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Cost of Things

December 9, 2012

Handmade shirts

Last weekend I went to do some shopping on MG Road.  (Mahatma Gandhi Road, virtually all cities in India have one.)  In Pune MG Road is a great place for shopping; if it’s physically for sale in the city, you can find it there.

A cute knick-knack sort of thing I saw:

Musical Ganesha

A musical Lord Ganesha, with mouse accompanists.  (Like Lord Shiva rides a bull, Lord Ganesha rides a mouse.)

Shops you’ll find on MG Road range from typical Western brands – Adidas, Nike, Levi’s and the like – to a much greater range of Indian shops.  There’s also places like The Bombay Store, that carry Indian goods but cater to tourists or higher-income Indians.

Something that will seem odd to Westerners – certainly was odd to me – is this:


Notice how there are two shoe stores right next to each other?  This is kind of like having an Athlete’s Foot next to a Footlocker in the US.  Why open next to your competitor and give buyers the opportunity to easily comparison shop?  Apparently the logic in India is people won’t bother to make the trip to a place where there is only a single vendor – competition right next door is implicit proof this is a going commercial concern.

I saw a lot of things on MG Road.  I really wanted to just get a sense of what was there, though I did have one idea for buying, namely: Simple things I could bring back to US as presents.  India is famous for textiles, so I thought maybe scarves or simple kameez would make good gifts.  Another thing on my mind was shirts.  I have read several times that garments can easily be custom-made here – one place I read this was in IBM-colleague Bob Carlsen’s book Sacred Dust on Crowded Streets.  That was on my mind as well.

As it happened I found myself in this tiny place:


Like many Indian shops it is very narrow – 2, 2 1/2 meters side to side – but very deep, stretching back 20 meters or more.  This was a cloth store and the shop-man, a Mr. Gobinda, was very excited to show me all he had.  It now occurred to me that kameez was too ambitious of a goal – all the female recipients I could think of would very much prefer to take their own choices rather than mine – but scarves seemed a doable thing.

And there were a lot.  Here are some I ended up with:


These are sheer silk, all with paisley patterns.  I also obtained some shawls, like this one:


These shawls are made of a fine wool thread; the company that makes them is named Oswal; I got 5 different color combinations.

Thinking of shirts I inquired of Mr. Gobinda.  To no one’s surprise, shirts could be had.  Excellent shirts, the very best.  Made precisely for you. Our shirts are famous, famous I tell you.  Observe this cloth, sir, please feel it.  What, the color does not please you?  I remove it, I discard it, I send it far away.  Perhaps these other colors?  And trousers, sir … ?

Excuse me, I digress.  40 minutes, several cups of tea, and one short stroll to the tailor shop later, I had arranged for 3 Western-style business shirts, of 3 colors in simple cotton, and 2 kurta-style shirts, in coarse red and brown silk.  The results you see at the top photo.

The cost of all this?

•  10 silk scarves, each 21” x 72” (plus 1 “for free”): Rs. 1000 ($19).

•  5 fine wool shawls, each 38” x 82”: Rs. 2,000 ($38).

•  Fabric for 5 shirts, 3 cotton (blue, cream & white), 2 silk (red & brown): Rs. 3,100. ($58.50)

•  Sewing of 5 shirts, 2 kurta-style with simple collars, 3 Western style with business collar and cuffs: Rs. 1,000 ($19).

As I recall the cotton was about Rs. 200 or 250 per meter; because I had long-sleeved shirts I believe 3.5 meters were needed per shirt.  The silk was more, ~ Rs. 300 a meter, I can’t recall exactly, but I needed less because of short-sleeves. Off top of my head I have no direct reference points for buying fabric.  But I buy shirts from Land’s End, LL Bean, etc. all the time.  There a single shirt is at least $30 – let alone 5.

Finally …  tailoring for 5 hand-sewn shirts, for $20?  It boggles the Western mind, until you do the math from an Indian perspective.  The tailor has made a great many shirts before, so he knows what he is doing.  As a guess, maybe it took him 2 full days to make my 5 shirts.  If he is able to work at this level 30 days out of each month, he makes Rs. 15,000 per month, as much as a driver or many other average Indian people.  And if because of his skill and experience, it only took him 1 day in all, then his earnings would be Rs. 30,000 a month, even better still.

I’ll let people draw their own economic conclusions.  I’m still thinking of all the scarves and shawls, the tiny 8” x 8” tailor shop, Mr. Gobinda’s cheerful mercantilism, and the straight-line stitching on my new shirt-collars.

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  1. December 9, 2012 at 5:04 pm

    To a limited extent, retail clustering does happen here. There’s the local “Auto Mile” just outside of Boston, where dealership after dealership lines the road. Same principle – folk prefer to make just one trip as they comparison shop.

    Shopping malls here are also cluster sites, although unless they’re really huge they don’t feature two specialty sneaker stores under the same roof (let alone side by side). But in a mall there are easily six or more places to buy exactly the same thing, even if they’re not dedicated 100% to that single commodity.

    Still, your point is taken. During the whirlwind trip there, I was surprised to see entire blocks in which every store seemed to have near identical merchandise – the household plastics goods block, the terracotta garden urn block, the dining room furniture block. It’s far more common there.

    And I wonder how one goes about picking exactly which of the near identical shops to patronize. What’s the differentiator? Not the display. Not the prices, which I assume to be uniform from store to store, since they can keep close tabs on competition. Is it shopkeeper’s personal charisma? Familiarity, recommendation or family loyalty?

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