Thursday, February 18, 2016

Dressmaker, A Dying Profession

Dressmaker, A Dying Profession / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz
Posted on February 17, 2016

14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz, Havana, 16 February 2016 – Spending her days
among needles, threads and fabrics, the dressmaker Yansa Muniz defends
handmade garments against the widespread trend to prefer brand name
clothes. Her tenacity has led to the creation of Impar (Unparalleled), a
workshop in Havana's Nuevo Vedado neighborhood, where she dedicates
herself to made-to-measure outfits.

In a society where tailors and seamstresses are an endangered species,
this young woman learned the craft from her grandmother, an expert in
hats for the theater. However, it was only a few years ago that she
realized she wanted to devote the rest of her life to those skills
learned in childhood.

Yansa acquired her own self-employment license in 2013, when the
authorities outlawed the sale of imported clothing. "I sewed a tea towel
and they gave me permission," she says, recalling the sewing exam she
had to take before the inspectors of the Ministry of Labor to
demonstrate her skills.

Now, much later, her biggest concern is finding the raw materials to
support her business, amid the shortages and high prices in the Cuban

Most of her customers are women between 40 and 50, who find it hard to
find clothes in their size at the state stores. Also common are those
who come to ask her to repair or alter some garment; she rarely provides
services to teenagers because they "prefer brand name clothing," says
the dressmaker.

In August, the greatest demand is for repairing and altering school
uniforms, often "we have to take them apart and start from the
beginning," says Yansa. She works with two machines, an electric Singer
and a German Gritzner, which lets her do finishes such as scallops
similar to industrial machines, and she feels herself lucky compared to
others who use unpowered machines "and have to work the pedal the whole

The informal (underground) market in fabric is not as well developed as
that for already-made clothing. Bringing resources from another country
is not a solution because right now the government only allows the
import of ten yards of fabric. "If they have one yard more we seize the
entire shipment," confirms an official with the Public Services
Department of the General Customs of the Republic.

Some seamstresses are worshipped for their skill. This is true in the
case of Elvira Menendez, 78, who boasts that she can still "sew up a
storm" and has the vision to "thread a needle on the first try." She
lives in Regla and has made clothes ranging from layettes to wedding
dresses for many generations of the residents in her area.

The most successful outfit from this seamstress was a copy of the jacket
Michael Jackson wore in one of his videos. "People came from all over
Havana to buy it," she recalls. She was also an expert in plagiarizing
jeans, at a time when they were only available to those with relatives

Now, when she talks about fashion, her eyes light up and she remembers
the works of dressmaking shops such as La Época, Fin de Siglo, Belinda
Modas and Angelita's Novias. "The seamstresses there followed the trends
from Paris and New York," she said. After the crisis of the '60s "people
were looking in their closets for old fabrics that could be reused to
sew something new."

Her worst nightmare came true in the decades of the '70s and '80s, "when
you saw the same patterned fabric in a man's shirt or in a woman's
dress," she jokes. Her market niche now is clothes for children who are
taking ballet or Spanish dancing classes, the clothing for Santeria
rituals, and uniforms for sports teams and for employees of private

Elvira recognizes that the importing of clothes from Panama and Ecuador
is "putting an end to this profession." She can't compete with the
"catalogs of brand name clothing from there," she comments, referring to
the underground market in clothes. While she talks, she sews a robe for
a little girl, with ruffles and covered buttons. "This is something you
see less and less of," says the veteran seamstress.

Source: Dressmaker, A Dying Profession / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz |
Translating Cuba -

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