“You had better go and find something to do with all the time you have on your hands. ASUU (Academic Staff Union of Universities) and the government are using you people to play ‘snake and ladder’ and learning a skill might be a good way to utilize this unplanned holiday”.
That was the admonition from Bolanle Adebanjo’s mum that hot sunny afternoon in March, the sixth week of one of many strikes in Nigeria’s strike-ridden tertiary institutions.
‘Bola, as she is fondly called, is a third-year student of Biochemistry at the University of Ibadan and like many of her peers in universities in Nigeria, she was very unsure of when she would graduate or when she would be able to go back to school. It had begun with a warning strike by ASUU and 6 weeks down the line, there is no end in sight.
Mrs Adebanjo’s admonition that morning propelled Bola to ponder intently about something she could do or skill she could learn. She decided to take a walk around her neighbourhood to see her friend – Ronke down the street and clear her head. As she walked, she noticed the proliferation of small businesses and saw a bright new signboard displaying dresses. She approached and saw it was a shop for a new tailoring outfit and her interest was piqued. She loved to dress up and had always wanted to make her own clothes but never had the time to learn. This ASUU strike appeared to be a sign for her to learn the skills involved in sewing, but she was not too excited about the thought of being an apprentice, knowing what she heard about how they were treated. There are tales of apprentices being made to do menial jobs, run odd and personal errands for their bosses and generally do everything for the first month except learning the required skills.
Bola looked at this new establishment and decided to go in and make enquiries. She met the owner, Madam Agnes and they had fruitful discussions about what was required, the duration of the training, fees to be paid and what would happen if ASUU called off their strike. Bola, armed with this information, made a detour from her friend’s house and went back home to convince her mum. Her mum was elated that she had finally decided to learn a skill as according to her, skills like sewing and hair making were a good addition to any woman.
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And with this decision, Bolanle joined the growing list of young Nigerians who have undertaken or are involved in training with the aim of starting in the Cottage Fashion Industry aka tailoring. Making clothes is a skill as old as humans have been on earth, as the need for clothing is one of the most basic human needs. In the past in Nigeria, Seamstresses were mostly middle-aged or older women who worked at their manual machines making clothes for family and friends. Their skill was passed down to those females who it was felt could not make it academically and this was considered a pathway to earning a decent living. Nowadays, the skill is being learnt and taught to young women and men of all social strata and is now not just an added skill, but a core profession.
Apprenticeship training takes between 2- 3 years depending on the amount of time available for the training and the proven proficiency of the Trainee/Apprentice. The training comprises in-person sessions where the Apprentice is encouraged to look at how the skilled hand in the shop handles particular tasks and in recent times; online video tutorials on Youtube which allow the Apprentice room to learn away from the shop environment. A lot of time is dedicated to practising the basics such as needlework, tacking, stitching, cutting, neatness, getting used to the machines on the shop floor, etc. and evaluations are done daily.
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So much time is dedicated to the basics because they are at the core of the craft of sewing. Attention to detail and presentation of work are all skills that are honed and nurtured over time. As a practice-intensive skill (that is one at which you get better at it, the more you do it), Trainees are sometimes required to bring along fabrics/materials with which they practice. They also make use of discarded pieces of fabric lying around the shop and the first piece of clothing most Trainees make is a patchwork dress or outfit made up of different fabrics pieced together.
Bola slowly familiarized herself with the different machines from the industrial machines for sewing, industrial weaving used to cover seam allowance to keep the fabric from threading and makes it look neat, industrial tapping machine for stitching, steam presser and the iron. To make it easier for her to learn and hone her skills, her mum bought her a manual sewing machine to help her practice. She also volunteered to be her human mannequin; as well as donated her old fabrics as practice materials. Eventually, ASUU called off the strike and Bola, being resident in Ibadan, was able to come back on weekends to further understudy, learn new skills and was helping Madam Agnes make clothes for her clients on a regular basis.
Some weeks before she was to gain her “freedom” which is a formal rite of passage for all Trainees signifying the end of their apprenticeship and the start of their life as recognized Tradesmen/Tradeswomen; Madam Agnes decided it was time for Bola to learn the commercial side of the business.
Typically, tailoring is a referral business with 80% of the clients being referred by satisfied clients. Most people, when they wear an outfit to an event, are more than to introduce their friends to their tailors and would even take them to the shop. So, a first-time customer is not to be taken lightly as they can be a channel to many others. Attention must be given to making sure they get exactly what they want. Other ways of getting clients include sponsored ads, signposts, Instagram, Facebook, etc.
Fabrics are mostly provided by the clients except in cases where a particular style requires a specific fabric and the tailor has to source for it. As part of her training in the sourcing of materials, she undertook countless trips to Aleshinloye Market (and on occasion Gbagi Market) to source fabrics directly in the market. This is not always the case though, as the big players have dedicated suppliers who bring fabrics and other tailoring materials.
Clients mostly choose the styles they want, though the tailor can offer her professional opinion. Where the client has not decided on a particular style, they both scour through pages of fashion magazines, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook and the catalogue of pictures most tailors keep on their phones. Issues regarding copyright do not arise, as hardly anyone ever patents a particular style and everyone is free to duplicate where their skills allow.
Many clients have been known to see a particular style online and rushed to their tailor to replicate it, without consideration for their body type, the fabric used and the skill of the tailor. This in itself can be the source of epic fails in the attempt to copy what was seen on the internet and the internet is rife with the “what I ordered, versus what I got hash tag” mostly amongst women.
Pricing is another business aspect she learned and discovered it is dependent on the skill level required for the style. The more complicated the style, the more expensive the fee charged and conversely the simpler the style, the cheaper it would cost to make it. Bola heads into her final year in university knowing she has both a skill and a renewed hope for the future.
Many young people are now like Bola, learning new skills that can be a source of either complementary or direct income for them. What is needed most now is for the government and the financial services sector to make credit available that will be easy to assess, with low-interest rates. These types of credit can be tailored to suit specific areas of the informal skilled sector and can spur growth in the informal sector. The army of young unemployed people in Nigeria can be the catalyst for economic growth and not just cannon fodder for the machinations of politicians during elections.