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The repair cafe: meet the volunteers who can fix everything from broken electrical goods to bicycles

During its six months in operation, Belfast's Repair Cafe has restored life to electronics, toys with broken wheels, clothes, broken zips, small items of furniture, bicycles, books and other precious possessions. Laurence White talks to four of the 'fixers' and explores the unusual 'cafe' concept where they work

Richard Stewart (68) is married to Mary and has three grown-up children. They live in Holywood.

He says:

I worked in the shipyard as an electrician and all my life I have repaired things, rather than thrown them out. For example at the moment I am fixing a 12-year-old lawnmower belonging to a relative.

The amount of time I have spent working on it probably means that the repairs are not economical if I was charging for them, but it gives me great satisfaction. I know I will get it working again.

One of my daughters lives outside London and she came across a Repair Cafe by accident one day and immediately emailed me saying it was the sort of thing I should get involved in.

Shortly afterwards I saw an advert on Facebook asking for volunteers for a cafe here and I managed to get along.

One man came in with a food mixer which he admitted he had bought in a charity shop, but it wasn't working.

I managed to get it started and he was delighted.

In another case a woman came in with a digital radio. It turned out she was using the wrong power cord and I was able to point her towards somewhere she could get the correct one.

I think the idea of a Repair Cafe is brilliant.

It means that we are stopping people throwing things out. When I was an apprentice in the shipyard, if something was not working we took it apart to find out the cause.

If the part could be repaired, we did it rather than buy a new part.

I always kept that idea in my head. I have just thrown out a 16-year-old toaster which definitely cannot be repaired.

But 14 months after we bought it, it stopped working - naturally just out of warranty. I fixed it and it worked for another 14 years, which isn't bad. It certainly owed us nothing.

I enjoy the social side of the Repair Cafe and love talking to the people who bring in items. They don't expect miracles."

Claire Hunt, who is in her 50s, is married to Kieran and has four grown-up children. They live in Belfast. She says:

When I saw this idea on Facebook I nearly leapt out of my seat. It is something I am passionate about. I come from a background of ‘make do and mend’. My granny Nana McKeown and mum Sally taught me my sewing skills.

They were very thrifty and resourceful. My nana used to cut the fingers off old gloves and put them on her sewing finger when she was working with leather or other tough material.

I was taught needlework at both primary school and grammar school and had great teachers.

I learned how to use paper patterns to make my own clothes and how to use an electric sewing machine. I now have a room in my home where the sewing machine is set up permanently because friends and relatives often call to have things mended.

Every May Day we hold a picnic where I request people to bring things along for me to sew.

I even darn socks. I have my granny’s old wooden ‘mushroom’ over which you put socks to repair them. I now inherit all sorts of haberdashery items because of my reputation for sewing. Instead of throwing them out, relatives now give them to me.

The Repair Cafe has a great atmosphere.

On one occasion someone was trying to fix an old vacuum cleaner.

When he plugged it in and it started a huge cheer went up. I had an electric sander which didn’t work and I brought it to the cafe.

The man who looked at it couldn’t fix it immediately, but he took it away and repaired it. I was delighted.

I don’t do any sewing on a commercial basis. I just like doing work that I know I can do easily.

I would hate to take on a job commercially and then let the customer down. That is why I love the Repair Cafe concept.

We have three or four people with expertise in sewing and knitting and we all co-operate to try to solve any problems we are presented with.

Today everything is so disposable and that makes me sick.

At a recent cafe a lady came along with an old jumper which was frayed at the cuffs and had holes in it, but she loved it and wondered if I could do anything with it. 

I knitted new cuffs and darned as many holes as I could in the time available. She was delighted and so was I.”

Claire Hunt, who is in her 50s, is married to Kieran and has four grown-up children. They live in Belfast. She says:

When I saw this idea on Facebook I nearly leapt out of my seat. It is something I am passionate about. I come from a background of ‘make do and mend’. My granny Nana McKeown and mum Sally taught me my sewing skills.

They were very thrifty and resourceful. My nana used to cut the fingers off old gloves and put them on her sewing finger when she was working with leather or other tough material.

I was taught needlework at both primary school and grammar school and had great teachers.

I learned how to use paper patterns to make my own clothes and how to use an electric sewing machine. I now have a room in my home where the sewing machine is set up permanently because friends and relatives often call to have things mended.

Every May Day we hold a picnic where I request people to bring things along for me to sew.

I even darn socks. I have my granny’s old wooden ‘mushroom’ over which you put socks to repair them. I now inherit all sorts of haberdashery items because of my reputation for sewing. Instead of throwing them out, relatives now give them to me.

The Repair Cafe has a great atmosphere.

On one occasion someone was trying to fix an old vacuum cleaner.

When he plugged it in and it started a huge cheer went up. I had an electric sander which didn’t work and I brought it to the cafe.

The man who looked at it couldn’t fix it immediately, but he took it away and repaired it. I was delighted.

I don’t do any sewing on a commercial basis. I just like doing work that I know I can do easily.

I would hate to take on a job commercially and then let the customer down. That is why I love the Repair Cafe concept.

We have three or four people with expertise in sewing and knitting and we all co-operate to try to solve any problems we are presented with.

Today everything is so disposable and that makes me sick.

At a recent cafe a lady came along with an old jumper which was frayed at the cuffs and had holes in it, but she loved it and wondered if I could do anything with it. 

I knitted new cuffs and darned as many holes as I could in the time available. She was delighted and so was I.”

Christine McCartney (40), a mum-of-three from Belfast, is one of those behind the Repair Cafe initiative which began about 10 years ago in Amsterdam when a Dutch eco-journalist who was so frustrated by the amount of goods and materials thrown away and put in landfill that she started the first Repair Cafe. She says:

The idea is that people who have skills in repairing things from lawnmowers to jumpers volunteer their time and people bring along the items they want fixed. The volunteers carry out the repairs for free, although people can make a donation if they wish, and it is also a social occasion as you can sit and have a cup of tea and a biscuit or piece of cake while the work is being carried out.

“This brings people together and they can share their skills and ensure that we reduce the amount of things sent to landfill. Today we are very much a throwaway society. If something breaks down we simply toss it out.”

Christine first saw the concept online and on investigation discovered that there was no repair cafe in Northern Ireland. When she publicised her intention “people just came out of the woodwork to volunteer to help”. She stresses that the Repair Cafe — which held its fourth meeting in June — is not in competition with commercial companies. “We operate more as a first aid station. It can be that the repairs required are beyond the expertise of our volunteers or they do not have the parts needed. In those instances we can give advice and point them towards businesses specialising in that sort of repair.”

Each cafe meeting has attracted 10-15 ‘repairers’ with different skills.

They include sewing teachers, people who love tinkering with all sorts of objects, and people who have specialist skills from their professional life from which they are now retired.

Stephen Craig (61) is married to Alison (61) and they have a grown-up daughter. They live in Larne. He says:

My father Hugh ran a radio and television shop in Larne when I was growing up and my uncle worked in the maintenance section.

When I came home from school every day I would go to the shop and my uncle would let me work on some of the sets, keeping an eye on me so that I didn’t electrocute myself.

My uncle and dad were always tinkering at cars as well and I grew up with the inclination to take things apart and then put them together again. These were both mechanical and electrical items.

As a schoolboy I used to make some pocket money at Christmas fixing fairy lights.

People just threw them away when they stopped working, but I would fix them and sell them, or get paid for the repairs.

Initially I worked for my father, and then in 1983 studied part-time for an engineering qualification.

My speciality was working with video and I remember I got an old reel-to-reel video recorder and converted it to colour.

I mentioned this in my application to join the BBC and it must have impressed them because I got a job there.

I worked on a whole range of stuff for the BBC and ended up in charge of the control room in Belfast — but also oversaw a lot of technical work across the whole corporation. I took redundancy in 2010 and started up my own company which still worked for the BBC but also was involved with hospital radio in Larne and with the local further education college.

I have never lost my love of working with electrical and mechanical things.

A few weeks ago a friend was about to set sail for Scotland when he discovered his radio was broken. I was able to diagnose the problem, fix it, and he was on his way.

I’m in the local sailing club in Larne and was invited to take part in a civic leadership course by the local district council. A girl on the course was involved with the Repair Cafe in Northern Ireland and asked me to come along to one of their events.

I didn’t know what to expect but I was pleasantly surprised by the whole experience.

Of course I was keen to try to fix things but there was more to it than that. The organisers were very friendly and the members of the public who came along with items they wanted repaired were so grateful when I or any of the other ‘repairers’ were able to help.

You never know what will turn up. One person brought a DVD player that was beyond repair. Someone else brought an infrared table-top cooker which had stopped working. I had never seen one before, but I discovered the problem was easily fixed.

When they were putting the cooker away after use, they used to wrap the power lead around it and over time the connection with the cooker was broken.

I simply had to strip out the broken section and reconnect the power lead.

During all my working life in the BBC, I was constantly warned about safety measures.

I still adhere to that rule. I will not touch anything that I would have safety concerns about. But I do love the idea of helping someone get their piece of kit — whatever it is — working again.”

For more information, visit www.repaircafebelfast.wordpress.com

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