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On the Road with Bernina

How this iconic brand maintains its worldwide appeal, by Meg Stively.

Posted in: Makers & Crafts • June 30, 2018

If you own a BERNINA sewing machine, you have a certain sense of pride. In the midst of celebrating its 125th anniversary, BERNINA’s signature red logo can be spotted in households across the world. The brand has a colorful history, and it’s managed to stay hip and relevant while maintaining its signature quality. But why? What is it about these machines that has garnered such fanfare?

“Supporting creativity for 125 years!”

To get a sense of BERNINA’s deep history with sewing, look no further than Karl Friedrich Gegauf’s invention of the hemstitching machine, which could help you sew 100 stitches in one minute—a great leap forward from sewing by hand. This machine sparked a family interest in the mechanical possibilities of sewing, resulting in the first home sewing machine by BERNINA in 1932.

“Odette Ueltschi is a fascinating woman, and I think she really put BERNINA on the map historically. She took over the company in 1959 and brought some of our most beloved machines into the market...She was a well-respected woman leader of BERNINA, and what’s not to love about that?” Says Jaime. Photo from BERNINA International.

The innovations spiraled quickly from there. 1938 celebrated the arrival of the zigzag stitch, and by 1954, sewing machines had semi-automatic buttonholes.

Odette Ueltschi-Gegauf, Karl Gegauf’s granddaughter, became president of BERNINA in 1959, spearheading technology that spanned the birth of the electric foot pedal to the wizardry of current computerized machines. Her well-respected leadership helped BERNINA pioneer some of its signature innovations, like the Free Hand System, the first stretch stitch function, and the Bernette machine—her namesake.

BERNINA maintains sleek design combined with high-power, high-quality parts. Their machines are workhorses, often passed down through generations. While much of their production has moved to Thailand, their high-end machines are still made in their flagship factory in Steckborn, Switzerland.

The love the brand gets from its customers is a testament to the attention the company pays to trends in technology, with a constant focus on innovation. Entwined with the quality of their product is a strong sense of tradition. Their pride in tradition accompanies a love for the craft of sewing and a commitment to the sewing community—from sustainability to in-person workshops and strong relationships with stores and ambassadors (including Seamwork!).

In short, the BERNINA team is made up of people who adore to create, as much as we love to sew.

On the Road with BERNINA

To get a sense of why BERNINA has such a strong connection to people who sew, we sat down with Jaime David, who spends a big part of her life out on the road repping this iconic brand, as an Educator for their overlocker/serger machines.

When asked to share her sewing origins, Jaime laughs, "In all ways, I should have encountered sewing in my youth...I had grandmothers who sewed professionally, and I was from a rural area of NW Missouri and active in 4-H." Like many of us, Jaime entered the sewing world as an adult, in the midst of a career designing kitchens and bathrooms. So why did she start to sew? Mostly because of BERNINA!

"I come to sewing from a really novice background, and it's because I bought a BERNINA and took the mastery classes that I even sew. Sewing for me is so linked to BERNINA that I feel like it's sort of the reason that I ended up here in general...This is the place that I was always meant to come to."

In front of the factory and corporate offices in Steckborn Switzerland, you'll find a giant statue of a BERNINA machine. The model of the machine has changed over time, but, "It's a rite of passage to go have your picture taken with the giant sewing machine." Here's Jaime completing that rite of passage on one of her trips to BERNINA HQ. Photo by Jaime David.

Now Jaime’s job is about “50% traveling, which is both exciting and exhausting at the same time.” She travels to dealerships all over the country, visits BERNINA HQ in Switzerland, and has pioneered a Capsule Club that aims to bring garment sewing to dealerships that primarily work with quilters. She works with a bunch of indie pattern companies to make this happen. "It's really awesome for me to be able to have the opportunity to meet and interact with people professionally that I have followed personally. It's the icing on the cake. Not only do I get to do what I love doing, I get to connect the things that I love about sewing with people that love those same things."

When asked how she landed her dream job, Jaime insists that "There's not really a formula to it. You can't go to school and study XYZ and get the qualifications to get this position. Everything aligned for me, another career tanked due to the economy and I was trying to figure out, how do I make living work for me right now? So I started working part-time in a store, which led to this.”

In the 1950s, BERNINA HQ employed a mobile machine service for rural areas. Photo from BERNINA International.


Is it Swiss Design?

Many people will enthusiastically point to Swiss design as a major reason for the success of this brand. And there is some truth to that. Jaime has seen this in action while visiting the flagship BERNINA factory in Switzerland. "It was incredible to see how all the departments work together to make our products. I am what I call an analytical creative, so I was totally fascinated with the sewing lab—a whole department dedicated to running tests on machines.”

Many of BERNINA’s high-end machines are still produced in their factory in Steckborn, Switzerland. Photo from BERNINA International.

Describing Swiss design as "methodical design," Jaime credits BERNINA’s smart design process to a smart product, "They think of what they want to do, make it, test it, test it again, consider it, streamline it, improve it, and test it some more."

An innovative machine with sturdy construction, all the bells and whistles, and sleek aesthetics comes with a higher price tag, but that doesn't deter BERNINA enthusiasts. So there has to be something more to this brand than clever design.

Four Generations (And Counting)

"We're just a company that comes at it with a lot of love. Being supported by a company that has that same sentiment about this craft and this skill, I think that really is important. It's widespread," Jaime describes her relationships with her co-workers across the world in this way. Perhaps the key is in the family, "We're on the cusp of entering into the fifth generation of BERNINA family ownership,” Jaime says, “As a corporate employee, I think we all take a certain amount of personal pride and ownership of being part of the BERNINA family...I can assuredly say we are friends, and this makes working together so good. This is my dream job.”

Hanspeter Ueltschi, the son of Odette Ueltschi, now sits at the front of the company, continuing the family tradition of being extremely involved in the process. "He comes into work every day, and he's in the office. When I was in Switzerland, he made a point to meet me and see what I was thinking. He's active and interacts with the people who work for him,” Jaime says.

BERNINA’s impressive new 590 represents achievements made across five generations. Photo from BERNINA International.

Eventually, Hanspeter will be handing the reigns over to his two children, who are already involved in the company. His son is currently working in Chicago and his daughter is working in Singapore, developing the brand awareness there. "It really is a family-oriented company...Mr. Ueltschi genuinely cares about the people that make up this company,” says Jaime.

A Focus on Education

Driven in large part through a dealer network, BERNINA has high standards for stores that sell their machines across the world. Dealers offer classes in addition to machine service. BERNINA has a corporate education team, sales team, and in-house customer service; all pulled together by a strong marketing team that works to get the message out about sewing. In addition to a strong corporate strategy, they work with independent contractors to do events at dealerships and teach the BERNINA Academy. To spread the love of sewing, you have to educate the world about sewing, and BERNINA is doing just that.

"I love sharing sewing with people and teaching it," Jaime says, about the one thing that all BERNINA employees share. "People ask me, hey can you make this for me? Can you hem my jeans? Can you do this sewing task? That's not my joy, to just labor in my craft for somebody. But if I can teach somebody how to sew, that's really where it's at."

We All Sew

To understand what else lifts BERNINA’s brand, just take a look at the name of their blog, We All Sew. Coupled with a presence on social media, in-store workshops, and helpful tutorials and free downloads, this blog helps BERNINA stay in the lives of those who use their machines.

125 years of BERNINA means 125 years to develop a presser foot for nearly every technique.
Photo from BERNINA International.

It’s the “we all sew” attitude that makes the brand stand out. They’ve developed deep partnerships with people who drive the sewing community—fabric stores, teachers, designers, and leaders—and they’ve focused most of their efforts on education and a genuine love of the craft.

Here’s to another 125 years of BERNINA!

On BERNINA’s website, machine owners share experiences
with their first machines. Photo from BERNINA International.

125 years of resources

Here are some fun and helpful resources from BERNINA over the years:

  • Over 100 presser feet: BERNINA offers so many presser feet, they could fill their own library!

  • We All Sew Blog: A space for BERNINA to share sewing stories, tutorials, and projects.

  • BERNINA International’s Youtube Channel: Clear, concise videos are a trademark of BERNINA’s brand.

  • Milestones, Stitch by Stitch: All of the facts about BERNINA’s history came right from their website, which provides a transparent look at their values and practices. Don’t miss this visually-appealing timeline of all of their innovations over the years.

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