No time for retirement: 77-year-old opens upholstery business in Hay River, N.W.T.

·4 min read

After a lengthy career as a drug and alcohol counsellor, followed by a stint as a shuttle driver at a diamond mine, you might expect Allyn Rohatyn to go gently into retirement.

Not this 77-year-old.

Rohatyn decided it was time to go back to his sewing roots and open a business.

Last October, he opened Allyn Rohatyn Upholstery in Hay River's Caribou Centre.

Rohatyn does all kinds of work, from fixing furniture to repairing skidoo seats.

He got his start as a sewer when he was five years old, growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan, creating little things like tea towels on his mom's old pedal-powered sewing machine.

One of his first creations was a pair of pants he made for his sister out of flour bags. They were a little short for her, with the hem landing about 15 centimetres below the knee.

"She said, 'you didn't make the legs long enough.' And I said, 'well I made them for you when you ride your bike so you don't get your pant legs caught in them, they're called pedal pushers.' She had a good laugh about that."

Unconventional career path

Rohatyn had his first upholstery shop in Bienfait, Saskatchewan, from 1965 to 1975.

Around 1980, after "alcohol got a grip on my life and everything fell apart," he went to rehab.

Afterwards he got a degree in social work, majoring in alcohol and drug studies at the University of Regina, which led to a career as a drug and alcohol counsellor.

In 2006, he came North, taking another job as a counsellor.

The job took him all over the North, to places like Fort Simpson, Wrigley and Fort Providence.

But he never lost his passion for sewing and sewing machines.

After he retired, he said that he needed something to do with his time.

"I know some fellas that talk about retiring when they're 65 and I keep insisting to them that, you better have something in your mind that you want to do to keep yourself occupied, because you'll be going downhill quick," he says.

But Rohatyn didn't get back into the sewing business quite yet.

He fulfilled a long-time dream of working at a mine in the territories when he got a job as a shuttle driver at the Ekati mine. In 2016, however, he suffered a major heart attack.

Uses same machine he learned on as a boy

He says it was one of the things that inspired him to get back in the upholstery business and open his own shop.

Customers can see about four different sewing machines in his shop but he owns 17 of them. He keeps the others at home.

He collects them, restores them and then either uses them or gives them away.

One of the sewing machines he uses is the same machine he learned on as a boy. He was 12 when his first boss' wife gave him the machine after her husband had died.

That machine is more than 80 years old now.

"Yep, that's the machine, the one that I use everyday. I have a couple other ones that are industrial machines, I just like to use the one that I learned to sew with."

Rohatyn says with a little bit of care and maintenance, the machine still works great to this day, and it's his main work horse in the shop.

Jared Monkman/CBC
Jared Monkman/CBC

Never know where business will come from

He says his most notable creation so far has been for a dairy farmer whose cows would have their udders so full of milk, they were almost dragging on the ground.

"He came in one day to my little shop and he asked me if I could make him a bra for his dairy cows. I thought he was trying to pull my leg.

"We went out to his dairy farm, and I measured them all up, and I went back to my shop and I made up this bag with a bra-like feature to it, and a belt that went over top of the cow. Went back out and we put it on the cow, and uh, I think even the cow was happy.

"Later on, he asked me if I could make about 20 more of them!"