Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Fabric Market

It was an intriguing concept, and another of many surprises that China held for me. David and I had heard that there was a market filled with fabric close to the west side of the Huangpu River where you could have clothes tailored to fit your Western self. The possibilities were tantalizing, especially considering the limited clothing options for those of us with hips who find ourselves in Asia.

For me, and perhaps other Americans, the word market is a somewhat exotic term, conjuring up images of colorful stalls filled with goods and crafts and oddities. But when I thought of markets, in general, I thought mostly of food. It was the ancient supermarket, a far cry from the fluorescent lit groceries, mini marts or, egad, Wal-Mart. Columbus had its own fancy schmancy modern manifestation of the old world style cluster of food stalls called the North Market, which was a good place to buy specialty food items in the city, with whole ducks or foreign cheeses at your fingertips. Even if it was a touch pricey, I always enjoyed going there, if only to look around. I was in awe of those who were able to pick one ingredient from 5 different vendors and somehow turn it into a dish. It was a cool place to tap into the old way of doing things, albeit in a pretty high brow fashion. But not all new versions of the market concept in American culture are for the rich or wannabe foodies. If you were not fortunate enough to live close to an actual farm, some towns would have fruit and veggie stalls line up along the main street during the weekends from spring to fall, manned by the local growers themselves. It just sounds more quaint and wholesome to call it a farmer’s market. So with a firm romantic concept of the markets of yore and the hot tip that a market existed in a foreign land filled with textiles rather than with food, my head swam in a sea of colors and patterns.

The realty, while not too far off the mark, is that the market is in a modern building, with escalators to each of the three floors. At first it is inspiring, halls filled with dresses and suits and shirts and skirts and bolt upon bolt of fabric from silk to denim to wool. It quickly turns into a disorienting experience, however, with every vendor trying to convince you to buy something every time you stop to look. I know some people thrive in this sort of environment, thrilling in the hunt and the bargaining that is mandatory in these places. I, however, am at my core a shy person. I basically love u-scans and price tags. No muss, no fuss. It does not feel good to know that I will always pay too much here, even if it is relatively cheap. I just don’t care enough about a shirt to haggle over it.

When I arrived in Shanghai, David had already found himself sucked into the Fabric Market cycle. He had gone once with a new friend, Sanami, who could speak Chinese and frequented the market herself. He had already negotiated a new suit, a couple dress shirts and a copy of a rare pair of pants that actually fit his slim frame. We were told that if you brought a piece of clothing to the market, it would be easy for them to copy it. You could, theoretically, take that favorite shirt of yours and make a copy in several colors, fabrics, patterns, what have you. The stalls, and there were many of them, all had examples of articles you could order, some fashionable, others decidedly not. I personally thought some vendors had bought wholesale fabrics from the 80s. I thought perhaps a delivery truck had gotten very lost en route and sold its load years later for pennies, or rather, jiao. But no matter what the media or the girls five years younger than me were saying, any decade with that much neon, plastic and hair needed to be left alone. I could not imagine who was buying the stuff.

So the way things worked was that you placed an order, picking out fabrics, taking measurements, choosing buttons, and then received a mingpian, or business card, so that you could return a week later and pick up your order. This is how it is supposed to work. Many times you would need to have something corrected, like raising a hem or adjusting the fit on one sleeve. A return trip the next weekend would be in order. This was par for the course. But sometimes, you get the pleasure of going back several times.

I went with David a week after having moved into our apartment to pick up the suit and dress shirts he had ordered a few weeks back. This was his third or fourth time there, having made several adjustments already, and he had only been in China for two months. In addition to picking these orders up, he wanted to place another order this trip, because miracle upon miracles, they had actually succeeded in copying his pants the first time and he wanted more.

I had contemplated having some skirts made, so I brought three of my favorites with me. I figured skirts were pretty simple and a good place to start my foray into the fabric market world. I was soon overwhelmed, however, with not only the number of fabric choices, but the number of crappy fabric choices. I was looking for cotton for the cool factor, but most bolts seemed to hold very thin, very cheap versions of cotton fabric. I receive stares everywhere I go because I look different. I didn’t relish the idea of people staring at me even more because of a thin skirt revealing the color of my underwear.

To jump to the conclusion, I withered under the choices and neglected to place an order. David, on the other hand, scoured the market for the perfect specimens of cloth, opting to hand pick material from multiple vendors, mostly for grays and browns with the right amount of “roughness.” No soft fabric for my man, no sir. He needed thick fabric. It sounded extremely hot to me given that the temperature had been in the high 90s all week with a relentless dose of humidity. I could not stand to wear anything more than skirts and tank tops for the entire month of July and here he was picking thick, dark fabric for pants! I guess I was just lucky I didn’t have to dress up for an office everyday, so I planned on revisiting the pants option maybe in, say, September.

So Sanami and I, after taking a look around for our own projects and coming up decidedly uninspired, followed behind my apparent shopaholic of a boyfriend, a stack of folded fabric hugged close to his chest, as he proceeded to check out all the button vendors, searching for the strongest buttons on the premises. He finally placed his pants order. Four more pairs in all. A down payment was made and we left the fabric market, ignoring the street vendors on our way out.

Two days later, I got a text from David. He was in Yanzhou now, the town where his plant looms large on the horizon.

“I was getting in the car and my pants ripped at the crotch…a huge gaping hole.”

Snorting is really a lot of fun when no one is there to hear you. A follow-up text confirmed that these were indeed his first pair of copied pants. They had ripped, so much so that the driver had to take him back to the hotel to change. And now he had four more pairs on the way. Maybe it was wrong to laugh, but I found it damn funny.

I have been back to the fabric market three times since then, sometimes for pick up, sometimes for return. The Chinese are excellent at copying the look of the clothing, a skill I certainly don’t have despite my mom’s tutoring on the sewing machine. But like so many things here, it only looks good on the surface. Get up close and personal and you will find the buttons are loose, the stitch is not doubled and the thread is cheap. David had picked sturdy fabric, but he could not choose sturdy thread. After the last pick up, he declared enough for a while, which was good news to me. But honestly, I am still waiting for another text message informing me of more unfortunate and perhaps ill-timed seam failures. I can always use the laughter, although I apologize for it possibly being at David’s expense. But I will no doubt pay my dues for this. I will once more join him in taxi rides to the South Bund Fabric Market should the need arise. But with the recent discovery of some decent street vendors close by, grilling meat on sticks and dumplings in a pan, I may yet turn my future fabric market adventures into a more familiar sense of the term. Sounds good to me.


  1. Two words: French seams

  2. I know the fabric markets well:) The most durable product I ever purchased at one of these god forsaken places was a set of stretchy metallic headbands that eventually were used to hold the two halves of my broken CD player together (it was also made in China). I think they purposely do a crappy job so you'll come back and buy more stuff from them. I bought a lot of silk fabric at those things, but after seeing what they did to my friends' stuff, I kept it in one piece and most of it now serves as an elegant tablecloth for special occasions. Unfortunately, it seems that tailoring is David's only option, seeing as he is 2x larger than the average Chinese man.