A Stitch in Time: The History of Tailoring

Come Eid, tailors reign king

By Arfa Shahid

It is said that a stitch in time saves nine.
With Eid Al Fitr right around the corner, perhaps none can relate to the saying more than tailors and dressmakers in the Arab world and South Asia.

The three-day festival, which celebrates the end of the month of fasting for Muslims worldwide, is marked by a mad dash to the markets. Cities descend into chaos and bazaar pavements disappear underneath the steps of throngs of shoppers, unleashing the demons of consumerism.

In the less hyperbolic version of this pre-Eid scenario however, it is the tailoring business that profits the most.

Eid is marked by family lunches and big dinner parties. Basically, it is a time when you’ll be needing a whole lotta new clothes, partly because you’ll be outgrowing your old ones given all the food you’ll overeat.

In fact, there are so many orders for new tailored garments that the masterjee (head tailor at the workshop) refuses to accept any orders nearly 10 days before Ramadan begins.

“By now, forget about making any kandoorahs [Emirati national dress] since the tailors are working overtime,” says Ahmed bin Sulayem, the Executive Chairman of Dubai Multi Commodities Centre Authority.
“It’s not hard to get a kandoorah – it’s impossible!” he adds.

Omar Al Busaidy, author of the self-help book Just Read It, echoes bin Sulayem’s words. He adds that he usually orders his kandoorah at least three weeks before Eid. “It is almost impossible to get one tailored right before that.”

To put things into perspective, a normal outfit would take anywhere between two to four days to prepare, depending on how occupied the tailor is. One can only imagine the amount of work tailors have during this festive period for them to turn down orders completely, weeks prior to Eid.

“The chaos before Eid is real, the struggle is real! If you have not sent your designs before or during the first week of Ramadan, that’s it. You do not have any option but to resort to ready-made clothes,” Sharifa Ahmed Eidarous, a Tanzanian-Emirati banker and lifestyle blogger at BDiaries tells Newsweek Middle East.

Eidarous says that tailors are so overworked during Ramadan that they sometimes stay up until the wee hours of the morning of Eid to finish the backlog of orders.

For the rejects of the neighborhood tailors, the ones who left their Eid orders until the last minute and were consequently turned down, there is some hope.

Eidarous says that is where the importance of wasta [connections] comes into play.

“No matter how late you are or how crazy busy he is, the family tailor will always be able to give you a slot. We’ve had a family tailor for more than 35 years back when my family first migrated to this country,” she adds.

Eidarous says Mohammad Bhai [brother], as they fondly call him, knows each family member by name. “I remember when I was a kid my whole family would go in together, each one taking turns to explain what designs they wanted. He always has our back.”

Emirati author and public speaker Aida Al Busaidy shares similar sentiments about her family tailor. She says “trust” is the main factor why she, too, has stuck with the same tailor for more than 20 years.

“They’ve been part of our lives, the changes, the growth, the fashion styles for as long as we’ve known them and then some. The tailors I go to are my mom’s tailors. So it’s more of a legacy thing.”

For Al Busaidy, tailoring is much more than just about clothes. “I realize how Saleem tailored our perception of clothing, designing and weaving culture into what we wear.”

Culture is a massive factor when it comes to the market demand for tailors. In countries such as India, Pakistan and the UAE, where the traditional dress is worn both in everyday settings and on special occasions, the demand for tailors remains constant.

The unique skill set they offer, coupled with social advancement, means that dressmaking is no longer associated with “good home-making skills,” but has become a niche industry.

Just visit the old souqs in Dubai and Sharjah, and you will see streets lined with tailoring shops one after the other. It makes you wonder why tailors would tailors continue setting up their business.

Badar Ali, who recently set up his own tailoring shop in the UAE, says: “Tailors will always be needed.”
He explains that there are certain basic necessities that people will always need, such as beauty services, food and dining.

“Clothes are similar—people are always going to need it. That’s why if there’s a town with a population of 2,000 people, it doesn’t matter even if there are three-four shops around. Tailors will still make a profit because they can earn from those customers.”

Ali’s words reminded me of the countless times that tailors messed up my dresses beyond repair. In fact, it’s a running joke in my family that it isn’t Eid until one of my outfits gets ruined. Without a doubt, a childhood full of ruined dresses and spending my teen years trying to get the design just right has taught me that finding a tailor who knows how to stitch clothes well is a tremendous feat.

WEAVING MAGIC: Tailoring requires a unique skill set and close attention to detail.

WEAVING MAGIC: Tailoring requires a unique skill set and close attention to detail.

Gaining the trust of customers is the most important thing when it comes to a successful tailoring business, says Ali and the quality of the tailor’s work adds to that trust factor.

Stitching traditional garments is a detail-oriented, technical skill set that remains undervalued. The standard of tailoring—how clean the cuts are, how well the piece holds together and the finishing of the hemline – is definitely a major factor that determines the final product. Particularly when it comes to stitching the shalwar kameez, the traditional Pakistani and Indian garment, the tailor has to be immaculate in his or her technique. It is such a technical task that only a tailor who pays close attention to details can get it right. And the style changes with every season. Thus, tailoring is not an easy field. Rather, it requires a trained eye and a specific skill-set that not everyone can adapt to.
Some 50-60 years ago, sewing clothes at home was as common as cooking or cleaning. In conservative Pakistani culture, it was considered brazen for women to send their clothes to a male tailor because it meant having to share your body measurements with a male stranger.

There was also a shortage of male tailors and the gap was filled by women in that profession. As per Islamic values, physical contact between strangers of the opposite sex is prohibited. Because of this, female tailors could not possibly tailor men’s clothing, given that the task would require physically taking measurements. Thus, female tailors mainly operated as home-businesses.

As the population increased and nuclear families became the norm, however, people branched out and lost the interconnectedness. They sought tailoring services elsewhere, outside of the cluster of these family businesses.

In Pakistan, the tailoring industry is one that often results in heavy losses for small business owners. Compared with tailors working in Arab Gulf countries, those working in Pakistan face many difficulties.
Frequent power outages mean that tailors not only have to work in tough conditions that impact their health, but also have to bear the brunt of angry customers.

Shabbir has been working in the tailoring business in Karachi for more than 20 years. In his shop on Tariq Road, Karachi’s famous shopping district for ethnic clothes, he describes the difficulties of working under frequent power cuts.

“It is very difficult to work in such conditions and we are often late in delivering our work. We use generators, but we don’t get the same result from them because they are unable to output the current necessary to run larges appliances like sewing machineries.”

As a coastal city, Karachi has a hot, humid climate almost all year round. “It gets very hot and noisy when the generator is on. Our tailors and the craftsmen working on the clothes are not only slowed down, but tired as well. Productivity significantly diminishes. So on a good day, if we stitch about 10 dresses, these power outages reduce our output down to only five or six at best,” Shabbir says. “It affects our business a lot,” he adds.

Poor working conditions are not the only problems that affect tailors. Tailors find they are sometimes losing out to Pakistani fashion designers, who have launched their own branded lines of ethnic prêt-à-porter. Oftentimes, these designers use tailoring services and add a high markup to the finished product. The profits don’t make their way to the tailors.

However, fashion designer Hafsa Lodi disagrees. Lodi, who sells a massively popular line of maxi cardigans under her name, says that tailors “charge fairly and reasonably.”

“If a neighborhood tailoring shop charges AED60 ($16.5) for a simple kaftan to be stitched, I’d expect the same price, if not AED10 or AED20 cheaper, for a simple kaftan for my own line, especially if I’m requesting more than 10 pieces,” she says.

For a designer, “tailoring is only one of the many costs that go into producing a collection. Fabric itself is pretty costly, as are any additional embellishments, laces, printing and packaging requirements, not to mention delivery charges, gas costs and flight costs (if you’re sourcing fabric from abroad).”

Ali, on the other hand, says: “There is no difference between a designer and a tailor. The only thing that a tailor lacks that the designer has is education, which is what makes us underpaid.”


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