A stitch in time

The history of the cheongsam in Hong Kong can be traced back to the 1960s as a traditional Chinese dress known for its feminine body-hugging features.

In their heyday, dress shops employed Shanghai tailors to attract guests because they had advanced tailoring skills and were particularly good at cutting.

Yin Kou-zhang is the fourth generation of the famous Yin’s tailor shop from Shanghai. He came to Hong Kong in his twenties and has been here since.

Yin began his career at 14, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. Though influenced by his family, he learned the craft from his grandfather’s protege due to the family rule of “father shall not tutor his own son” to ensure the strictest guidance during the apprenticeship.

With solid basic skills due to being around his father and grandfather while they were at work from an early age, he finished his apprenticeship in just three years.

Yin recalled leaving his mentor. After offering tea, he went down on his knees and thanked his teacher, upon which he received scissors and a stiff ruler. “In those days, scissors and rulers were what a tailor’s career was based on. If a tailor could sew well, he could start his own business,” Yin said.

Making a cheongsam involves a series of elaborate procedures of more than 20 steps.

The first is body measurements, where rulers come in. Initially, as it was still very much a conservative society, tailors could not touch women’s bodies. Instead, they took body measurements with a stiff ruler and his own eyes, making a fitting cheongsam even harder to create.

It was not until the 1950s that tailors began to use measuring tapes, but only a few tailors would draw their designs.

Most would keep the details in their mind after taking body measurements, before casting powder lines on the fabric and cutting along the chalk marks. Powder lines are made with cotton thread covered with colored chalk powder, which is stored in chalk powder bags.

The next important step is called guibo, or pushing and pulling. Paste glue is applied to the fabric to stiffen certain sections and make it easier to cut, fix and sew.

Paste glue is also used in the process of making flower buttons, which is Yin’s speciality.

After glue is applied to cut strips, a copper wire is placed on them to allow the fabric to bend into shape easily. After sewing the fabric on both sides, twisting it into a flower shape and sewing the button head onto the flower button, one of the pair of flower buttons is finished.

A tailor’s highest aim when sewing a cheongsam by hand, Yin said, is achieving a stitch density of 18 stitches to one cun, a traditional Chinese decimal unit that is approximately 3.8 centimeters.

For Yin, the flower button represents tradition. He said that nowadays, young people who come to him for customized cheongsams are too obsessed with body shape and ignore the details and significance of the cheongsam itself.

Despite the industry’s decline, Yin said his attitude toward making cheongsams now is different from when he just wanted to make money. Sometimes, he doesn’t even take payments – his customer’s delight is payment enough. He is also willing to share his knowledge with others.

At A Touch of Disappearing Craft exhibition in K11 Musea, which runs until February 29, Yin’s cheongsam-making utensils and flower buttons are on display as exhibits. He is also offering a custom-made cheongsam service.

The exhibition also presents three cheongsams with different characteristics, like embellishments and silk fabric.

Among them is a cheongsam made by master Yan Ka-man, who has been making the dresses for more than 60 years and has had many designs on display during the Miss Hong Kong pageant every year.

(This article was published at The Standard on February 14, 2020: Weekend Glitz: A stitch in time )

A stitch in time

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