Ladies Tailor


Singer Sewing Machine advertisement, 1892.

All my past attempts at making a vintage(ish) blouse have been rubbish, not least because I have never found a tailor with any interest in old patterns. Just a few months back I finally located a tailor who was quite enthusiastic about making stuff from old photographs. The blouse he stitched for me is a variation of a 1937 pattern (below).


Seriously boring guy – or dead – given the lady’s expression. Late 1930s.

Being a little obsessed with soft collars and Chinese frog closure buttons I added these (pic of my blouse below). I wear the blouse with a sari or a skirt. I like it.

Finished piece

Finished piece; Crap phone photography

While collecting the blouse I casually asked the tailor how and why he came to the profession. Something in the question must have set him off for he was still talking three cups of tea later (as anyone who might have gone to a non-mall shop in India may know, cups of tea are often ordered for customers). It turned out to be an interesting insight into the garment trade.

Mr S is a fourth generation tailor whose formal education was kept to the minimum given that he was expected to follow the trade. He took over the shop from his father in 2000. The shop is like many of the tailoring shops in Mumbai’s suburbs. Small, personalised and directed to the middle classes. Mr S thinks of himself as a creative person, he is in it not just because of his family but because he genuinely enjoys tailoring.

In 2000 business was brisk and regular even though the rise of malls and readymades through outlets like Shoppers Stop was on the rise. The shop had seven machines and a number of apprentices to handle work. In 2014 he has just 1 machine and business is intermittent. The fall in business he says is due to several factors.


Mr. S at his shop.


Naturally, the biggest factor is what Mumbai women wear today. The clientele of a shop like Mr S’s is largely middle class, the working classes tend to rely on their own tailoring skills or cheaper establishments. Given that amongst the former class the sari is everyday wear largely for older women the sari blouse is no longer the bread and butter of the tailor shop.

Salwars/Chudidars/Kurtas are commonly worn by middle class women in their 30s and 40s. These are usually store bought though it is not uncommon to get a piece stitched. As for Mumbai’s young women, few wear Indian clothing on an everyday basis. In fact visiting a tailoring shop for a mall bred generation is a bit declasse and left to the “aunties”. The business is therefore reliant on the demand for “fancy” one-off stuff – the wedding trousseau, the party dress, a variation on a designer dress in the magazines and the like. Occasionally he does Western dresses for younger and middle aged clients – Japanese design books are a great resource according to Mr S.


Mr S himself is a more than competent tailor and does his share of the work. Some days his father comes in to assist and do odd jobs. He is also reliant on karigars (apprentices/workers) who are usually from UP or South India. Previously an apprenticeship would last several years and a tailor was expected to learn all aspects of the work from cutting to finishing to embellishments. For most karigars these days the small tailoring establishment is simply a stepping stone. As a starting job the shop is ideal as they are quickly hired even without experience or a formal education and are taught the basics. With a little bit of experience their employment options widen. As an example with designers, who typically run small establishments that pay higher wages. The garment factories in Surat/Valsad in Gujarat also offer jobs. As in China, newbies usually stay in dorms and do one part of the garment but the regular wages and fixed shifts make it a more attractive option. The most coveted move is to a mall job as a shop assistant. This offers regular hours (8 hours as opposed to erratic hours at a tailoring establishment, stretching at times to 12 hours during peak season) and wages of Rs 8000-10,000.

At present Mr S also has a young girl who comes in to do some of the work. Her parents live in the area and this makes the job ideal for her.


Apart from the conveniences of the readymade for the customer, factory made garments rule because of the technology. High speed machines are now the norm, though these aren’t anywhere on the Chinese scale in India. The assembly line machines of course are capable of producing very many varied pieces and the turnover time is so quick that the average tailoring establishment cannot begin to compete. The industry uses computer aided designs these days which makes the task quicker – Mr S showed me a piece and you can spot the monotonous regularity of motifs, finishing etc quite easily (I was a little taken aback with how this made even screen prints look a little softer and irregular).


In Mr S’s opinion tailor shops of his kind are dying, leaving just the high-end and lower-end tailoring establishments. At the very lower end, the hole in the wall shops that mend, darn and alter have a steady business. So do the smaller shops that charge nominally for tailoring and cater to a different clientele. At the higher end is the designer industry. Typically a designer employs 1-3 master tailors along with staff. An option for people like Mr S is to join such a place as a master tailor. However having got used to running his own shop he is a bit reluctant to do so. The business is also hereditary and old and he says it’s also a matter of pride to have one’s own establishment. Still Mr S thinks it quite likely that at some point he may be working from home given the cost of maintaining a shop.


The frog closure button that I provided Mr S with got him quite excited. Apparently these were quite common about twenty years back (really, obviously I missed the memo) and young lads like him were put to work making them by the dozen. Very few of his young apprentices know how to make it now given it’s not very common in Indian clothing. In fact according to Mr S, factory workers cannot be called karigars as they slowly lose the skills to make an entire garment from scratch.

The situation for the “Gents Tailor” is even worse. Mr. S reckons only a  handful of establishments remain.

I also got a few salwar-kurtas made.  Having moved to readymades awhile back, I am now a bit of a convert to the tailored version. The suit fits perfectly and I realise I have been putting up with some really bad fitting (especially of the salwar) given I am a petite person and most suits are intended for someone a few inches taller.


You can have a whole city on your kurta. Or a palace. Or a zoo.

As for what’s really popular now – move aside Anarkalis, it’s the digital print that is all the rage. Sigh, some day there will be a trend I can get on board with…..bring back the 1930s already!

About Anu M

A potted history of Indian clothing and fashion.
This entry was posted in churidar kameez, Contemporary, contemporary fashion, fashion, Indian Dress, Indian fashion, Indian Women, Late 19th century, Salwar Kameez, Sari Blouse, Tailoring and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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