Master cutters and craftsmen from other states are creating the garments and embellishments for high-end boutiques in Thiruvananthapuram

With needle and thread, scissors and measuring tape, a group of skilled craftsmen from West Bengal, Orissa, Delhi and Tamil Nadu are shaping fashion trends in the city. Their nimble fingers work magic on plain cloth by using a variety of stitches and materials such as beads, sequins, stones and zari to make signature designs that are snapped up by fashionistas.

Most of the upmarket boutiques and tailoring centres in the city depend on these master cutters and skilled workers to ensure that their products have that touch of style.

Unlike unskilled migrant labourers in the construction industry, these are skilled craftsmen who learnt their trade when they were in their teens. As such they command a premium for their work and are treasured by designers and boutique owners. Most of the workers are school dropouts who apprenticed themselves to experienced workmen and were trained on the job in their specialised line of work.

Mullah Nazrul, a master cutter in a boutique, hails from a village near Kolkata. With a measuring tape draped around his neck and a huge pair of scissors and a piece of chalk in his hand, he carefully measures, marks and cuts cottons and silks for blouses, churidars, kurtas, ghagras and salwars. Once he finishes the cutting, the cloth is taken for embroidery. Depending on the design, it is embellished with machine or hand embroidery.

Sujith Ajith and Taj Moll, both experts in various kinds of embroidery, show off their fine work. Bent over a piece of cloth stretched out on a frame, they are decorating it with tiny pearls and white silk thread work. Their needles fly like lighting as they insert the pearls amongst the fine threadwork. Handing over a piece of black piece of cloth that has patches of various patterns in different stitches, beadwork, zari and so on, Sujith says: “This is to showcase the kinds of work we know. Designers tell us what colours and embroidery they want us to use on a particular garment and we do it accordingly.”

Mir Khan, who uses his sewing machine to create works of art on cloth, shows off his intricately worked pieces that has beautifully embroidered roses in shades of pink. Says Mir: “We all hail from the same village near Kolkata. There are many such centres there and all of us learn from Ustads who teach us the different kinds of thread work that we use on clothes and saris.”

It was his uncle S.K. Ashraf who brought him to Kerala. “If a person knows about a good place to work in, we tell our friends and that is how we reach here,” he adds.

Ashraf has been working with Buttons and Bows, a boutique and tailoring unit in the city, for the last eight years. He says it is the attitude of his employers and their care that have kept him in the city. Although he has worked in Bangalore and the money was good, he says amenities here are much better.

“The climate is good and so are the people. My employer flies me to Kolkata when I have to go home. They help me out in emergencies… At home, many youngsters request me to find employment for them also in Kerala. That’s why I bring them over,” he explains in fluent Hindi. Some of them have worked in places such as Dubai, Saudi Arabia and, closer home, in Bangalore and Delhi. Ishaq Shaikh, for instance, worked in Dubai for six years before relocating to Mumbai and then to Kerala.

“High literacy here ensures that the people here treat us with courtesy. They see us as human beings. There are no fights and we have ‘santi’ (peace). Back home in Orissa, every day, there is some problem or the other. I like working here and it is not just the money that matters,” avers Ishaq.

So happy is he that he persuaded his elder brother Sattar Shaikh and two of his nephews to join him here and now all of them live together. Workers of a unit tend to live in one flat or house and cook the food themselves. Food is a problem, they admit. “The rice is different and so is the fish that is available here. Mustard oil, which we use for cooking, is not so easy to buy. But with the arrival of supermarkets, getting our masala and spices have become easier. Since, the packets are displayed, it overcomes the language barrrier,” says Asharaf.

Recreation is usually trips to East Fort, Kovalam, and, sometimes, to Ponmudi, Kanyakumari and Munnar too. But the bulk of the money is saved to be send home and to buy gifts for their families when they take a vacation. And what do they take home as gifts? “Clothes, cosmetics and coconut oil for the hair,” giggles Sujith.

Home for them is still West Bengal and Orissa and so on with all of them leaving behind their families in their native villages. “It is more convenient. But I would like to bring them over to Kerala once,” muses Sattar.

Trend setter

Body Tunes was the first boutique to tap the skill of workers from Tamil Nadu. “They used to stay at our place in PTP Nagar. Many had come with their families. But, now I have only two workers. I outsource my work to craftsmen in Tamil Nadu,” says Sheila James, the proprietress of Body Tunes and Czarina. She says that although she tried training local tailors in the art of Ari embroidery and so on, most of them lacked the patience and the dedication needed for the work.