But for as wildly different as everything seemed to be at first glance, there are activities that are universal. Familiar. In the open-air markets, my eye was drawn to the circular rolls of fabric (not rectangular bolts; some things may be familiar, but just different enough to be exciting) and the questionably-located seamstresses, with their sewing machines set up in a storage shed, or on a roadside card table with a pile of alterations work beside them.
These tucked-away seamstresses piqued my curiosity and so, while aware that the language barrier would probably prevent us from fully understanding each other, I asked one to make a dress for me.
LET ME GIVE YOU SOME CONTEXT
I was in Southeast Asia for seven weeks with my husband and 5-year-old daughter. Our trip saw us in Northern Thailand for four weeks and in Malaysia for three weeks, with not much more on our agenda than eating, sleeping and finding somewhere to wash our duffel bag of clothes. We got up close and personal with elephants, hiked to the most intricate and serene Buddhist temples and, naturally, ate a lot of incredible, flavorful, make-you-sweat noodle dishes.
With so much time on our hands for exploring, and the plethora of shops in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I convinced myself I needed a new dress more fitting for the climate and culture.
For some of us, getting a good dress isn't as easy as finding the right color or the right arrangement of elephants in the print. For those of us with broad shoulders, long torso and small chest, finding a dress that doesn't make you look like a child in adult's clothing can be a bit difficult.
In Chiang Mai, getting a suit tailored is a popular pursuit for business travelers. The fabric choices are stellar and the price is a bargain, especially compared to what it would cost to get a custom-tailored garment in the States. There is no shortage of brick-and-mortar shops along the mote that defines Chiang Mai city, with expertly crafted pieces in the window and signage in English clearly stating exactly what you'll be getting, but that was not enough of an adventure for this traveler.
MAKE A PLAN
Though some of those shops will only do suits, many showed dresses in their windows as well and would've been happy to help me. But I had seen the alleyway seamstresses tucked away further inside the city and wanted to investigate. Surely the prices would be more favorable.
While I was tempted to just go with the first seamstress I found, I wanted to be sure I was getting a reasonable price, so I shopped around a little. After the first conversation I muddled through, subsequent ones were easier.
I spoke with two seamstresses who gave me similar prices. I chose to go with Loi, who operated her sewing machine out of a storage-shed-type facility on a narrow, winding side street in the Northeast corner of Chiang Mai city. Not only did she quote me a lower price, but she was super friendly too. She also had a dress form in her shop wearing a dress in a similar style to the one I was dreaming of.
Though my husband and I were in good practice haggling with vendors selling their wares at hawker stalls, I felt I should leave that for the markets. You know just as I do that sewing well takes time and this is their livelihood. To be respectful of her time and talent, I accepted Loi's quote.
Part of my plan entailed being prepared with how much I was willing to spend. As far as I could tell, the price quoted to me depended on a few factors.
1. The style of the dress. It behooved me to know exactly what I wanted before going in, because this effects how much fabric is needed as well.
2. How much the seamstress likes you personally. It might not be fair, but that's just how things work. By the time I spoke with my seamstesses, we'd been entrenched in enough Thai culture to learn that being amenable and smiling a lot will go far in endearing us foreigners (farangs, as they call us) to the locals.
THE HARD PART: FABRIC SHOPPING
Knowing the general style of dress I wanted, Loi told me to bring her 3 meters of fabric.
1 meter = 1.09 yards
She pointed me in the direction of the Warorot market generally and Niran Fabric specifically. I had hoped for a knit fabric, but Loi told me upfront it might be difficult to find at the market, and she was right.
Here is another place I needed to be prepared. The stores are busy, there's not much room to move around between the upright rolls of fabric and even if the fabrics were labelled by hand-written signs, which most of them weren't, I wasn't able to read them anyway.
I was told instantly by five fabric stores I stopped at that there was no knit fabric. I inquired after cotton fabric and was handed a card with swatches too small to get a feel for the hand. So I resorted to touching all the bolts. I was distracted by the rolls and rolls of brightly-colored silks, shantung and the embroidered, sequined Indian fabrics and thereby spent far too long perusing.
When I found a fabric I liked, I asked an employee, "What's the fiber content of this?" He told me rayon, which is great because I love rayon, but he knew I wanted cotton, so he followed it up with, "Rayon is cotton and polyester." Which it isn't. Rayon is rayon, a man-made fiber made of reconstituted plant cellulose. He just wanted me to stop loitering in his store touching everything. I didn't appreciate that, but luckily, I knew my fiber contents and wasn't fooled. None of that mattered in the end though, because I wanted that rayon anyway.
To make things more difficult for myself, I decided I wanted my dress in two tones, so I had to search out a fabric to match my chosen rayon print. The only fabrics with even a smidge of stretch to them were 100% polyester. Not a great choice for a tropical climate, but my husband had started looking at his wrist so I decided to roll with it.
After crossing the store an embarrassing number of times, I made my decision. There isn't room for a cutting table in these cramped stores, so the employee removed a meter-long stick from inside the roll of fabric and measured against that. He held his spot with his finger and cut all the way down and that was that. It was accurate-ish.
One yard of polyester and two yards of gorgeous rayon cost me 200 Thai baht, which amounted to six whole U.S. dollars.
Loi seemed surprised to see us show back up at her shop with the required fabric. I think she figured we'd get lost or discouraged by the madness of the market and give up.
With her notebook, she took my measurements. Not just bust, waist, hips and shoulder to knee. She measured sleeve length, bicep circumference, shoulder/neck to neckline vee and between bust points.
The most important point of getting a garment tailored is to not be shy about describing exactly what you want and repeat yourself in different ways with mimed gestures to be sure you're understood. She wanted me to be happy with the end product and the only way to get what I wanted was to tell her in no uncertain terms, especially considering the language barrier. Direct speech is not usually my way, but I mustered the courage.
"Close-fitted, no gathers at the waist, but full at the bottom," I said, with much gesticulating. It looked like she understood, but I drew a cut diagram of the skirt to be sure. It only served to confuse her.
Pointing at what I wrongly believed were universal cut-on-fold double arrows, she inquired, "You want pockets?" This brought up a good question I hadn't intended on pursuing. As a general rule, I want pockets in everything, but after waffling I decided against it this time, only because rayon is so lightweight my cell phone would have pulled the lines of the dress out of whack.
Loi drew a sketch of the dress to ensure we were on the same page. I made some adjustments and we both nodded and smiled.
We attempted to exchange numbers, but she didn't use the international texting app WhatsApp and she wasn't able to receive my regular SMS text messages. She seemed a little nervous about not being able to keep in touch, but at no point did she mention a down payment for her work.
We pointed at the calendar to determine a date for me to return for an initial fitting. She required only three days, but we were off on other adventures and would return in one week. She bid us goodbye by teaching us how to say "good luck" in Thai (chok dee na kah), which is essentially akin to telling someone to "Have a nice day."
I was mentally preparing myself to return to Loi and be disappointed. It was likely that some of my requirements had slipped through the language barrier or the fit would be all wrong. But I recognized that even if I hated the end product, the process was fun, and for the equivalent of $33 USD, including fabric, it was totally worth it.
My dress was on Loi's dress-form when we returned, and it was gorgeous. Turned out, she understood exactly the design I wanted and cut the quarter circle skirt just so.
I expected the dress to be half-finished to allow for easy adjustments, but it was complete, seams finished and everything. Which mattered little, because the dress fit me perfectly. Loi made space for me in the storage area behind a curtain in her shop to try it on. The princess seams curved to my body, the shoulders sat smartly in line, perhaps a little stiffly for my usual taste, but in the conservative Thai culture, perfectly balanced and elegant. I felt like a million bucks, or, more accurately, 800 Baht.
We bowed to her in the Thai wai way. Loi took our baht and tapped her calendar with it, to ensure good fortune in the coming year.
I wore my dress home, discreetly checking myself out in the reflections of shop windows.
Not only did I go home with a dress that fits me like I was born for it, in the fabrics of my choosing, but I came home with a great story and a better understanding of Thai culture. Not just people, but people who sew, just like me. From sharing tips and knowledge, or just pictures of the projects we create, this skill we share is a common thread that unites us all over the world.
Since mine was such a smashing success and since Loi had enough extra material, for another 600 baht, she made a matching dress for her favorite member of our trio. My mini was delighted to go through the same process as her mother and felt very important getting her measurements taken for a custom mother-daughter matching dress.