Tailor-made sense of style

Jong and Yeo with their fashion creations.

AS long as there are people who appreciate that ‘special touch’ in what they wear, the vocation of tailoring will live on.

That ‘special touch’ is the design and style that make a piece of cloth elegant and comfortable for its wearer.

Tailoring as we know it today, is the accumulation of many centuries of dedication to the craft of sewing, stitching, cutting and imitating the human form in fabrics.

Before the birth of tailoring, clothes were seen purely as functional objects to cover the body and protect it from the elements.

Towards the last few decades, due to very large mass-produced clothes available in the market, the trade of tailoring has seen a decline as many people began to see it’s cheaper and more convenient to just buy from garment stores rather than look for the materials — and a tailor, of course.

This decreasing demand for tailor-made clothes has given many young people second thoughts about taking up tailoring as a career.

Most are perhaps discouraged by the extremely high degree of meticulousness and patience the art of garment-making demands.

Moreover, there is also a general perception tailoring is an old-fashioned occupation or a sunset industry.

While there are signs of a revival in tailoring among the younger set in other countries, it’s still quite difficult to coax youths in Sarawak to become tailors, according to a local tailor-designer.

Susan Jong said she still finds it quite a challenge getting young locals to take up tailoring because many are put off by what they thought is a boring activity.

Jong checks her designs.

Jong looks over the costumes she designs.

Yeo making a final inspection on her embellishment works.

The 49-year-old, who has designed and tailored clothes for some renowned professionals and high profile people, is hoping she could persuade young people to change their mind and inspire them to take up tailoring as a career.

She said many people tended to think a tailor’s job is low-class, boring and involves long working hours.

“A lot of  young people especially have asked me to teach them sewing but most gave up half way. They were impatient — and could not take the

grind,” added Jong, a tailor of 26 years.

However, she still holds out some bright hopes for tailoring, saying there are many people who do not find ready-made clothing sold in shopping malls or online stores, the proper fit for them, preferring to have their outfits tailor-made to personal specifications and styles.

Then, there are also people who simply like their clothes tailor-made as they want what they wear to fit perfectly.

“That’s why I believe one could still make a good living from tailoring. There is still a niche market for it,” Jong said.

“What we wear is, after all, a very personal thing. So I think it’s normal for people to feel extra special wearing something personally tailored for them.”

Jong said most of her orders are from women who want their dresses to be fitting and elegant.

She also makes suits, dinner gowns and dresses for special functions or festivals.


Biggest advantage

According to her, one of the biggest advantages of a customised outfit is that it will fit comfortably and feels ‘great’ to wear.

Off-the-rack clothes are based on standard measurements — which is why the fitting is ‘always a bit out’ and oft-times has to be altered to preferred specifications by a tailor.

Another advantage of customised attires is that they can be made to suit a particular style or design.

Ready-made clothes do not have this advantage.

“You can think of custom-made attires as a sort of a long-term investment because they are often made with the best materials or cloth textures and the wearers will want to reach for them whenever they open their wardrobes.

“Don’t we often notice how people always wear only the few clothes they like even if they have stakes of others in their wardrobes? It must be due to the ‘special feel’ of these clothes.”

On buying clothes from the stores, Jong said she had heard customers lamenting about being caught in a dilemma of liking the materials but not the fashion and vice versa.

She advised people going for tailor-made outfits to find the materials they liked most, noting that in this way, the outfits would become worthwhile investments.

She also said the mere mention of ‘custom-made’ would conjure up in most people’s minds outfits that are expensive, unnecessary or ‘only for fashionistas’.

Stressing that’s not the case, she said, “Customised clothes have a special value or meaning in themselves. They are like one’s intimate companions.

“Moreover, wearing a customised outfit enables one to show one’s personal style and appear not only elegant but also original in the company of other well-dressed people. Somehow, there’s that something which makes a customised apparel looks sharper and more enduring,”


Typical day

Describing a typical day for a tailor like her, Jong said when customers called, she would first show them the different types of fabric if they had not bought their own.

Then she would discuss with them the outfits they wanted to make such as patterns, colours and textures of fabric.

She would help them decide what suit them, take their measurements and fix an estimated date for collection.

Subsequently, she would get down to the tailoring itself, using cardboards of various shapes as templates. The pieces of the cut out cloths would then be mechanically sewn together. But some delicate parts of the sewing have to be done the old-fashioned way — by hand.

Up to a certain stage, Jong said, she would have to call in the clients for a final fitting. Sometimes, the customers themselves might change their mind and want some minor alterations made.

“The customers have the final say. There are times new pieces of clothes have to be cut to accommodate the changes. Only cases where either the length or width needs to be shortened or narrowed are easier to deal with.

“The finished clothes will be ironed and the buyers informed to come and collect.”


More complex outfits

Based on her experience, making outfits for women tend to be more complex. There’s a greater variety of women’s

body shapes than men’s. More curves mean more measurements, more places a garment might have to be adjusted and more time getting the fit just right — which is why women’s attire often costs more.

“Furthermore, women may be a little more fashion-conscious and thus, are more particular about how their attires are made. This is one aspect I have to also pay attention to.

“And, yes, the most challenging part is to cater to the demands of larger size clients who want to have their outfits tailored to make them look slimmer,” she explained.

Conversely, Jong finds men not really particular about style or fashion.

“Men go to a tailor because most often, they find it more convenient than hunting for off-the-rack clothes that fit them. This usually happens to larger men.”

She said she had noticed a surge in demand for tailor-made women’s clothes over the past 10 years. She believed this could have been due an increase in the number of career women.

“In many places they work, women need to look presentable, so they have to look for tailors to help them make the best work clothes.

“Then there are women who come to her to have costumes made for various occasions. These costumes need specialist tailors, highly skilled in embroidery. There are few such tailors here. Besides, such delicate handiwork needs a lot of patience and long hours to do.”

Jong said she already had a passion for tailoring when she was still a little girl. She loved working on various kinds of DIY (do-it-yourself) items, including embroidery and embellishment items.

But unfortunately, she pointed out, her father did not hold with the idea of her becoming a tailor after finishing school, preferring her to go for further studies.

She said people of that time had a concept that tailoring was only for those who could not go for higher education, and there was no future in that kind of work.

But Jong was determined to become a tailor. She persevered and got better and better at her craft until eventually even her father began to feel proud of her.

“Mind you, all my other siblings went for higher studies. I’m the third among 10 siblings.”


Shared interest

She said she felt lucky her young niece, Beatrice Yeo, has also shown interest in tailoring, adding that it is a relief at least someone in the family could carry on her tailoring legacy.

Asked why tailoring, Yeo replied, “I grew up in a family whose main income was from tailoring. That, naturally, made me pick up the trade and developed my interest in it. Moreover, I love traditional handicrafts and have the desire to acquire the handicraft-making skills.”

She said tailoring is very close to handicraft in that both need meticulousness and creativity.

“I have seen an increase in demand for things produced with handicraft skills. There are people who want things of quality and durability.

“In a way, I can say at least I have found something I love to do and treat it as a career.”

Yeo who has been a tailor designer for five years said she strongly believes tailoring has a bright future — even locally — because this occupation has better commercial potential.

She said tailoring has a close relationship with fashion and there are lots of exciting things happening in the world of fashion.

As such, she believed tailoring would not die but instead flourish even more because fashion keeps changing.

“So, those in this industry will always have something new and exciting to learn and do. It’s no longer a job for the less educated.”

Yeo said she has learnt a lot from her aunt and usually helps with the final touch-ups, involving embellishment works like beading, embroidery, ornament — all requiring handiwork skills.

“I kind of enjoy the feeling of sculpting around people to make them look their best. It’s so gratifying to see someone putting on a finished dress and looking very pleased with it,” she said.

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