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Of endangered but valuable hustles

By XN Iraki | June 24th 2020

We all wear clothes, more like breathing or eating. Yet tailors are rare. My father was one and I loved helping him thread his Singer sewing machine. He made our clothes, from school uniform to home clothes. “Rolling” the sewing machine by foot was lots of fun. But curiously, none of his children became a tailor.

It is an art that is slowly being forgotten as we turn to ready-made clothes, some imported. Repairing clothes is looked down upon. Tailors are joining cobblers as endangered professions.

This when industrialisation was based on textiles and associated industries because of their labour intensity. Remember the industrial revolution in Britain? Our government seems to be realising the central role of textiles by reviving the textile factories, just in time for Covid-19 PPEs and more.

Think of clothes worn by Earth’s 7.6 billion people; it does not matter the age, status or class, we all wear clothes. This is a huge industry, but beyond the famous labels, we never think much of clothes. We think more of electronics like phones. Think loudly, a phone is just one piece, for clothes you wear many pieces, each needing lots of work to make and creating lots of jobs. Why don’t we see common sense?

Unlike the phone, whose use is intermittent, we use clothes always to cover our nakedness. We use clothes even at night, 24 hours. You still can’t see why the prestige of tailors should be going up?

Asian countries long realised that textiles were a route to creating jobs. They then scaled up to other high-tech industries like electronics. They made tailoring industrial. By nature, clothes making is hard to automate, or use robots to sew and design. That is why it is labour intensive, a big blessing for a country with such high levels of joblessness. The recent shifting of students to TVETs instead of degree might be a slow realisation by our youngsters that the future lies in pragmatism and realism. More Kenyans can be tailors than engineers.

Unfortunately, we only see the lonely tailors, not the industrial part of their work. Interestingly, the few tailors make lots of money. Compare the cost of clothing material and labor next time you make an order.

Tailors may not have a high prestige, but they hold the key to our joblessness if we can scale up what they do. They are current and future economic heroes, minus medals. Are you a tailor? Talk to us.

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