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 ripper.Weinstein (right) with Anita Ji (middle) and Dilip Ji (left)

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.