Boater Turns Problem Into Profit Sewing Sheets for Odd-Sized Bunks

Shearlean Duke is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Several years ago when Judy Schuda could not find any sheets to fit the odd-shaped bunk of the family's 32-foot sailboat, she finally gave up and made her own. Since then Schuda has been cutting and sewing custom sheets for boaters up and down the coast from San Diego to Ventura.

In the process, she had to knock out a wall in the family's Irvine home to create a bigger sewing room and she had to quit her job as a school bus driver to work full time sewing sheets.

"When you have a boat, you can't go to a retail store and buy sheets that fit," Schuda says. "They are just not available to fit (because of) the odd-sized berths on boats."

What many boaters end up doing, Schuda says, is using sleeping bags on their berths. Some companies even specialize in producing elaborate, custom sleeping bags for boaters. And a few boat-canvas and upholstery companies, such as Amtex Manufacturing and Supply Co. in Newport Beach, do offer custom sheets, but the sheets make up only a small part of the company's business.

Many boaters who can't find custom sheets just give up and try to make do with the standard store-bought sizes. But if you've ever tried to make up a narrow, pie-shaped bunk with a rectangular sheet that--after a night of tossing and turning--ends up as a rumpled ball near the foot of the berth, you will understand Judy Schuda's frustration.

"I could have bought a sleeping bag," she says. "But I'm a little claustrophobic, and I don't like sleeping bags. I like all the comforts of home at sea."

In her quest for a good night's sleep, Schuda, a frugal mother of nine who had made a few clothes for her children as they were growing up, bought a set of sheets and literally ripped them apart to find out how they were constructed. She then measured the berth on the family boat, made a pattern and sat down at her sewing machine. The result was a set of perfectly fitted sheets.

When her boating friends saw the results, many asked her to make sheets for their boats. "Pretty soon, I was running down to Newport Beach on my lunch hour measuring berths," she says. "The sheet business kept growing, and I had to make a choice about quitting my job and doing this full time."

In 1986, Schuda left her job as a bus driver in the Anaheim City School District and founded a home-based, one-woman company called "Sleep at Sea with J." But among Orange County boaters, the 58-year-old Schuda is known simply as "The Sheet Lady."

Over the past three years, Schuda estimates that she has produced hundreds of custom sheets for boats ranging from 22 to 82 feet in length. "Every boat's berth is different," she says, "so if I make several sets of sheets for every berth in the boat, I embroider the sheets, so that the owner can tell which sheets fit which berths."

Working in her enlarged sewing room, Schuda cuts and sews her sheets from factory-bought king-sized sheets, which usually provide enough leftover material to sew up a pair of pillow cases or shams. "People think that I probably buy material by the ream," she says, "but I couldn't work like that because a ream costs $5,000, and then all I would have was one color. If a boater wanted a different color, I couldn't provide it."

It is more economical to order ready-made king-size flat sheets from the factory, she says. That way she can afford to keep a variety of colors in stock. "I can now offer 13 colors," she says. "And they are the latest colors."

Average price for a set of Schuda's custom sheets, including an elasticized fitted bottom, flat top and a set of pillow cases or shams, is $175. That price includes monogramming, a service Schuda has been able to provide ever since a wealthy customer offered to lend her enough money to purchase a $17,000 monogramming machine a few years ago. Schuda has already paid back the interest-free loan.

Although most of Schuda's customers are from Southern California, she has had mail orders from Arizona, New Mexico, Florida and New York, even Italy.

Now that Schuda has been in the business for a while, she has built up a file of berth sizes of standard production boats and can produce sheets for certain vessels without having to drive out to the marina to take measurements. "And some of my business is now repeat business, in which I already have the boat's measurements on file," she says.

But in most cases, Schuda actually visits the boat and measures each bunk herself to ensure a perfect fit. "One of the hardest jobs I ever did was for the aft cabin of a powerboat," she says, "which was 113 inches wide and had the oddest angles. I ended up having to piece it together."

Other challenges have included producing narrow, five-cornered elasticized sheets, standard fare for many sailboats. In addition to sheets, Schuda now offeres customized quilted pads, blankets and coverlets. And now that she has the expensive monogramming machine, she also offeres monogrammed towels.

"We all have our wants," she says, "and I am fulfilling a need for boaters. When my customers find I am a boater too, and that we talk the same language, it helps."

Since Schuda began her business, she has pumped most of her profits back into it and now, in addition to two sewing machines and a monogramming machine, she even owns her own van. "I've had people who've seen my van with the name of my business on it and waited for me in the parking lot to order sheets," she says.

In an effort to expand her business, Schuda works most of the local boat shows and her one-woman company was recently registered with Dun & Bradstreet, the well-known financial rating company.

"Somebody called me up and asked if I had 'a D & B,' " Schuda says. "I didn't know what that was. Then Dun & Bradstreet called and starting asking me all these questions. They investigated me and gave me a number. Then they sent me a nice letter."

Schuda admits that most of her customers don't care about her newly acquired D & B rating. "To them I'm still just 'The Sheet Lady' "

Sailing Races--Women skippers and crew are invited to participate in the 16th annual Dana Belles yacht race, sponsored by the Dana Point Yacht Club today.

Skippers must attend a 9 a.m. meeting at the club at 24707 Dana Drive. The race will begin at 11 a.m. and trophy presentations will take place at 4 p.m. at the Dana Point Yacht Club. Information on the women-only race is available by calling (714) 951-7732.

Five other races are on the calendar this weekend and include:

The Angleman Race, sponsored by Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club. (714) 644-9530.

Off-Shore Racing Series, sponsored by the Capistrano Bay Yacht Club. (714) 493-7102.

Baxter Bowl Star Class; One Design Regatta, and Etchells-22 Championships, all sponsored by the Newport Harbor Yacht Club. (714) 673-7730.

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