The Inch War


I had 60 metres of waterproof material to make 12 flags for work, and no one to sew them. What I needed was simple, but not so obvious to find in Kathmandu, where there’s a sewing machine on every corner with only a cramped sidewalk sewing patch, with no place to sew 60 metres of fabric without dragging it in the street gutter.  I needed an inside location with a work table and a little space.  I needed an ally who could translate the project in to Nepali and, most of all, I needed a tailor who could reliably follow directions.  It was going to be challenging.

The good news was that there was a sewing place just around the corner from work and accompanied by two helpful Nepali women with great English, we headed two minutes up the road to check it out.  The flags were very simple to make, but it was important they were made to the correct dimensions and would all be the same size on completion. I was armed with a small sewn mock-up, marked with finished measurements and velcro points so that what I wanted would be as clear as possible.  Both ladies had asked me questions in advance and were really clear on what was needed.  I was feeling optimistic that we could pull this off.

Two seamstresses worked inside the small tailor shop on small pedal-powered sewing machines while we waited for the guy to show up. They very kindly let me have the only spare stool to wait, and my eyes strayed around the room.  The cutting table was very small and more of a storage table, so there was nowhere to really cut and handle so much fabric except the floor, which was covered in off cuts and sewing debris from probably months of work.  I was starting to doubt whether this was the right place. It’s not uncommon to see people working in messy environments and its hard for me to handle.  Why wouldn’t you simply sweep up your own mess when you’ve finished?  It so much easier to work fast and efficiently and cleanly when you’re not tripping over your own mess.

The confusing thing about buying fabric here is how imperial and metric systems are mixed together.  I bought 60 meters of 60 inch wide fabric, and then had to decide which system to use to calculate measurements.  I advised to do everything in metric, so I converted the 7ft drop to 2.2 meters and decided on a 1 meter width.

The guy showed up and I greeted him with “Namaste”.  He didn’t return the greeting or even acknowledge me, and my helpers started the conversation in Nepali.  (I’ve seen this attitude before.  I’m not sure what the mindset is behind it, but if you want to tick me off…that’s a good start.)

They picked the 10 meter length of purple fabric to talk about the construction requirements.  They showed him the sample, but he didn’t really look at it.  He wanted to be shown. Each finished flag needed to be 2.2 meters long.  For the next 15 minutes or so, there was much discussion and measuring.  He was making me nervous as he kept measuring the fabric with a inch tape measure, and, as I needed the sizes to be accurate (and not just estimated), this was not boding well.  Then I noticed that the tape measure had been cut off at the 39″ mark.  He had converted a imperial tape measure into a  “meter stick.”  It was useful for measuring meters, but nothing else.  What’s more it already had metric marks on the other side of the tape, but these were useless as the first part of the metric side had been cut off to “convert” it to a meter length.  Jeez…ok.

The fabric was lain on the floor, over all the mess, and he started measuring the length.  Measuring 2 meters was easy.  More difficult was how to do the .2 measurement.  I could see that he wasn’t clear that is meant 20 centimeters, and I tried to explain that if he flipped it over and measured a 20cm span from, say, the 60 cm mark to the 80cm mark, he would have the measurement.  But that wasn’t going over, so it suddenly seemed so much to easier to switch to inches. “Let’s make it 86 inches long”, I declared, knowing that complete accuracy of the length was less important than having all the flags be completely consistent in length. Things got easier from there.

Next he went from testing the fabric on his machine (will that kind of fabric sew properly?), to cutting, and then actually completing all stages needed to finish the first flag.  I did not expect this.  It took three hours.  At no point was the construction unsupervised.  The mock-up had served its purpose by showing my friends what was needed.  But he needed them to translate the mock-up.  Each time he folded and repositioned the fabric he had three people holding material in place to stop it slipping.  I asked if perhaps he had any pins?  No, no pins.  I sent my driver out to buy them.  When they arrived he refused to use them.  I don’t know how he’s going to sew the next 11 flags without people standing there to hold the fabric.  Perhaps he will use them after I leave?!

The next 7 flags are due for pick up tomorrow.  Fingers crossed.  Watch this space!

Kathmandu Tailor



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