Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tailoring: Taiwan Edition!




(All clearly pro/not in the market photos by Keira Lemonis)

As you may know, I had my wedding dress made in Taiwan, by a seamstress in Yongle Market (the wet market part that smells like pig brains). It was a long ordeal, but I was so happy with the final result in the end that I can’t shout it from enough rooftops. I spent a year trucking every few weekends to the market in light, fitted clothing over which I could pull my dress, occasionally risking embarrassment by quickly slipping off my shirt while the seamstress held up a piece of fabric to hide me so I could get a better idea of fit, and taking my pants off once the skirt covered all the necessary bits.

It was very hard to get my shirt off to try this version of the dress on in a public place. I liked the skirt at the back in this iteration, but from the front it just wasn't working so we ended up changing the whole thing.
I was measured, poked, prodded, told that my ideas wouldn’t work (some of them really wouldn’t) and saw some lovely additions that I hadn’t thought of, butthe tailor had (such as the cross of fabric at the top of the obi sash). I got to know the folks who worked in the market, where my pasty visage became a familiar face. I grew used to meeting Emily, my wingwoman, just inside the main door, and the occasional look of fear on the part of my seamstress, knowing I was there to talk about The Dress.

The tailoring process

My seamstress had never done a wedding dress before, but that was not a problem as I didn’t want a typical dress. It only became a problem when she realized that my standards of perfection were quite high – considering the time, money and emotional capital invested in the project, the result of which I’d wear on the most photographed day of my life to date (I like to pretend I’ll be famous and photographed even more someday) with all of my loved ones around meant that I cared far more about details and perfect fit than her usual customers. She was otherwise mostly employed by Taiwanese opera and drama troupes for whim she made banners for sets and costumes.

After that stress, though, it was done, and it was perfect:



…and I cannot recommend getting tailoring done in Taiwan strongly enough. It won’t be as cheap as Southeast Asia or India but it is still significantly cheaper than home.
Many foreigners don’t consider options when shopping in Taiwan, such as clothing altered, copied or even made from scratch.

This surprises me, but not very much: tailoring and custom-made (or copied) clothes cost far more back home than here. Although plenty of magazines advise you to get everything you buy tailored, the fact is that most of us don’t have the money to follow through on that in the USA, where tailoring one item can cost $50, $100 or more.

It’s also a shame, considering the massive Yongle Fabric Market and its fabric and tailors at your disposal (more on that later).

Here, it’s a great option for people – especially Western women – who can’t find things they like or that fit in stores and are sick of paying international shipping rates or only shopping on visits home.

Here, you’ll pay NT$50 for an easy hem shortening, maybe NT$100 to take something in simply, and upwards for more complex adjustments – but rarely more than NT$300-500 (about $10-15 US).

To get clothing copied you’ll pay more – NT$500 and up depending on complexity.
For a custom made piece with no pattern to work from, you’re looking at NT $2000-$3000 (about US $60-100), which is a lot, but if you buy good fabric and it’s a quality piece, it can be really worth it. This is a great option for suits and formal or semi-formal wear, and for shirts that flatter you that you’ll wear for awhile.

Keep in mind that these prices are for tailoring only, not tailoring with fabric which is purchased separately.

Yongle Market's 2nd floor is full of fabrics of all types. I am a fan of the faux-silk Chinese brocades, which are made in Taiwan (apparently - I've met the owner of the factory that makes them).

Let’s talk first about getting clothing adjusted:

There are tailors who alter clothing, but don’t make it, scattered across Taipei and the rest of Taiwan. Look for these characters:

修/改衣服

There is one in Shilin Night Market, visible from the main drag, but nowhere to change into the clothing to show the tailor what you want. There’s one in Zhonghe near Nanshijiao Night Market (if you’d like directions, leave a comment – it’s hard to describe). There’s one in Jingmei, (景美) on the first floor of the shopping arcade that also boasts Lai Lai Jia Jia (來來佳佳) 2nd run movie theater, a bunch of old lady stores, a shoe repair (also useful), a guy who sells fried stuff, a shop selling loose leaf tea and a Taiwan Lottery stand, with Café 85 and the Ha Ha (哈哈) internet café on the other end, near Jingmei Exit 1. The tailor is on the 1st floor. She doesn’t speak English to my knowledge but she does have a curtain so you can change into your clothes to show her what you want.

Yongle Market, both the first floor of the brick building and third floor of the ugly fabric market in the building from the ‘70s, are packed with tailors. Most can both adjust and make custom or copied items.

This means that if you do shop at a plus-size, or even regular size, clothing store and find something you’d love if only…just…that one thing…argh! – if it’s something that can be easily fixed with tailoring, go ahead and buy it and get it adjusted.
Back home I used to say “if it doesn’t fit off the rack, I won’t buy it – I’m not going to get things tailored” – here I am much happier to say “it’s not perfect but I can get rid of this ruffle/change this hem/take it in/add some darts and it’ll work” because I know I can get it done quickly and cheaply.

Some tips:

1.) Keep a piece of chalk on hand so you can draw what you want on the item – where darts should go, how far you want it taken in, etc..

2.) Not always necessary, but you might want to bring a local friend with you if you can’t speak Chinese at all.

3.) Find a place where you can change, or wear light, fitted clothing that you can pull the item over to show what you want altered, pinching it with your fingers.

4.) If it doesn’t come out right the first time, make the tailor fix their mistakes. That’s their job.

5.) If you want to buy an item and alter it, and the altering involves size changes or darts, buy one size up if you can. If it’s just ruffles or hems, don’t worry about it.

6.) Neckline and sleeve changes will cost a bit more, as will taking up pants that have a too-low crotch or saggy butt. Hemline changes should be cheap.

7.) It is possible, just harder, to alter an item that’s too small to be larger – generally it involves adding panels at the sides. Don’t let a tailor tell you it can’t be done – it can. It will involve extra work for you, finding fabric you like or that matches to add to the sides, though. Find this by bringing the item with you to Yongle Market and searching. If you use a tailor at the same market, he or she can probably recommend a few places, as well, if you speak Chinese.

8.) Bring along an item or picture of an item whose shape you love that can be used to demonstrate the alteration you want. This is especially helpful for t-shirts: you can buy t-shirts in fabrics you like in men’s sizes and cuts, bring your favorite women’s t-shirt to the tailor and have her adjust the men’s t-shirt to a more flattering shape for you. I have an Old Navy “women’s perfect tee” that I love, from before they tried to ape American Apparel (which I don’t love) and I regularly buy men’s t-shirts that I like, bring my purchase and the Old Navy tee to the tailor and have her alter the new tee to a flattering women’s form.

9.) Beware the Waist: Taiwanese women’s bodies generally look good with tops nipped at the waist just above the hips, or with a tubular waist/hip shape. This may work for you, or it may not. A lot of tailors don’t work with foreigners often or at all, so they may not “get” that an adjustment that would work for a Taiwanese body won’t flatter a foreign one. Know where the waist curve will look best on you: for some it’s just above the hips, for some it’s midway, for others it’s just below the bust (almost empire style, but you can have a below-bust curve without an empire hem). Know this and demand it, or your item might turn out less flattering than it started. I look best with below-bust curves, so when I take in items I use fingers to nip the item in there, to show that I want it to curve there, and then to be a bit looser over the tummy. I’ve found it works.

Now, for getting clothes copied:

You all know, I hope, about Yongle Fabric Market on Dihua Street near Nanjing W. Road. The second floor of the huge, hideous building (attached to a much more attractive old brick market façade) is a maze of fabric sellers offering every textile you could ever want (except dupioni/Thai silk – for that go to the shop on the 2nd floor of the southwest corner of Nanjing/Yanping Roads above the watch store).

I strongly recommend women leaving for Taiwan or who are home visiting and want more clothes, and have clothes they like now, to specifically bring items they’d like copied. It’s a good way to increase wardrobe by adding similar items in different colors and to replace clothing you love but that’s falling apart and can no longer be worn except around the house.
First, bring the items you want copied with you and wander Yongle Market to find new fabric to copy them in. Pay attention to types of fabric and make sure you buy something that will be just as flattering in that shape: if the shirt you love has a bit of stretch, the fabric you buy should also have a bit of stretch. If you buy a stiffer, no stretch textile, it might not work.
You can change various elements of the item, as well. In the lanes around Yongle Market (especially one that leads off Minle Street – 民樂街 – one road to the east – to Yanping N. Road; it’s the lane that’s north of the lane with the little wet market) you can find ribbons, embroideries, lace, beads etc. that can be added to make your copied items unique and different from the original. In the far south exit of the brick-fronted market itself you can buy all sorts of cool buttons to add.

I haven’t had this done in Taiwan yet (I did it all the time in India), but I believe the Chinese word you want is “fu4 ben3” – 複本 – which means “to duplicate”.

If you want any changes from the original, speak up now. It is perfectly possible to copy the same thing but make it longer/shorter/sleeveless/collarless (or with a collar)/different skirt/different neckline/bigger/smaller/with ties/with a belt/etc..

Finally, be aware that fabric is sold by the “ma” (I don’t know the character, but it’s basically a meter or close to it) – and comes in two standard widths, one wider and one narrower (usually the cheaper stuff comes in the narrow width, as do the faux silk Chinese brocades). You will of course need more fabric if what you buy is narrow – your tailor will tell you how much you need. A short dress might require three “ma”, a shirt might take a “ma” and a half, and you’re looking at 5+ for a full-length dress.

Custom clothing is the hardest, and the most expensive (because it’s also the hardest for the tailor!), but a great option if you are in Yongle Market, see something you like, and think “wow, that bias-cut black cotton would make a great wrap dress” or “I could get a suit jacket made from these two fabrics” or “I’m invited to a formal function in Taiwan, don’t have a dress, can’t find anything to fit me and don’t trust that something I order online will look good” (or just “I need new seasonal clothes and shipping fees if you order from foreign brands online are higher than you want to pay – they usually start at about $26 USD).

Your best bet for this is to find pictures similar to what you want – several pictures to show different features, and if you are talented this way, try to draw a picture with pencil and colored pen to outline how you want it all to come together.

This is also good for you, not just the tailor – I don’t know about others but I get ideas for clothing all the time that seem great in my head, but like various elements of a dream that don’t make sense once you expose them to conscious daylight, all the things I think I want in an article of clothing end up not working out well or even making sense. Trying to draw your idea forces you to confront your idea’s flaws.

Buy a pattern if you wish (I’ve never seen one in Taiwan but you can buy them online), but most tailors will be able to work without one, and will in some cases make their own.
This will likely take longer, cost more and require more trips to the fabric market for you to seek out lining and other necessary fabrics (sometimes your tailor will do this for you, but may charge you for his or her time).

This will also require several visits to the tailor for fittings, and if the final product is not flattering or what you had in mind, it is expected that the tailor will fix it free of charge (unless what you wanted was thoroughly unrealistic – I’m reminded of a story from Australia of a rather zaftig woman who demanded a tube dress with a tulle stick-out mermaid skirt, provided cheap fabric and who berated the tailor who made it because the final product didn’t make her look slender).

For big projects – such as a wedding dress – it’s a good idea to tip. My dress, in the end, cost NT$5000 for custom tailoring (a steal compared to the USA) and took over a year to get right, including one complete rebuilding of the unsatisfactory skirt. I gave my tailor (Li Mei) NT$600 extra in a red envelope and she seemed to appreciate it. She definitely did not refuse it, at least!
Again, pay attention to the fabric – some fabric just won’t drape the way you want or fall the way you want. If you speak Chinese, your tailor can inform you of what will work and what won’t. If you don’t, I advise bringing a Chinese-speaking friend along at least once to discuss all of these things, and a dictionary (I recommend Pleco for iPhone and iPod Touch with the handwriting screen add-on) for tough words like “dart”, “sweetheart neck”, “drape” and “chiffon”. Taking it back to the tailor to say “the skirt doesn’t fall the way I like” when you picked a fabric that will never fall that way can be categorized under “unreasonable”.

Your best bet for a tailor who can create custom works from scratch is Yongle Market – most tailors in other parts of the cities focus on alteration and repair, not creation.

Had clothing made on Dihua Street? Got an experience to share or tailor or fabric stall to recommend? Let me know!

9 comments:

catherine_sr. said...

Wow, what a useful post! Seriously, I was thinking of getting a couple summer dresses made to supplement my T-shirt/skirt uniform. My body is too weird (petite but very curvy) for mass manufacturers to handle, so I'm thinking of getting a couple light gauze shirt dresses or bringing in vintage patterns I have. We have a tailor who works around the corner... I was wondering if I should give her a shot or go to Yongle.

EpicuriousTravels said...

Great post! I love the unique topic. The photos are dress are lovely as well. :)

Anonymous said...

I would both recommend that catherine bring her vintage patterns - and copy them in something sturdier than the original paper. I would also strongly suggest that anyone with a nonstandard body shape consider having a basic fitted pattern made that she keep herself, with a copy provided to her tailor, with the picture of whatever the final hoped-for end product is. I'd also suggest that it wouldn't hurt to do some research to see what kinds of fabrics can produce what kinds of results; if you go onto a commercial pattern site, and click onto a pattern that you like, a view will be offered with "recommended fabrics". They're not recommending fabrics because they get a finder's fee - those are the fabrics most likely to give you the results shown! The further you stray from the "recommended fabrics", the less likely you are to get the results you want.
--Stitchin'

Lauren Chang said...

Hello,
My name is Lauren and I'll be in Taiwan in 4 days! I plan on getting a few dresses made (dresses similar to http://www.anthropologie.com/anthro/product/clothes-dress-fitflare/25477324.jsp) custom by tailors there. I don't have patterns, and I was wondering how much it would be to go off pictures. Also, recommendations for fabric markets/tailors?
thanks so much,
Lauren

Jenna Cody said...

Lauren - a shirt will run you maybe NT$1500, same for a skirt, a dress NT$3000, and that'll be for if there are patterns or just photos (the best results are achieved if you bring in something to copy exactly with similar fabric). Yes, the tailors can work from pictures, even hand-drawn ones.

I use Limei, she's on the first floor of the regular market (the brick structure attached to the uglier fabric market building), enter through the brick building and turn right, she's the second tailor on the left - the one with short permed hair across from the old lady jade and clothing shop. She's great, but speaks no English. Otherwise, walk around the 3rd floor of Yongle until you find a tailor who has more clothes in his/her shop than house linens (some make house linens, some make clothes, some make both) - they'll usually be good bets.

Faith McGary said...

How would I find someone online that can make a dress for me and then have them ship it to me in the US? Do any of the tailors that you have found take online orders?

Faith McGary said...

I would love to order a dress to be made. In your travels, have you come across a tailor that is online that would allow you to pay and have them make and ship the dress?

Jenna Cody said...

Sadly, that's not really possible - it's not how the system is set up. They need you in person to take measurements, don't speak English and don't ship.

China Kuo said...

Thank you! I've been trying to search for decent tailors but couldn't find any! Can't wait to check this place out!