Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Ever wanted someone to sew for you?

I recently spent nine weeks in China, it was the second nine weeks in China actually. Last year was the first time. In both years, the first three weeks were spent in Tianjin , a city located near Beijing,  the middle three weeks were spent in Shenzhen, a city across the river from Hong Kong, and the last 3 weeks were spent in Shanghai.
Where Beijing is known for its pearl market, Shanghai is known for its fabric markets. Pearls are not of much interest to me, but fabric is.

The day after arriving into Shanghai, off to the fabric market I went with some friends.  My goal was to get a Chanel style jacket made for myself.

I have taken the Classic French Jacket class from Susan Khalje, and truth be told, the jacket remains unfinished. Not due to lack of interest, but in the move from France some of the critical parts have gone missing. I am so close to being complete it is maddening! The missing parts are in the house. I found them last year and put them where I could match them up with the incomplete jacket. Now I can't find either. I am in the process of cleaning the basement and my sewing area so it really is just the small matter of finding them. If I could be at the house long enough I know I would find everything, it just has not happened yet. Why hasn’t it happened yet? Well China comes to mind. So back to China…

There are many fabric markets in Shanghai. Some large and some small. The one I went to was chosen specifically because last year people I know had suits made there. Although I did not need a suit, I had had time to walk around and buy some items while helping others who were buying suits. I sew and can tell if something is not hanging correctly.

Last year, I bought some beautiful silk and wool scarves from a vendor in this particular market. If you go to the touristy street markets or the market where many people go to buy fake shoes and handbags you can find lots of “wool” and “silk” items. They look identical to what this vendor had. The problem is that those at the tourist markets are polyester based. I wanted wool or I wanted it to be mostly wool. I wanted something of higher quality. Quality is hard to find in the street markets.

The Shanghai ShiLiu Pu Cloth Market at 168 DongMen Road was my destination.  It is a shabby three storied building. It looks like it was once a small department store that had been gutted. Inside now are aisles, like in a grocery store. On either side are booths. Each one is a different vendor selling fabric and/or making garments. 

Garments are shown on manikins or are displayed up on the walls of the stall. Most of what is displayed are Chinese style dresses, evening dresses or wedding gowns. With all of the fabric, the floors are clean and the vendors eager for business. Later it was pointed out to me the ceilings were filthy, but who looks up?
 In the basement, accessed by an old creaky escalator, was mostly just fabric sold by the meter displayed on long cylindrical bolts stacked everywhere. Choose your vendor and you can choose between silk, linen, cotton and synthetics.

My first failure.  In the basement I had found a really fun green poly/rayon sheer. The models the vendor had looked good and she had a small sewing room in the back with 4 people busy sewing, what could go wrong?  I had the vendor make a duster for me. The vendor drew a picture of what I wanted. Helpful were images I had on my phone of what I wanted. Like this one:

I was measured and told it would be done in a week. Cost fabric and having the garment made, 300 Yuan ($45) You pay 50% down and the rest when you come and get it and are satisfied with the workmanship.

What went wrong? On pick up a week later, something was not right with the left side of the garment. It hung funny.  Looking into the mirror, I quickly figured out that the shoulder seam was not right causing the strange look. Also I had wanted slits on the side and I the garment did not have that. It was hard to gauge the fit with the shoulder being off, but it appeared to be good. I was told it would be a couple days to fix it.

When I returned I could tell the garment had been completely remade. The shoulder seam was good and the slit was where it should be but now it was way too big.  Smiling, I paid for it even though I was not satisfied. You see this was an experiment to see if they could sew better than I could. For this vendor, the answer was no. They were very busy in the back sewing so they must have satisfied customers, I am just not one of them.
Displayed on an accurate sewing mannequin to me:

Oh the wrinkled hemlines, the bad puckers near the neck and talk about frumpy! I doubt I will do anything to it. Not worth the effort. It is large enough that I could actually remake it smaller. Too bad. I love the fabric and in the correct fit would have been a nice addition to my wardrobe.   I even have the lace I could have sewn on to the lower edge and sleeves.

How about a success! Around the corner from my duster failure, there was a woman who specialized in linen.
I found a couple I liked and then looked through her remnants. Remnants cost 10 Yuan a meter ($1.50). To show that it was pure linen or a blend she did a burn test. So let's see, I am in the basement of a building with tens of 1000s of meters of all sorts of fabric and she is burning something....hmmmm. Setting fire worries aside, the linens were real and very pretty.  I bought a very nice pokka dot light weight linen ($5 a meter) , a green linen blend ($1.50 per meter) and a white linen rayon blend ($1.50 per meter). This one is a cotton/linen blend that I brought with me to France to make something with.
She did not make garments, but you could buy fabric from her and then get the garment made somewhere else. In this case I will be the one sewing. I could use a couple linen shirts.

After I made my purchases, my attention was drawn to a fabric across the aisle.
SILK!  Right across from the linen woman was a man selling silk. Again he did not make garments, he just sold the fabric. The one that had caught my eye, I would not look good in was a beautiful orange/red not blood red classic Chinese brocade style silk, but seeing my interest he told me it was 90 Yuan a meter.($13). This was the most expensive type of fabric in his booth. This fabric was a beautiful 4 ply silk. He did a burn test to prove it. Everyone has permission to run screaming from the building now! One of our group pulled out another of the silks and there next to it was something that cried to come home with me.

The women selling linen had nothing better to do than join the conversation that was going on in English and Chinese with the silk vendor. We were comparing two fabrics, one of them dull or muted in its color of summer while the other, though muted had fall tones to it. The fall tone one was the one that caught my eye. The linen vendor told me I needed to buy 2.5 meters for a nice dress or long jacket. The seller thought I could get away with 2 meters. A passionate conversation in Chinese started and in the end it was decided, with no input from me, that I needed to buy 2.5 meters. Decision made, so that is what I did.

I am to soak it in cold water. The silk vendor was quite insistent about it. Do not dry clean he told me, but do soak it to cause any shrinkage to happen before I sew with it.
As a side note, I wash all of my silks. I can't stand the feel of dry cleaned silk. Also since I travel so much it is nice to have the ability to wash as I need to whatever clothing I travel with. I am not sure what it will be yet, I have to soak it first and comb though my patterns. Of course I need to be home long enough to do that as well.

On the street level floor is where I found the vendor for making my jacket. 
Initially I was sucked in by one of the fabrics. 

The cost of having a Chanel style jacket made was 500  Yuan ( $75) this includes the fabric and the workmanship.  I was measured and what I wanted was drawn up. For me the length was important since my body type does not look good in a jacket that is too short which is why I cannot normally buy off the rack jackets. The woman making the measurements agreed when she started measuring me that I needed a couple extra inches on the jacket length. There was a model there that I could try on:
It was too small and too short for me, but it let me know the color was good for me.  On a card display there was a selection of buttons that, if I did not like what came with the jacket, I could substitute. For an extra 36 Yuan ( $5.15) I could choose something else off the card. Or I could go up stairs and pay half that and find what I wanted. On the card, one of the buttons looked really nice with the jacket so I opted for the upgrade. While there a second sample jacket caught my eye. It was a black and white woven and looked like it would be elegant in a long jacket. A longer jacket would cost 600 Yuan ($86). It would have no buttons meet in the front held shut with frog clasps. Again, I was told a week and to come back then.

Let's talk Chanel jackets for a moment. There were a few of differences in what the vendor was making so let's note the differences.
A true Chanel has a three piece sleeve where as these have the more common two. A Chanel jacket has a nice and heavy seamless chain across the back of the jacket to hold the jacket down in the back. These do not. Fabric; the real thing uses a high end boucle where as these used a thinner boucle of lesser quality. A true couture jacket has quilting holding the silk lining to the jacket. Only the side and shoulder seams as well as the sleeves of the boucle are the only part of the jacket that are machine stitched. The Shoulder seams are hand sewn and everywhere not quilted, the lining is hand sewn.  If they are ready wear, they are almost completely machine sewn. In this case, both have a quality silk lining. The lining needs to be a heavier silk so that it does not tear. The buttons, although I upgraded are nothing like the Chanel ones. The ones in China were OK, but not a real high quality. Also, there is no tag in the back where they fake Chanel. This is strictly a style of jacket that they are making.

My first visit back was a partial success. The short jacket fit perfectly and I am very satisfied with the workmanship.
Here is what it looks like open: (Ya that is something I am working on which was pinned to the manikin when the pictures were taken)

The second jacket however was not good. Instead of having a straight hem, it v’ed in the front. On a short jacket this would be nice. On a long jacket it was not attractive. I asked for it to be straightened and was told it would be completed in a couple days.

When I went to pick up the black and white jacket, the V in the front still remained, but 8 inches had been cut off of the length of the jacket. I was so disappointed. This is not what I had asked to be done. Something got lost in translation, even though I had brought a friend who spoke Chinese with me for the first fitting. They made good on the jacket, making it again the following week for me. The match is good on the jacket, but if I nitpick I would point out that at the shoulders the plaid does not match up. This is something I would have made sure of and on the first jacket it was lined up.
Here it is on the manikin:

On the second floor was the vendor I wanted to return to as last year I had bought a cashmere scarf for my mom and I wanted to buy a couple more. I washed moms right before leaving for China and it washed beautifully. It stayed soft and held its shape like her more expensive ones do. A couple more would be nice.

While there a silk scarf caught my eye. The pattern depicted an Italian or European village. Unlike others I own it is square. The colors are bright and vibrant. The edges were expertly hand sewn. That one was the easy purchase.
So overall how do I rate my buying experience in China? I give myself a B. One failure, one great shorter Chanel style jacket and one OK longer Chanel jacket. Giving myself some wonderful finds in silk and cashmere scarves, puts me in solid B range. Should I ever return Shanghai, I would not hesitate in having something else made.


  1. What great fun shopping with you in China. Love the scarf and it would even make a great wall hanging with straight pins across the top

  2. Penny, thanks for keeping up with wherever in the world I am!

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