Becoming a Tailoring Apprentice
-Alisa Weinstein, PhD Candidate in Anthropology
“Alisa, idhar aao (come
here),” said Anita Ji, holding our two cups of chai at break time. “Don’t go
inside,” warned Dilip Ji, a tailor working at the custom sewing boutique in
Jaipur where I have begun my dissertation research. “You aren’t going to learn
anything in there,” he teased. In my desire to understand how local tailors are
responding to increasingly globally informed consumer tastes and access to
designer-branded and affordable ready-made clothing, I have immersed myself in
the aesthetics and skilled practices of their labor through the mode of apprenticeship.
Each day, I traverse the contested ground between the outdoor work area of the
four male tailors at their cutting tables and sewing machines, and the inside
of the boutique where Anita Ji sits doing turpai, or the finishing work
of hemming by hand. From the tailors I am learning to cut kurtas and palazzos,
make piping, add borders, and create neck designs. Yet it is Anita Ji who can
explain any topic to me in Hindi in a way that I can understand, even though she’ll
be the first to tell you she can’t read or sign her name. We love to chat as I
watch her make fine invisible stitches at an unparalleled speed.
The signal that my tailoring
apprenticeship had begun came when the tailors arranged for the repair of an
old non-electric sewing machine and even added a motor for me. Without
hesitation, they squeezed me into their already tight work-space. Prior to
this, I thought I was an experienced sewer. Now, my new teachers inspect my
work and shake their heads repeatedly as they tell me to “open it” and redo it.
My machine has such a will of its own that I can barely sew a straight line.
With no written patterns or instructions, I always have to ask what to do next.
With not a pin in sight, it is a relief I came to India armed with my own seam
As a newcomer navigating the
demands of producing the local fashions, my most useful contribution is ripping
out anyone’s unwanted stitches. With the influx of ready-made and semi-made
garments, the tailors are now plagued by time-consuming and tedious
alterations, which often require removing and reapplying trim or taking a
garment completely apart before cutting it and re-assembling it. In these
moments they say, “Alisa Ji, kuch kaam karo (do some work),” and as
requested, I begin the ripping.
When it comes to the
disapproval of the use of my seam ripper, Anita Ji and the tailors find common
ground. They take the garment out of my hands, saying, “aisay, aisay,”
(like this, like this) yanking and breaking the thread with only their fingers.
With the frustrations of letting go all that I thought I knew about sewing, I
must admit that tearing out threads with a sudden violent tug and snap in my
bare hands has grown surprisingly satisfying.
Alisa Weinstein is currently
doing her dissertation fieldwork in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Her project, “Tailor
Made in India: Clothing Local and Global Bodies in Jaipur,” has been funded by
a Fulbright-Nehru Student Research Grant. Weinstein has been an FLAS Fellow at
Syracuse University and received a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) to study
Hindi as well.