My name is Asif Khan and I have been in the tailoring business since I was nine years old.
I was born in Mardan, Khyber Pakthtunkhwa, where my father worked as a bricklayer. He wanted me to study, finish school and have a better life but alas! I was a mischievous child who preferred gallivanting about the streets with my friends and playing all day long instead of sticking to a boring academic routine. Finally, giving up all hope, my father made me an apprentice to a tailor who stitched men’s shalwar kameez. For eight years, I worked with three ustaads (tailors) as their shagird (protégé) and learnt how to mend and alter clothes as well as hone my tailoring skills.
In 1993, I opened my own shop in Mardan, but I closed it after a year because the idea of moving to Karachi took my fancy. My friends had told me all about the city; its grandeur and the prospects it offered. So I moved to Karachi and although life was difficult initially (I only knew a few people), I fell in love with the city. I began working at several garment factories specialising in men’s vests, trousers, shorts and shirts before moving to a tailors’ market in Muhajir Camp, where I started making both men’s and women’s shalwar kameez.
After spending two years in Karachi, nostalgia struck and I yearned to go back home. I returned to KP and set up a shop in Peshawar and I worked for five years making clothes for men and women. However, I soon realised making men’s clothes was not very remunerative in the long run. Out of the Rs 800 I charged for a suit, I spent Rs 200 to buy buckram for the collars and cuffs and this reduced my earnings every time. Besides, on average, men would go to tailors only twice or thrice a year to have a suit stitched, while women needed new clothes throughout the year. Hence, I decided to focus on women only.
I moved permanently to Karachi in 2000. It was during a visit with friends to Sea View that we decided to explore the area further and reached the Block 2, Clifton vicinity and discovered a tailor market (where I currently work). I thought this was a perfect place to set up shop. It has been 19 years since that day... and I am still here, happily settled. I have made lifelong friends in this market who are now like family; we work together, eat together and share our joys and sorrows.
I am now the father of four sons and two daughters. Two of my sons work with me along with my two karigars (assistants). My other sons go to school but eventually they will also join this trade. I do not want them to find employment elsewhere as I believe that regardless of what one earns, one must work only for himself. When I entered this trade, it wasn’t a khandani (family) business, but when my children become tailors, they will be khandani darzees (tailors).
My day begins when the market opens at about 11/11: 30 a.m. While my children tidy up and prepare the shop for the day, I survey the market to exchange greetings with my friends, discuss what is happening in the city such as politics, sport, etc. Soon the market is abuzz with customers; it’s a one-stop shop for women as there are a variety of tailors and haberdashers here along with skilled men who can hem dupattas, embroider clothes, do patch work or appliqué and add any kind of embellishments a woman may desire.
Once back at my shop, my sons, karigars and I have tea and then work commences. We take new orders, complete existing ones and attend to customers. During an average day, we tend to 15 to 20 customers. Some days are so busy that we hardly have time to eat but there are also days when there is peace and quiet.
Back in the day when I worked alone, I stitched eight to 10 suits a day. As my sons now help me, my job is doing the cutting only; they take care of the stitching. However, some of my older customers prefer that I do the sewing, and I oblige them. We even collect and deliver clothes to some of our loyal customers; during an average day, our shop makes 10 to 12 joras.
We have separate rates for every customer and it varies according to the design. For a regular shalwar kameez we charge Rs 1,200 and for additional work (such as embroidery or piping), we charge extra. For a sari and a blouse, I charge up to Rs 5,000.
The majority of my customers are housewives, followed by working women. For many years, I made clothes in bulk for women who ran their own boutiques (they wanted me to work for them exclusively) but I have stopped doing that. I used to make a hundred versions of the same design but if I made a slight error in even one, they would make my life hell and all the effort I put in the rest of the pieces did not matter.
Of course, I still deal with customer complaints. Most have to do with fitting (“this it too loose” or “too tight”); sometimes there are puckers along the seams which we fix. But customers need to understand that we are humans and errors are made unintentionally. A customer’s demeanour plays a huge role here; some are very patient and polite and understand if a delay occurs. We cooperate with them as much and are happy to see them. As for the others, no matter how good a job you do, they will find something to complain about. I have about 50 to 70 regular customers with whom I have been working with for over 10 to 12 years. Earlier it was just them but now they are accompanied by their daughters, daughters-in-law and granddaughters.
Although our work hours fluctuate according to how much work we have, we usually finish by 10 or 11 p.m. In Karachi we don’t have winters, so there is less work compared to summer when women on average have five to six lawn suits stitched every month. Eid-ul-Fitr is the busiest and most lucrative time of the year. We start getting orders two to three months prior to Eid. Work begins early and lasts until sehri. I make double or even triple of what I make in a regular month.
Although there has been a proliferation in the number of ready-to-wear clothing brands, I believe that tailors will never go out of business and neither will the seamstresses who work from home, and this is because we provide more economical options to our customers. Gone are the days when women took care of minor alterations at home or sewed their daily-wear joras and gave their formal clothes to darzees. These days, I don’t know whether they even know how to operate a sewing machine. Also, women often come to my shop to have their ready-to-wear clothes altered. Then there are those women who bring an expensive item of readymade clothing and ask me to make four to five copies of it with the fabric of their choice. I think that is smart. However, there are women who still prefer made-to-measure clothes and do not buy ready-to-wear even though they can afford it.
I believe that no matter what happens, be it an increase in the number of boutiques and stores or the economic situation, we will not end up on the road and our business will continue to grow steadily. The more effort we put in it, the more fruit we will bear. It all depends on how much time we give to our work.
As told to Anusha Zahid.