India · Life · Photography · Travel Writing

A bespoke tailoring experience

Those of you who are a person of odd size, or a half size or essentially a size that doesn’t subscribe to the standard collar, chest, foot or waist size will attest that store bought clothing is at best, a fair compromise. At worst, it may *fit* you like a bag. Well, I can relate to you – I am about six feet two inches tall, and not proportionately broad, with drooping shoulders, and arms long enough to prove that man descended from apes. I have spent countless hours bumping door to door, from mall to mall, across continents, peering through heaps of cheap clothing, optimistic that the one pair hidden at the bottom would be my salvation. I usually return home empty handed from such adventures and miss my adolescent years when clothes were tailored specifically for the person – in this case, me!

I thought I’d share with you a few photos and a brief description of how this all works. This post took a while coming as I gathered these photographs through the course of this week, so in many ways it is a ‘live’ experience.

The first step is to procure the fabric. One finds that at a ‘cut-piece’ shop or a textile showroom. Most of these are located in the old city, or the walled city of Jaipur and I went in this cool, noise-free, electric rickshaw –

Rickshaw to the old city of Jaipur

The bolts of cloth you see stacked vertically and horizontally, are all ‘overrun’ pieces from various clothing mills – left after major garment makers have been supplied. These may sometimes be ‘second’ quality, but not necessarily so. The thicker, darker cloth pieces on the bottom right are for trousers and the lighter, white and blue and other colors are cloth pieces for shirts.

Fabric shop Jaipur

As the world’s second largest textile producer, India certainly isn’t short on variety. You can find cotton, synthetic fabrics, silk, wool and other imported fabrics with relative ease. Here’s another shop. On the top left are the white cottons – a dozen varieties differing in thickness – for shirts.

Incredible variety of Fabric is usually on offer

The process is simple for you – the buyer. You ask for what you need, the owner or his assistant pulls out the desired piece, unfolds it specially for you often ensuring you get to touch and feel the cloth. Then, he patiently answers each and every question you may have

“Is this cotton?”

“How much percentage cotton?”

“Does this shirt piece look good with that trouser piece?”

(and even a very silly one like) “Does this color suit me?”

Then he cuts the exact length required, and you pay and take the cloth with you. The store keeper’s job doesn’t end there though – he has to fold up every bolt he unfolded for you! In this case, in another shop I visited, it was the owner’s assistants doing the hard work.

Fabric shop helpers

In most cases it is left to you, the buyer, to take this piece to your tailor. There, a different drama unfolds. A master tailor, with tape measure, will measure you up, often asking you to relax and let that tummy expand to its natural state. Conversations such as these are not uncommon –

“Sir, please, no one is looking at you, it is perfectly safe to breathe out and take off your waist belt.”

“No sir, I have not added room to your hips, this number is correct”.

“Sir, the design on the wall cannot be delivered in two days”, etc.

Here’s a tailor sitting with a tape around his shoulders.

Master tailor with tape measure

The cloth is then marked with a tailor’s chalk piece. Often, master tailors will write the measure of your waist, inseam, cuffs, number of pleats, etc. on the cloth itself. They often also cut the fabric if they’re not terribly busy. Their tools are simple, for its their hands, eyes and decades of training and practice that has got them to a stage where all they need are a pair of scissors and a tailor’s ruler. These measurements are still recorded in inches, though the country went metric decades ago.

Curve ruler and scissors used by master tailors

The actual sewing work is often left to an assistant, or teams of assistants depending on the volume of operations. Trousers are sewn with electric or human powered machines. At the shop that I had mine made, the tailor’s assistant used machines powered by his feet using a treadle mechanism. I’ve seen Singer machines elsewhere – made in India since 1977 and imported ones from the years before – this shop used another brand ones.

Sewing machine with treadle in use – Jaipur

After the pieces are stitched together, a waist grip, zippers, buttons are all sewed on – the last step is to ‘interlock’ the loose threads using a special machine. Then the trousers are ironed once – to help the ‘interlocked’ threads ‘set-in’. No steam press here, an ancient electric iron will have to do – its worn out electric wire given a necessary shot of insulation by empty thread spools. The assistant will just splash some water on the finished garment and iron it!

Electric iron still in use.

Now it is your turn – the customer’s. You’d be asked to try the garment for fit. In case of a shirt or trousers, this’d be a single trial session and often at the time you go to collect the piece. Minor alterations are attended to, immediately. Some shops have a store room that doubles as a trial room – like the one I used, seen below.

A change room

In reality, the number of fitting sessions at the tailor depend on the complexity of the order – suits usually require a trial several days before delivery, sometimes two trials. Perhaps the most complex, iconic and awe inspiring Indian male garment – the sherwani (male wedding coat) carries this process to a different zenith. Even a plain sherwani requires three visits to the tailor at least – one each for measurement, trial and final fitting. No wonder many hang a while awaiting their wearer, like this one was when I tried on my trousers –

Sherwani and Suit Bespoke

One of the joys of living in India is how many items of personal consumption can be made to order, often down to the last stitch. You can get custom made trousers, shirts, dresses, suits, and even shoes. Typically, defying the logic of mass production, the finished product is usually a fair percentage cheaper than ready-made clothing.  So, what’s not to like? Well, like any hereditary occupation, this one too is slowly dying out. Good tailors are in short supply as their next generation moves to better paying work opportunities. Further, large retailers have seen the growing Indian economy as an indicator that its a lucrative market and flooded us with ready-made clothes. Thankfully, we all are different and no matter how finely they attempt to predict what size and shape will fit their prospective buyer, there’s always someone hankering for that perfect fit and patronizing the dimly lit, bespoke tailor shop.

Tailor’s shop Jaipur

Forgot to mention, my trousers fit just fine on the first trial and were handed over immediately. They sat just right on my behind, didn’t slip down any further than acceptable from my waist and didn’t make my gait look unsightly. So yes, they felt like they were designed just for me!


In response to – Designed for You


2 thoughts on “A bespoke tailoring experience

  1. I’ve been waiting for another of your wonderful posts and you did not disappoint! Your writing and pictures draw me in and make me feel like I am there. Excellent, excellent work. Thank you for sharing your talent. And I’m very glad your pants fit well!

    Liked by 1 person

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