A Stitch In Time | Verve Magazine
India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
November 20, 2019

A Stitch In Time

Text by Anandita Bhalerao. Curated by Ojas Kolvankar.

There’s a growing wave of young people in urban India who are renouncing shopping altogether in favour of making their own clothes. Five creative individuals share their stories.

There’s been an undeniable shift in the collective consciousness of consumers in India. With increasing awareness about the need to switch to sustainable lifestyles, workers’ rights, environment-friendly fabrics and production processes, we are no longer consuming the same things, and in the same way, as we used to. And while it’s too early to ring the death knell for fast fashion in India, the increasing availability of alternatives is a promising sign. A small but growing community of young people is going a step further than shopping sustainably by taking matters — quite literally — into their own hands. While some have been ahead of the curve in embracing sustainable lifestyles, others are slowly finding their footing in unfamiliar waters. We spoke to six people across different backgrounds who have turned towards making their own clothes.

Koshy Brahmatmaj, 27
Multi-disciplinary artist

Why did you start making your own clothes?
I had some experience in pattern-cutting from when I studied special effects in college; we had to make Lycra bodysuits as the base for all our other work. As a kid, shopping outside was very hard because I was extremely skinny. When I was five, I’d asked my mom if I could wear a swimming costume while playing downstairs — it was a blue leotard with a yellow patch on it that was made by us. So in a way, getting clothes made has very much been a part of my childhood. However, I didn’t start making my own clothes until this year in June, when I got a sewing machine and began referencing garment patterns.

Where do you source the material from?
Most of the material I’ve used was found in my house. Both my parents’ clothing has always stood out. My mother was wearing palazzo pants when nobody knew what they were. While travelling, she tends to look for local prints and weaves, so I have a lot of those materials lying around our house.

How did you find your tailor? Do you have a different tailor depending on the silhouette?
We’re fortunate enough to live in India where going to a tailor is not uncommon. Before I started making my own clothes, we used to go to an acquaintance called Nyla Masood. She ran an organisation where they had a bunch of tailors — her masterji was simply amazing. Nyla aunty used to work as a costume designer for films. We don’t currently have a tailor, now that she has shifted her focus to her NGO. That’s also why I started learning pattern-cutting.

How often do you shop ready-made clothing?
The only pre-made clothing items I need to buy now are lingerie and jeans. But I also have a pattern cutting book on lingerie, so maybe in a couple of years, I’ll start making my own undergarments as well.

Do you think you have become more conscious about your consumption?
I have. At the beginning of this year, I used the Japanese organising consultant Marie Kondo’s KonMari method. I’ve been moving a lot since I was 18 — Bangalore, Mumbai, and then London — as has my sister, so our room was a mess. Once I experimented with the KonMari method, my entire thought process changed. I learned to prioritise. I did this with my entire room — documents and papers, shoes, and bedsheets. Why did I need 5 razais (quilts) in Mumbai weather? It did take a good 3-4 months though, and it was emotionally draining. My last purchase was a kurta when my parents insisted I buy something for my birthday.

Where do you find inspiration?
I learn through books, tutorials, Instagram and Pinterest. I look at the website of Moods, a store in New York which supplies fabric for the popular American television series Project Runway. They have a blog called Moods Sewciety, where they have free patterns. I really like how inclusive they are in terms of sizing. The designs aren’t basic, but they still have a certain timeless quality to them. I also like to look at Diet Prada and Diet Sabya because they allow me to track what people are copying and steer clear of it.

How much of your wardrobe would you say is DIY?
Even back in junior college, I used to bleach my denims and t-shirts.  Right now, I’d say it’s a mix of readymade and tailored clothes. Most of my readymade clothes are hand-me-downs from my friends’ mothers. I’ve also started mending my own clothes; I recently did it with a Maku kurta that I didn’t want to throw away just because of one tear.

Dieter Tretter, 42
Brand consultant and guest lecturer at Istituto Marangoni

Why did you start making your own clothes?
Mainly out of necessity — I started fashion college in Vienna at the age of 14 in 1991 and high street brands such as H&M, Zara and the like weren’t available in Austria back then. The styles that I really liked tended to be from luxury brands which I couldn’t afford so I made my own.

This was also a time when most menswear brands didn’t cater to my size — I was very slim with a 26-inch waist and a 34-inch. Most men’s clothes looked like they belonged to my bigger brother, especially since this happened during a time when the concept of ‘gender neutral’ clothing wasn’t on people’s minds.

Where do you source the material from?
Anywhere, really. I used to live in Bangalore, close to an area called Okalipuram. It has a mix of shops that sell by yardage; they’re holes in the wall where you pick up off-cuts, often sold by the kilo. I’ve sourced most of my clothing and upholstery fabrics from there since 2014.

I always look for material when I am travelling. I found some great floral cotton in Japan and recently picked up beautiful cotton in Vietnam, which I’ll get stitched into T-shirts for next spring — think a white Broderie Anglaise and a coffee brown piece with cut-out detail.

I also look in second-hand shops and markets when I am abroad, especially in Europe. People give away the most amazing things — both garments that can be altered or completely re-cut as well as loose fabric. I found some Italian lightweight wool in funky checks in Austria for a few euros. I’ll get a suit made from it.

Also, my mother has a great eye; she tends to find high-quality fabrics at markets and often picks up pieces for me. I am still looking for someone who can make knitwear; I’d like to commission pieces that I can’t find in stores.

How did you find your tailor? Do you have a different tailor depending on the silhouette?
In Europe, I was my own tailor mostly because getting anything stitched was not affordable. Sadly, tailoring is becoming an affair for the elite — most customers don’t see the value in custom-made clothes because many brands offer affordable alternatives.

In Bangalore, I found my tailor Nizam through an expat. His ‘shop’ is really a hole in the wall at the end of a tiny alley in the Commercial Street market area. I tried one more tailor with a rather fancy shop and rates to match, but he didn’t work as per my brief and ended up ruining some high-end fabric. Nizam usually understood what I wanted and having studied fashion and tailoring myself, I could properly explain what I wanted. If he couldn’t do it, he would tell me.

I am fairly new in Mumbai and have tried a few tailors, but none of them meets my criteria. One had good finish and craftsmanship, but again, didn’t pay attention to what I asked him to do. Another one is only able to work on very basic garments and the quality isn’t as good. I think I will have to source different contacts for varied needs by assessing each of their strengths and utilising them for that specifically.

How often do you shop ready-to-wear clothing?
Not often. In 2019, I probably bought a handful of basic T-shirts and a sweater and stocked up on underwear. I also bought a pair of ripped, second-hand jeans at a market in Bangkok. I am making an effort to buy and own less.

Do you think making your own clothes has made you more conscious about your consumption?
I have moved many times in the last few years, both within India and internationally. You start realising how much stuff you own that you don’t need, once your shipment arrives. If I could live without it for some weeks or even months, what’s the point of holding on to it? The planet is already drowning in plastic and cheap polyester clothes that are worn twice, only to end up in landfills, rotting away for 100 years. I am trying to both buy less and get fewer things made and focus on quality and longevity rather than quantity. It can be difficult though, as it’s difficult to resist beautiful textiles, especially in India where artisanal work such as embroidery and hand block printing is still affordable. It’s easy to get carried away.

Where do you find inspiration?
A combination of sources — people I see on the street, books, films, travel. I also check the main fashion weeks in NYC, London, Milan and Paris online and see how I can work trends into my wardrobe in India. Obviously not everything is going to work because of the climate. I look at silhouettes, colours and key stories I like and take it from there. Also depends on the availability of materials. More often than not, I can’t make something like since I don’t have the contact or the material, like say, knitwear.

How much of your wardrobe would you say is DIY?
About 70%.

Muskaan Chauhan, 19

Why did you start making your own clothes?
I’ve always loved wearing shirts, but unfortunately, the only affordable options were fast fashion brands, and since their clothing is so gendered, I’d find myself in the men’s section with very limited sizes and print options. I also learnt of their unethical manufacturing practices, and that was the last straw for me. I learnt to stitch and have been making my own clothes ever since.

Where do you source the material from?
I’ve started a brand called filemot, for which I source traditional fabrics from all over the country. I use the same fabrics for my personal clothing too.

How often do you shop ready-to-wear clothing?
I rarely shop for ready-made clothes now. The only time I shop is for fabrics, from which I craft my own garments.

Do you think it has made you more conscious about your consumption?
I have two sisters with whom I’ve always had to share and wear hand-me-downs. When we were younger, we weren’t aware of online shopping, and fast fashion brands were a bit expensive, so we would have our clothes stitched or thrifted. Since I’ve started my own brand, I make sure to have all sizes available for anybody who likes shirts.

Where do you find inspiration?
I draw my inspiration from a lot of places. Mostly, it’s the talented young artists I follow on Instagram, like Lillea Goian/@lillzkillz, Dillane/@kidsuper and @znali.

How much of your wardrobe would you say is DIY?
80% of my clothes are stitched, thrifted or hand-me-downs.

Amit Malhotra, 30
Book cover designer and Kathak dancer

Why did you start making your own clothes?
I grew up wearing clothes which were made in our house by my daadi (paternal grandmother) who was a professional tailor. She was always seen holding a big pair of scissors and a measuring tape and she made clothes according to our size, fit, style and taste. She even stitched our sooti vests and underwear. So, I guess we had a difficult time finding clothes to our liking in the market back then and still do. Also, it’s cheaper, unique, individualistic, and just nicer and highly unlikely that you’ll find someone else wearing the same clothes that you do.

Where do you source the material from?
I usually get my outfits made from second-hand cotton and silk sarees from Gujarati Market in Janpath, Connaught Place. I also source a lot of fabric from Katran Market in Mangol Puri, Delhi, which my mother discovered recently — one can get the best fashion and handloom fabrics at the cheapest prices since you only get leftover fabrics from half a meter to 3-5 meters.

How did you find your tailor? Do you have a different tailor depending on the silhouette?
The tailor who makes my kurtas, shalwars and pyjamas sits under a tree with his sewing machine in my neighbourhood in West Delhi and works out of there for 8-12 hours a day. My western outfits, trousers, shirts, shorts, kimonos and jackets are made by another tailor who I found through my partner. He’s much more expensive but very quick.

How often do you shop ready-to-wear clothing?
Not very often, but when I do, it’s usually second hand or from flea markets.

How was your approach towards clothes changed since you began making your own?
I grew up in a middle-class family, always being reminded of how much we were consuming, and how. Getting our own clothes made was a way to control our consumption since it’s not as convenient as walking into a high street fashion store and picking up clothes that you don’t necessarily need. Getting things custom- made requires a huge deal of effort — one has to think of what kind of material to get, where to get the fabric from, the silhouette, the style, and then find the right person to make it for you. I usually only invest that kind of effort, time and money when I really need something. I do value my clothes more because it’s highly unlikely for them to end up in a bin when I know so much effort and time has gone into making them.

I still have the first outfit I ever wore that my grandmother made. It’s so fascinating to see a single piece of clothing summing up my grandmother’s entire life, something which she made with her own hands.

Where do you find your inspiration?
Old family photos, mostly.

How much of your wardrobe would you say is DIY?
95 per cent and the rest of 4 per cent is either second-hand or thrifted. The remaining 1 per cent would be ready-made.

Vivitsa Kohli, 24
Ceramic artist

Why did you start making your own clothes?
Our grandparents’ generation used to think it was important to know how to sew. My mom also dabbled a bit in it, and my nani used to make my clothes when I was little. By the time I was 13, I was really infatuated with the idea of being able to design and make my own clothes. I wanted to end up in fashion as a child because I really liked drawing clothes. My fashion illustrations were actually the beginnings of my career as an artist and painter. I also went to a design college where everyone learnt the basics of design for a year, so that helped.

Where do you source the material from?
I lived in Ahmedabad for a long time, and the city is, as you know, a cotton hub. I used to go around the old city looking for tiny, hole-in-the-wall places that sell really good cloth and I would ask them to show me scraps from other people’s clothes. I think an important aspect of design is that you need to set your own limitations. So even if I just had a metre or two, I’d make sure I used it.

How did you find your tailor? Do you have a different tailor depending on the silhouette?
I make most clothes on my own, but sometimes when it’s a very high-stakes thing (like if the material cost me more than usual) I go to a tailor. I usually get tailors who I can guide step by step. But in general, I don’t have to mass produce like them, and I care about the cloth so much that I’ll save the smallest bit of it, so I prefer sewing them on my own when I can.

How often do you shop ready-made/pre-made clothing?
I’m quite averse to buying readymade clothes. I avoid brands that make ethnic fashion in particular. Take Fabindia, for instance — although their clothes look like something I’d wear, the idea that someone else could be wearing the same thing really doesn’t appeal to me. I’m also disinclined towards fast fashion, mostly because I dislike going to malls and the idea of these stores full of the same kind of clothes made in some small factory on wage labour. Brands love to say their clothes are ‘handmade’ but what if it was my own handmade? On the other hand, I really enjoy street shopping since I know the clothes are there because of some kind of defect, and I love how economical it is.

Where do you find inspiration?
I’m influenced a lot by vintage fashion. I like comfortable clothing made from Indian textiles like NorBlack NorWhite and Ogaan. That’s another limitation I set for myself – only Indian textiles are allowed. I always have these waves of maybe one month where I tell myself I’m only going to make clothes. I lay out all the inspiration and pointers I’ve collected over a year, like if I’ve thought “This sleeve was very interesting” at some point and written it down. I also lay out all the textiles that I’ve collected, whether it’s from an exhibition or a trip to Orissa. It takes one small inspiration and then I mix and match with other ideas.

How much of your wardrobe would you say is DIY?
A while ago, my life philosophy became living sustainably. I started making my own soap with my mom. In the first year of college, everyone was trying to figure out what sets them apart from each other, even if you’re in the midst of so many creative people. I realised that for me, it was the fact that I’m super economical. So in general, I don’t shop too much. But once in a while, I will go with a friend to a Fabindia or a Bandejh or Anokhee – I wouldn’t mind if someone gifted me a top from Bandhej.

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