In big cities and more touristy parts of West Africa, it is easy to find ready-made shirts, pants, dresses, and all manner of clothing made out of pagne (also known as kente cloth in other parts of Africa). But if you have a little time in one place, why not get something custom-made sewn at a tailor’s? Not only is it fun to make your own design, you’ll have a custom-fitted piece, and it is often less expensive!
Choose the Cloth
As well as being a noun that refers to the material, “pagne” is the unit of measurement in which the product itself is sold.
Locating pagne won’t be difficult, any street market will have vendors with stalls stocked full. In big cities there are even dedicated stores selling higher-end cloth. For a matching “complete” (shirt and pants or blouse and skirt), you will need two pagne. One pagne will suffice for a skirt. A dress can go either way, depending on the length and how elaborate you want the piece to be. I recently had a knee-length sundress made for myself, and one piece was enough.
The cost of your cloth will depend on the quality. You can identify lower-quality cloth because it is more translucent and less stiff than the better stuff. Currently in Togo, an average pagne costs about 2,000 to 2,500 CFA (approximately $4 to $5 US). Don’t forget to haggle the price a bit!
Women in West Africa use bolts of pagne as multifunctional garments: wrap-around skirt, baby-carrier, ground mat, and more. Image by Chelsea Clarke.
Find a Tailor
If you’re going to be in the area for over a week, it isn’t a bad idea to have a tailor or two make a few smaller items like some handbags before the big splurge on your dress or a complete outfit.
If you’re only around for a short time, ask your host or hotel if there is anyone they would recommend. You can always chance it and walk into the nearest shop. They aren’t hard to find; you will see a bunch of young apprentices working on foot-pedal sewing machines right outside the shop.
Make a Design
You can make a quick sketch of what you are looking for, but unless you’re a fairly good artist, expect something to get lost in translation. You can also cut out or print pictures of a style you’d like to emulate. Some of my friends were innovative and bold enough to ask strangers walking by if they could take their pictures in order to use their dresses as models! The women they asked were flattered, and we had a fun moment of laughing and hamming it up in front of the camera together.
It is probably best not to rely on the colorful catalogue posters hanging on the walls of every tailor’s shop unless you are seeking a distinctly ’80s feel….the more shoulder poofs and ruffles all over, the better!
After you discuss what you are looking for, the tailor will take your measurements.
Arrange the Pick-Up
Be careful if you’re on a tight schedule — time in West Africa is considered to be pretty flexible. If you emphasize that the piece cannot be late since you are leaving on a certain date, you shouldn’t have a problem. However, it is always better to give a hard deadline well before your actual departure date. The clothing will likely need some alterations, which can be done on the spot if fairly minor, but in case it is something more extensive (like an entire zippered dress being taken in), it is always good to leave a bit of a time cushion.
Pagne for sale outside of tailor’s boutique. Sometimes you can get your cloth and your custom-made outfit in one stop. Image by Chelsea Clarke.
Go to the Fitting
Don’t be shy about speaking up if something is crooked, pinching, or sagging. This is your custom piece, and the tailor absolutely will not mind altering it to fit you perfectly. It is an expected part of the process.
Speaking of shy, a female apprentice may well accompany you to help you get dressed. If you’d rather disrobe in private, it is fine to smile and ask.
Have Accessories Made!
You’ll want to do this when getting measured and placing the original order; it will be too late by the fitting. It is customary for tailors to use the scraps for their own little piecework projects unless you specify that you’d like to have them used for something else.
A hairband/bandanna or a purse can be a nice touch to complete your outfit. If you or your partner wears ties/bowties, have a matching piece made to complement the others’ outfit. I plan to do this before I go. I won’t be divulging to my tailor that the measurements I’m providing are for my girlfriend’s dress and the bowtie is for me, but I know we’ll look smashing when it’s all ready!
Have you ever had an outfit tailor-made? What was your experience like? Let me know what you’re thinking in the comments below!