Outdoors Photo by Christopher Nyerges

Nature's fabric

Wilderness Workshop has outdoor repair needs all sewn up

By Christopher Nyerges 11/12/2009

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Who do you call when your camping gear needs fixing? When I needed all my gear repaired, I began calling around, and all trails led back to the Wilderness Workshop. And lo and behold, the Workshop — the place that everyone was telling me was the place to get my gear fixed — was just around the corner from my Highland Park home on Figueroa Street.

So I strolled down to the Wilderness Workshop with pack in hand, rang the clangy bell and pulled aside the gate to enter the yard and shop. I was met by two beautiful pit bulls and got to admire some mosaic sculpture as I walked to the door.

As I entered, I saw that here was someone seriously into the business of repairing outdoor gear. Stacked on shelves around every wall were sleeping bags, tarps, tents and packs. There were sewing machines on large work tables; at one, a worker sat fixing someone’s sleeping bag.

Also busy at another sewing machine was the Workshop’s proprietor, Janice Cooney. She stopped what she was doing, came over and examined my pack and told me it needed a new zipper and some stitching and to come back in a week.
Over the years, I returned to the Wilderness Workshop again and again to have my many packs, tents and sleeping bags repaired and laundered, and occasionally to buy items that had been abandoned.

More recently, Cooney moved her base of operations to the nearby Eagle Rock area. I paid a visit and chatted with her over a cup of coffee. I wanted to know how she got into this interesting line of work.

Getting started

Around 1982, a friend introduced her to a man who was starting an outdoor gear repair business in Culver City, and Cooney decided to invest in the venture, both financially and with her time.

“I’ve always been manually dextrous and creative,” she explains, “so I was able to pick up the sewing end of things easily enough.” Though she soon left that partnership, Cooney realized that she enjoyed doing repair work and starting working out of her Venice apartment.

“At first, this was tough. It was excruciating to try to run a business out of my small living room,” she explains. “I had stuff all over my place!”

At about this time, Cooney began dating a man who introduced her to technical rock climbing. With her strong athletic background, she quickly became adept at it. Cooney feels that becoming acquainted with climbing gear made her an even better seamstress. “Since I was literally hanging out on my own work, I had to become more knowledgeable about how certain materials would handle stress loads, when they would fail, and so forth,” she explains.

Cooney began placing ads in the Sierra Club newsletter and distributing cards and brochures to local backpacking and mountaineering shops. Eventually, the Workshop began to offer pick-up and delivery service to many of these same locations. In this way, Cooney built up her business and expanded with minimal advertising.

“For my first 17 years in business, I didn’t even have a listed telephone number, and yet there was more work through word of mouth and servicing the stores than we could sometimes handle,” Cooney recalls.

In 1990, Cooney moved her Workshop into a 1,000-square-foot building on North Figueroa in Highland Park, where she worked until early this year.

The Wilderness Workshop specializes in sewing repairs and maintenance services for outdoor gear and technical clothing, such as patching, zipper repair and replacement, alterations, modifications and restoration of down-filled items. Cooney’s shop also offers laundry for down synthetics, as well as custom-design work.

Cooney also enjoys taking on the occasional unusual job. She has reupholstered World War II planes, fabricated movie props and built models of items en route to patent attorneys.

Over the years, Workshop clients have included the US Forest Service, the US Geological Survey, Caltech, the LA city fire department, LAPD and Sport Chalet, to name a few.

Cooney is also a freelance artist specializing in mosaic sculpture whose unique pieces adorn her shop and yard.
She can be reached at (323) 256-0723, or you can visit their fledgling Web site at Wildernessworkshop.net. n

Christopher Nyerges is the author of “Self-Sufficient Home,” “How to Survive Anywhere” and other books. He is also the editor of Wilderness Way magazine, as well as a teacher and frequent lecturer on outdoor skills. He can be reached at PO Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA., 90041, or ChristopherNyerges.com.

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