big, long bar. Then, you adjust the bar up and down, depending on how you want the stitch. These little bars are really hard to find. I have one extra. Thank god I got that.
How often do you have to change the needle?
It just depends. If it gets kind of, abused, they’ll develop a little burr and they’ll rip every piece of thread that you put in them.
Do you usually sketch what you’re going to do? Don’t people sketch on the fabrics?
Yeah. You got your little, handy-dandy chalk, or whatever.
That’s where the artistry comes in, I guess.
Yeah, well, wait until you sit down in front of the machine. It’s unique in itself to use.
That’s kind of what the beauty comes from, I think.
I mean, I would imagine it to be kind of like tattooing. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to tattoo before, but, you hold that little machine in your hand. It’s not like holding a pencil. So when I do cursive with this, that’s not what my handwriting looks like, at all. It’s much nicer than my handwriting is. It’s the only thing I can figure out how to price my stuff against, too. I’m like, well, tattoo people price as soon as you sit down in that chair, you owe them X amount of money. So, maybe that’s how I should work my pricing out.
[Watching us ruin his machine] Yeah, so, try not to go off the edge. Remember, if it’s—if you feel like you’re about to, just turn the thread, turn the handle the opposite way and you should be good to go.
Yeah, you can do it. Try to write your name or something. So, one hand on the machine.
One hand on this and not just…what does that do?
So, that’s going to steer you. You’ll see. And then, your other hand, you don’t want to pull, you just kind of want to touch the fabric.
You’ll be fine.
Whoa. That’s awesome. You say it kind of messes up if you stop?
It’s easier to turn while you’re going.
Yeah, it’s smooth, circular.
Try to maintain a good pressure on the pedal, so you have an even thing going.
I see what you mean, like, to do someone’s name, real simple, it’s pretty easy. Once you know how to spell on this thing…
Anyone can probably do it. It’s just a matter of patience.
How long did it take you to get comfortable on it?
Like a year and a half.
Thank you Matt for letting us sit on your porch and touch your machines. If you're interested in getting custom chain stitchery done, send Matt a message at rangerstitch.com.