The seamstress wore a faded white lab coat and a long tape measure around her neck. A line of metal shelves filled with rolls of fresh fabric and posters of local fashion models covered a long wall in the modest room where she worked. Sewing machines whirred from another area in the back behind the wall, as the tapping of the pedals clanked and paused when the ladies gathered their pins and thread.
My friend Alam had known about this place, and relied on its well-crafted, custom clothing, which she showed me when I first arrived in Addis Ababa. Most were copied from photos. I was handed a magazine page where the actress Marion Cotillard stood in a lavender garden, facing sideways to the camera. She was wearing a long, flowy, white dress that resembled the clothing worn in Ethiopia. Alam had insisted that I consider having one made. I had not thought about owning such a dress before then, one that demanded a special occasion for its debut. But the lure of something lovely and custom-made was very appealing. A luxury so unlike anything I would find at home.
The seamstress glanced approvingly at the photo of Marion Cotillard, then at me, and measured my arms, inseam, back, shoulders, and waist. We were instructed on the amount of fabric she would need to make the dress that would fall below my ankles.
I admired the calm self-assuredness of the seamstress amidst the random piles of swatches and our overly enthusiastic immersion into the small, quiet space where she spent most of her days creating patterns from scratch.
We found the material for the dress on a crowded road lined with small storefronts and wandering goats. The road smelled of coffee and smoke, and yielded to the passersby who wandered into stalls stuffed with foam mattresses and stacks of leather sandals. Alam knew her way around the Piazza, where the hebesha shopped for embroidered ribbon and the finest woven fabric. Ethiopia is famous for buna (Amharic for coffee), which has been grown primarily in the southwest province of Kaffe for centuries. The ritual of roasting the fragrant, brown beans in small, black clay urns over frankincense and served in small round cups was glanced over by the locals. For me, it was a reminder that ritual and tradition were alive and well, even in a crowded city that had changed in many ways since my last visit seven years before, a place in sync with its own contradictions.
I was taller than most who glanced in my direction and assumed that I was of Ethiopian roots who had come home to escape the winter season in Europe or the US. “You look like us,” I was often told by friends and locals of the Land of Thirteen Months of Sunshine. I had always felt at home there. It was the place that held up a looking glass to the missing links to my ancestry. I was a product of this beautiful country in spirit, if not in fact. I was humbled by the people who gracefully negotiated the streets that swelled with traffic and outdoor stalls filled with raw, hanging meat or freshly made injera, who cautiously welcomed the face of a changing city.
My visit in mid-January marked the season of Timket, the Feast of the Epiphany. Orthodox Christians celebrated Christ's baptism in the river Jordan with great ceremony as the Ark of the Covenant—a mainstay on every altar in the Ethiopian Coptic church—was transported from the church to a body of water nearby, then immersed and blessed to reenact Christ’s holy act. All who celebrate wear their finest attire and carry colorful umbrellas in a street procession to symbolize the protection of the Ark while on its journey to the water. Women often wore white during the days leading up to the festivities.
As I perused the stalls, holding my newly bought material, blue and red umbrellas dotted the narrow sidewalk as we reached a nearby church. Alam’s sister, Helina emerged from a jewelry shop wearing a long, ivory dress and veil. She asked if we had negotiated the price of the fabric. I let her know that Alam’s mediation had brought it down slightly.
“This is a good deal for this,” Helina said as she peeked inside of the bag. “We always bargain here.”
We walked toward a courtyard where a church sat back from the road on dusty cobblestones. A few men approached the elaborate, wooden church doors in suits. Several women in long dresses similar to Helina’s held rosaries and sat on benches near the church entrance. An elderly patron, with curved shoulders and a face that held soft folds of reddish brown skin, nodded as I approached a series of paintings depicting Christ, hanging on a stone wall.
A sheep bleated restlessly from the corner of the courtyard, held to a fence by a rope and “guarded” by a young boy. Helina explained that the lamb had been chosen for slaughter, in honor of the feast. I tried not to think of the meal I had been served the night before, a specialty of Abeba, the cook and a lively member of Alam’s family home, who had produced, in my honor, a delicious Yebeg Alicha—a lamb stew made with the certified product of the best slaughterhouse in Addis Ababa.
The two glass panels on either side of the storefront revealed mannequins dressed in stylish tunics and generous caftans made of light, gauzy fabric. Shelves of fabric framed the clerk who stood behind the counter, dressed in orange and gold.
“Dehna aderachu” the store clerk greeted us as we entered.
"Endemen Adersh," I replied. Good afternoon. She smiled at my tentative Amharic.
Alam described the dress in the photo that I had forgotten in our rush to get to the shops during the first blackout of the day. Blackouts were a common occurrence. I was given a flashlight to keep by my bed when I first arrived. “We never know when they will happen,” Alam explained. I remembered them coming once a day in the hotel where I stayed on my first visit. A generator was always on standby as the friendly staff told us not to worry, “the lights will be on soon. Please enjoy a glass of honey wine at the bar.”
The clerk in the fabric shop pointed to their latest arrivals. “This one,” she exclaimed in heavily accented English, “is very popular.” She placed the folded material on the counter. It was the color of Marion Cotillard’s dress, with threads woven into the intricate pattern of soft lines and grids often found in Ethiopian clothing. I placed a corner of the fabric between my fingers. It was fine and sturdy and would be a lovely souvenir from my time here.
The seamstress moved the tape measure along my arms, ensuring that they had not grown since our visit the day before. She smiled at my height and lengthy limbs. “This will be a great dress on her,” she said enthusiastically in Amharic to Alam and unwrapped the parcel of fabric. The shelves now held several plastic bags with measurements and magazine pages pinned to the outside. She would be closed for Timket and was looking forward to the brief break—there had been much demand for holiday wear, and it was also wedding season.
She had completed the bridal attire for several wedding parties. Weddings had become more modern since she was younger, but were still larger events than most in the US, and demanded several clothing changes: traditional or modernized gowns for the bride, the mothers of the bride, the bridesmaids, and the occasional Auntie or family member visiting from abroad.
I asked to see the sewing room. The ladies, dressed in pale blue lab coats, sat in front of old Singer sewing machines. They nodded as I stepped inside. Scraps of fabric littered the floor and larger pieces dangled from the sewing machines on either side of their working tables. A mannequin with brown skin, large almond eyes, and the upper half of a tunic held with pins along its chest, stared at the open window, which brought in sunlight and the laughter of a child playing.
I asked the ladies if I could take a photo while they continued their work. I held up my camera to translate my request. One woman held up her finger and turned her face. I understood that this was off limits for all and lowered the camera.
“Sorry,” I shrugged.
Another woman said, “No problem,” shyly in English.
Alam and the seamstress had organized the delivery of her garments. My dress would be ready after I left Ethiopia—a cousin of Alam’s would bring it to New York. There would also be a sash “that falls nicely around the waist” made of traditional silk and embroidered ribbon. I would choose the pattern the next day.
The seamstress checked on the ladies in the back, who let her know they would have cleaned their work spaces if they’d known about a photo (for a forenges no less). “And why would she want one anyway?” they giggled. “We are just sewers.”
I thanked the seamstress for her services. We were her last customers of the day. The business had done well over the five years since it moved from her home to the shop. She had worried about competing with the ready-made market. But word of mouth and her exceptional work had brought her a steady clientele. I appreciated her command of this enterprise, and the ease in which the stylish images from magazines and catalogs and, occasionally, a customer’s imagination were examined and translated into an intricate dress or a well-made pair of trousers. I wondered if there were many others—women or men—who had been as resourceful in creating a place for consumers to feel special with warm and personalized service.
The seamstress watched us get into our car and waved as we pulled away. She needed to get home to her children who’d be waiting with her mother. There was a procession tomorrow. They would get up early and walk from the church with the Ark, then back again. The ladies in the back gathered their purses and wished her a good holiday as they filed out of the door. The seamstress checked her notepad and remarked to herself that they needed more red and white thread. She would make the dress for me—the tall American who looked like she belonged there—a priority when she returned. She was already looking forward to the photo of me in the dress that would be sent from New York when it arrived. The seamstress pinned the magazine page of the French actress on the wall and quickly closed the shop. It was late. Her family would be waiting for her to begin their celebration.