Despite living in Beijing for nearly four years, I didn’t get my first batch of clothes made until just two months ago.
Following a shambolic but ultimately successful trip to the fabric market, my companion and I went through some trial and error to find a tailor. We first visited a shop recommended by a friend, but they gave us surprisingly high quotes. A call to the same friend confirmed that the prices had indeed increased two- to three-fold since the last time she was there.
Luckily, she gave us the contact for the seamstress who made her wedding dress. Armed with nothing but a name and a phone number, we got into a cab and headed to Sanlitun.
We pulled up to a small shop on Sanlitun Houjie with a green sign that read “Xiao Cui Tailor Shop” (小崔制衣室) in Chinese. The rest of the process was pretty straightforward. Between my companion and I, we commissioned around 20 pieces – mostly light summer clothes made of cotton, linen, and chiffon. We were measured by the head seamstress, Xiao Cui, then paid half upfront and returned two weeks later for a fitting. We paid the remaining half after the final
adjustments were made.
Though we were ultimately successful, Xiao Cui said she’d normally be reluctant to take our order. She specializes in Chinese and western formalwear, which require more complex tailoring and thus bring in more money.
Though I got the sleeves on my linen blazer shortened after the first fitting, I was ultimately satisfied with my order. However, I was curious to know other people’s experiences with tailor-made clothes. I asked around, did some research, and compared prices at other tailor shops in the area. Here’s what I learned.
Step 1: Choose Your Fabric
In general, the cost of custom-made clothes encompasses the price of fabric and labor. You can save some money by buying your own fabric, but you’ll have to do more legwork in terms of physically going to the fabric market, sorting through the selections, and estimating how much material you’ll need for each piece. On the other hand, you’ll have more choices, pay wholesale prices, and have control over where your fabric comes from. To find out more about buying your own clothing materials, see p58.
Whether you choose to buy your own fabric or not depends on what you’re getting made. If you want light, everyday clothes, the fabric market will do just fine; they sell cotton, chiffon, linen, silk, flannel, jersey, and more in a wide array of patterns. Most mid-range tailor shops will also carry a range of fabrics, though you won’t have as much choice and will pay higher prices per square meter.
But if you want an exquisitely-tailored suit in Italian or English fabrics, you’ll need to visit a high-end operation like Senli & Frye or Dave’s Custom Tailoring. The fabric market won’t stock these high-quality imported fabrics.
Step 2: Discuss Styles
Decide styles before going to the shop and be very clear about what you want. Print out high-resolution photos from the Internet, pack a favorite item of clothing, or bring a magazine to show the tailor – the more specific, the better. If there are details, make sure the pictures show them since the person taking your measurements probably won’t be the one making the garment. Service varies widely at mid-range tailor shops, and shop assistants aren’t always interested in playing tiebreaker between style A and style B.
If you’re getting a suit, you’ll need to consider lapels, sleeve length, cuffs, buttons, lining, and canvassing. The latter refers to the way the jacket is constructed; a partially-canvassed jacket has more structure than a conventional store-bought jacket, while a fully-canvassed jacket represents the best in fit and tailoring. It will mold to the wearer’s shape over time, last longer, and be more flexible.
High-end tailors can offer advice on what works best with your style and body type. You’re paying for a premium product, so they’ll want to ensure that every aspect of the suit fits right.
Step 3: Talk Details
Don’t skimp on the details; cheap-looking embroidery, trims, buttons, and closures can drastically bring down the look of a suit or gown. If you’re worried that the tailor shop won’t have exactly what you want, buy it yourself. The fabric market has entire aisles dedicated to trims, buttons, and zippers; if all else fails, try the all-mighty Taobao.
Step 4: Settle on a Price
There’s some room for negotiation, but not much. You can leverage your position by getting several outfits made and becoming a regular customer, but expect the usual back-and-forth on your first visit. Shops in Sanlitun and Liangmaqiao don’t tend to budge much on the initial quote since there are plenty of other foreigners willing to pay their prices. One friend is more germane. “I’m terrible at haggling,” she says. “If I don’t like the price of something I usually just walk out.”
As a reference, mid-range tailor shops charge around RMB 100-150 for a shirt, RMB 1,000-3,000 for a suit, RMB 200-300 for a skirt,
RMB 400-450 for a dress, and RMB 500-800 for a blazer. Extra-tall or bigger customers can expect to pay more for additional fabric. Customers are generally required to leave half of the total cost as a deposit, with a turnaround time of one week or less at most mid-range operations.
In tailoring, the adage “you get what you pay for” particularly applies. High-end shops may charge RMB 5,000 and over for a suit, but it’ll fit perfectly and last a long time.
At Xiao Cui’s, we didn’t haggle very much because her prices seemed reasonable to begin with. In the end, I paid approximately RMB 100 per top for a total of six tops (down from RMB 150), RMB 150 for a skirt, RMB 220 for a summer dress, and RMB 360 for a linen blazer. I wasn’t pleased about the long turnaround time of two weeks, but this was probably due to the shop’s relatively modest operations.
Step 5: Take Down Your Measurements
At larger tailor shops, an assistant usually takes down the client’s measurements and sends them to a factory for production. Smaller shops such as Xiao Cui’s might have one or two seamstresses in-store and an additional workshop with a few employees. Xiao Cui does most of the cutting and takes on more complex jobs like wedding dresses, but most clothes are made at the workshop. Only at high-end tailor shops is the person taking your measurements likely to be the one actually making your clothes from start to finish.
If you’re getting measured for a regular dress or skirt, wear regular undergarments – not a padded bra or Spanx. If you’re getting measured for a gown or a wedding dress, wear undergarments similar to the ones you’re planning to wear on the day of the event.
Step 6: Perfect the Fit
After the clothes are ready, it’s time to go in for your first fitting. Regular clothes should only require one or two fittings, while suits and formalwear will likely require three to four – or more. Not everything will look right the first time; this is normal.
Wear what you’d normally wear with the item being fitted. If it’s a suit, bring the appropriate belt, shoes, and top; if it’s a winter coat, wear an appropriate number of layers. Adopt a natural stance: stand up straight with your arms relaxed by your side. If the clothes don’t fit you properly, they won’t move comfortably either.
On a suit jacket, pay special attention to the shoulders; they’re one of the hardest parts to adjust after construction. The shoulders should lie flat, with the top seam meeting the sleeve right where the shoulder meets the arm.
Don’t be afraid to speak up if you don’t like something, and don’t let anyone convince you that “it’s supposed to look like that.” You’re paying for a custom-made piece of clothing, after all. Once you’re satisfied with the adjustments, your clothes will be spot-cleaned, pressed, and wrapped up to take home. Enjoy! You look like a million bucks.
Tailor shop: 裁缝店 caifeng dian
Fabric: 面料 mianliao
Skirt: 裙子 qunzi
Dress: 连衣裙 lianyi qun
Coat: 外套 waitao
Jacket: 夹克 jiake
Lining: 里子 lizi
Gathered waist: 束腰 shuyao
Pleats: 褶 zhe
Hem: 贴边 tiebian
Buttons: 扣子 kouzi
Meter: 米 mi
Linen: 麻 ma
Cotton: 棉 mian
Silk: 丝 si
Chiffon: 雪纺 xuefang
Satin: 缎子 duanzi
Wool: 羊毛 yangmao
Flannel: 法兰绒 falanrong
Polyester: 涤纶 dilun
Men’s tunic suit: 中山装 zhongshan zhuang
Chinese men’s jacket: 唐装 tangzhuang
Qipao (close-fitting Chinese dress): 旗袍
Changshan (male equivalent of the qipao): 长衫
Cotton-padded jacket: 棉袄 mian’ao
Suit: 西服 xifu
Single-breasted: 单排扣 danpaikou
Double-breasted: 双排扣 shuangpaikou
Three-piece suit: 三件套式西装 sanjian taoshi xizhuang
Dress shirt: 衬衫 chenshan
Wedding dress: 婚纱 hunsha
Formal attire (such as evening gowns and tuxedos): 礼服
I want to get a _____ made: 我想做一件_____ wo xiang zuo yijian _____
This needs to be taken in/shortened: 这个需要改小／改短 zhege xuyao gaixiao/gaiduan
Leave the hem a bit longer: 贴边留长一点 tiebian liu chang yidian
Sew on a button here: 在这里缝一颗纽扣 zheli feng yike niukou
The sleeves need to be shortened: 袖子改短一点 xiuzi gai duan
Make the sleeves a bit longer: 袖子留长一点 xiuzi liu chang yidian
I’d like hand-embroidered details: 我想要手工刺绣 wo xiangyao shougong cixiu