Two men, two sewing machines work toward 'howling' success

Mat-Su Valley business specializes in fabric work for boats, planes and snowmachines

Posted: Tuesday, January 26, 2010

WASILLA - Two local men and a couple of sewing machines keep people recreating while showing the best of the American entrepreneurial sprit.

Robert Deberry / The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman
Robert Deberry / The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman

Mark Johnson and Todd Mathiesen started Howling Storm LLC in 2007, and after 10 months of being in their new shop on the Palmer-Wasilla Highway, businesses is screaming.

Howling Storm specializes in fabric work for boats, planes, snowmachines and dog sleds. The duo also repairs and customizes packs, sleeping bags, tents and jackets.

As Mathiesen explains it, "There's not much we won't tackle. From zipper repair to boat tops, if we can get it into our machines, we can repair it."

Johnson started sewing more than a decade ago. The longtime musher specialized in creating and repairing custom harnesses and sled bags. Noticing a void in heavy-duty gear repair shops in the Mat-Su Valley, Johnson started talking with his friend Mathiesen about expanding his operation.

"We've got so many sportsmen in the Valley, and there wasn't one shop that could accommodate all the stuff," Johnson said. "People would either drive to Anchorage or tried to get their gear repaired at an alteration shop."

This didn't always end well, Johnson said, as most tailors don't have the proper machines or know-how to meet the sometimes strange demands of those who play outdoors.

This first-hand experience is exactly what Mathiesen brought to the duo. The life-long hunter and fisherman has the insight crucial to the design table. Since working with Johnson, he said, he has become quite the stitcher as well.

Johnson said the design is actually the hardest part of any project. Because everything is custom made, and everything that comes into the shop is different; no two projects are ever alike, he said.

"A lot of people come in here and don't know exactly what they want," Johnson said. "They just tell us what the are going to use it for, and we can surprise them when they pick it up."

For example, one woman wanted a pad for her husband's retriever to sit on in his duck hunting boat. She gave the duo the dimensions of the boat, and they crafted a pad of non-reflective nylon material with a textured grip almost perfectly matching the boat's camouflage.

In addition to cushions, the company does a lot of work making covers for boats, planes and snowmachines. They roll their own steel bars to support custom canvas boat tops. They are bidding on a contract to make engine covers for planes at Elmendorf Air Force Base. They use marine-grade canvas for each snowmachine cover made specifically for each sled.

"The snowmachine covers you buy at the store get faded and tattered after one year," Mathiesen said. "Ours are guaranteed against fading for eight years. You are going to pay twice as much, but it will last you that much longer."

This mantra of making repairs that don't need repairing again is the philosophy the two take to every project. The retail sector is based now on things falling apart two days after you buy them, Mathiesen said.

"I don't want people coming back," he said, at least not for the same repair.

This approach must be working, as their shop is full of jackets, sleeping bags, two snowmachines, a pair of Cessna seats and an aluminum boat waiting for a cover. Johnson said they usually have enough bookings to keep them busy for at least three weeks, and Howling Storm shows no signs of letting up.

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