India: Back to Crawford Market

This post is for whatever original readers of B-School Studio I have left, the readers who came here when I talked about sewing, fabric, notions, and patterns. Because once upon a time, this was an account of making clothes! I haven’t made anything of late because packing a sewing machine is a unrealistic. (I've checked a sewing machine through before and it didn't fare well.) But, Friday afternoon I made good on the promise to myself to return to Crawford Market and shop for fabric. Purvashri, Shilpa, and I hopped in a cab after the closing bell rang (and popsicles – “ice candies” - were eaten!) and headed north.

(Purvashri, me, Shilpa, Chinmay)

This time around I did not venture into the iconic Crawford Market building. Instead, Purvashri led us down a few streets until we came to an area that was clearly the textile division. By clearly I mean it was obvious enough if you could see more than two feet in front or above you, where signage called out amid scads of trinkets, drying laundry, electrical wires, and crumbling concrete.

There are a few layers of vendors that one must wade through while shopping. First, you’ve got the mobile vendors who walk and hawk their goods alongside you. Then, you’ve got the merchants who manage to find three or four square feet of clear sidewalk space and use it to spread out a blanket that then becomes their shop floor. Past those folks you’ve got your more typical storefront set-up and they each claim about six feet of exterior frontage with anywhere from three to thirty feet of depth. And then there’s the interior mart. Lest you think this is anything like a suburban shopping mall, I can only describe the textile mart to be the human equivalent of cracking open a piece of wood and watching hordes of termites scatter about. Everywhere you look there is a new nook and cranny and it is full of people buzzing about, working, buying, talking, spitting. The fabric colony is alive.

Did I mention it was hot out that day? Because it was then hotter than hell inside the mart. Fans were blowing and old roofs shaded the stalls from the afternoon sun but the density of people and their radiating bodies amped up the temperature by a solid ten or fifteen degrees. Shopping at Joann Fabrics this was not.
I was on the hunt for silk because I have some summer events coming up and have a dress or two in mind. I might even have one of them made for me while here in India if I can locate a reliable tailor. So we pushed our way past the sari fabrics, the cottons for men’s shirts and children’s tops, and ultimately found the silk stalls. Approximately four minutes had passed since we entered the mart and all three of us were close to dripping in sweat. Whether it was instinct telling me to hurry up and get out or it was laser-sharp focus on what I wanted, I’ll never tell, but I settled on a royal blue silk crepe at the first stall we entered. Here are some notable details about this transaction:

1. To actually shop in a stall you must remove your shoes and step up and in to a space no larger than an attic bedroom. Like everywhere else in India, there is about one worker for every four square feet of retail area. So this cranked the temp up by another few degrees.

2. The floors are covered in mattresses. Before I went into a stall I thought this was done simply out of comfort. Silly me. I learned that space is at such a premium here that the floor is used for cutting and folding fabric. Thus, the mattresses and no shoes rule.

3. When you finish shopping you step back down to the ground level and put your shoes on. Doing so exposes whatever foreigners weren’t already obvious. Why? You soon realize you're stepping on the very floor that people spit all over since their usual wall targets are covered with fabrics. I pranced around like a little girl walking on coals as I tried to get my shoes on as quickly as possible.

4. The shopkeeper told me my silk would cost 350 Rs. per meter, or about $7 a yard. This was a deal! But, I was not about to hand over my cash without a little bargaining. I despise bargaining. Loathe it. It prevents me from doing much shopping in India, overall. Yet I felt a little feisty that day and decided I was going to play the Indian shopping game to its fullest extent. First I tried 300 Rs./meter. No luck. Yet when I got the guy down to a flat 1000 Rs. Purvashri shot me a look as if to say, “Who are you? I can’t believe you just did that?” We’re not talking a 50% discount, of course, but I’ll take victories big and small.

By now we’re all covered in a fine sheen of sweat and who knows what on the soles of our feet. My companions quickly glanced at a few traditional Indian fabrics and then we all decided enough was enough. Back to the street we went and into the cooling 85* air. I let out a sigh of relief; we had survived the fabric mart inferno and I could now check another experience off my Mumbai to-do list. Joann Fabrics never looked (or felt?) so good.

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