Ten days ago with some trepidation I entered Ningbo fabric market, accompanied by a friend who had already identified the best stall for silk brocades. I had decided to have a dress and jacket made for myself.
At first, the market doesn’t seem very promising. You enter from the main east-west street of Ningbo up some steps and through a ‘doorway’ of flapping, dirty plastic strips. In front of you stretch a sea of shoes, laid out on makeshift stalls. Hurrying through ‘shoe city’ you walk up a short flight of steps to the mezzanine, to find the fabric market. Here you can see every kind of material, from silk to sailcloth, sheeting to soft-furnishing of the furriest kind. We headed to a small stall, where rolls of silk brocades were displayed next to examples of how they could be made up into jackets and Chinese style dresses.
The choice was dizzying, but with my friend’s help, I picked out a brocade of dark blue with silver dragons. Under the direction of the two women in charge, I also chose some contrasting grey linen. I had brought with me a jacket and dress that I hoped could be copied. Sure enough, with a bit of sceptical tut-tutting and close examination the two seamstresses decided that my models were copiable.
Now I was instructed to get ready to be measured. This involved undressing behind a black sheet, held up by one of the women, just behind the counter and next to the sewing machine. Privacy was limited, and when I turned around I saw my friend amongst a group of Chinese women all having a good stare at the foreigner’s figure, fuller than theirs, no doubt. I got into the clothes I had brought with me and these were subjected to some professional scrutiny. A bit baggy across the chest (bu xing – not good); a bit tight around the hips (bu xing); length a bit long; the jacket, not bad (bu cuo). With a couple of pinches and lifts of material, I saw exactly why my dress had never quite fitted. Many measurements were recorded onto some scraps of paper and then it was all over.
We moved onto agreeing the price, or rather the women told me what the items would cost and I said yes. No bargaining allowed. At the end of two years here I’m still perplexed about when to bargain and how to do it. I obviously give off the vibe of being a soft touch! Anyway, the price was still about half what I might have paid in the UK and I was triumphant at having managed to get this far. Plus I’d learned some useful new vocabulary, such as ‘sleeve’ and ‘zip’ and practised some old words. We’ve done two chapters on buying clothes in our rather staid text book. These taught us words for colours, along with ‘try on’, ‘suitable’ and ‘size’. Nothing about negotiating the price of clothes made from scratch in a market.
Today was the day agreed for collection and I caught the bus back into town, hoping I’d be able to find the stall on my own. When I got to the mezzanine I looked to left and right – which one was it? And then I saw the woman who had subjected me to the measuring session and she recognised me with a smile. My clothes were indeed ready. The jacket – beautifully made, was without buttons, and I was taken around the corner to choose some. Then these were sewn on in seconds, while I tried on the grey linen dress behind the black sheet. Not much of an audience today but both pieces fitted brilliantly, better than anything I’ve ever worn before. I was ecstatic, and the two tailors looked mildly amused. Foreigners, so easy to please!