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Tailoring lives

Last updated on April 21, 2019

With all the talk about sustainability in clothing, are we being negligent by dumping our old clothes for just a minor defect that can be fixed easily by the tailor in our local market?

The urge to buy a new outfit is difficult to resist, especially if one is surfing apparel shops online, which is most likely the case, reports suggest one ends up buying more than they would do from a showroom.

We end up hoarding so many clothes till we discard them even for a minor defect. With wardrobes full of clothes — from the local street markets to the high-end brands — what we miss out on is the experience of fixing these pieces we once were in awe of and give them a new life.

They say it is only love that can extend the lifeline of a piece of garment, yet many of these meticulously bought outfits end up being rejected when they can totally use some mending and continue to be a part of our wardrobe.

How many of us would even try to fix a six-month-old shirt that has a missing button, a blouse with seams that have come off and dresses with torn fabrics and failing zippers? While repairing such clothes was once considered an art, it has now been reduced to an engagement that everyone tends to avoid. Our wardrobes are so full of clothes that we hardly want to invest any time and energy in getting our old clothes, that have suffered minor blemishes, fixed.

But this task can be outsourced to the tailors who sit in local markets around Delhi, sometimes just under a tree. Their lack of a roof over their heads has, in fact, helped these skillful ‘makers’ run their business with minimal resources. They brave all kinds of weather conditions, serving people by prolonging the life of their dear garments.

One of them is MG Ikram, a 37-year-old who stays in Delhi’s Ambrahi village, who sits in Dwarka’s Sector 19 market. Ikram, who came to Delhi with his elder brother in 2005, has been in the business of repairing clothes for people who live nearby. “From closing cuts in fabric, to altering the size, I can do it all,” shares Ikram.

The Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh, that led to the death of more than 1,000 people due to the collapse of an apparel factory, inspired the fashion community to take a more responsible approach to how fashion was produced and consumed around the world. Anything that supports sustainability within the business of fashion is a step towards a larger vision of what fashion should be. Individual initiatives like that of Ikram is one example that helps him support his livelihood and add to the life of a garment, thus saving it from ending up in the ever-increasing pile of trash.

Ikram, who considers himself one of the finest karigars in his locality, is often referred by his clients to new people who might need his services. “Word of mouth helps our business survive,” he says. With no official branding, he is often identified by his name and the location where he sits at in the market or sometimes by the tree, under which he sets his business. Until a year ago, he and his brother used to share a machine.

But the skills that were passed onto him by his brother helped him to earn enough money to buy a new stitching machine and move to a new locality.

But his business has only increased in these years and he thinks people regularly come to him, as he is one of the famous tailors in the market. “People have spent money on their clothes, so they want to give it to someone who they think will do the job right,” says Ikram. He shares that he makes enough money to sustain his single life, however, sometimes stitching new clothes for his clients helps him earn more money. But he says that most of his business comes out of refurbishment.

Mass-manufacturing of clothing is less expensive than the work required to repair a piece of clothing. Many people prefer buying a new item, rather than spending time and money on mending it. In a circumstance like that, small enterprises like these are a helpful measure in pushing the idea of ‘upcycling’ or to lend a few more occasions to clothes on the verge of becoming refuse.

Devender Kumar, another such tailor who sits in the Rajendra Nagar market, started his career by working for an export house in Noida. “Due to some dispute within the factory, it shut down and I decided to venture out on my own after working in a boutique for a couple of years,” he says.

Kumar believes that this setting is more comfortable for him. He can choose when he wants to work and be his own boss. He adds that he would not go back to working for someone else, as he has been self-employed for 14 years now, with a total of 40 years experience in tailoring.

He does not stitch new garments as that requires multiple resources, like ironing facilities, cutting table, interlocking and pasting. This has made him stick to repairing and altering.

Kumar was six years old when he started learning sewing, something that his father put him to do with the help of a close associate. He likes his current position where he is independent. “I don’t think I can do anything else, I can’t exactly work under anyone now, the fixed hours would not work for me.” He adds that he works every day without taking leaves and can be found at his usual spot in the market every day from 9 in the morning to 4.30 in the evening, unless he is away to attend weddings or someone is ill in the family. His daughter is about to get married in the month of May and he is excited and relieved about it.

He says that he is not keen on a fixed amount from his clients. He is happy with anything people are willing to give him. This is his way of serving people. He can repair everything from salwar suits, shirts and pants to jackets, denim and coats.

When the country is dealing with an employment crisis, self-sufficiency is a welcome attribute. With minimum resources, there is a lot we can add and take away from these one-man businesses that are wonderful examples of making a living by being sustainable.