My sister got hitched this month in one of the most idyllic of places – Provence France! And in keeping with the romantic Provençale setting, she had the perfect wedding gown custom-made to match. Now you may not know much about the dresses themselves, but I’m sure you’re familiar with the cost that could be associated with them. However, they really needn’t be an arm and a leg to afford. You just need to look to someone who currently lives in Taiwan and can go shopping for you!
Being based in Australia meant my dear sister was quoted with ridiculous prices for the materials to make her dress. One hundred Aussie dollars or more for each metre? No, thank you. When you want to look amazing for your wedding but also want to save money for that fantastic honeymoon, Asia is where you look to for your resources. And isn’t she lucky, her only sister happens to live in Taipei which also happens to be a dressmaker’s paradise!
I don’t think many people think of Taiwan as a great destination for tailoring and fabric. Before I started my research, I for one always thought the best places to buy cheap material would be in Southeast Asia, like Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. If you’re after a great traditional Chinese dress (qipao or cheongsam), you will look to Hong Kong and then maybe think of giving Taiwan a go too, but not many people realise there’s quite more on offer here for the Western styling too. Thanks to low taxes and a booming textile industry, Taiwan shouldn’t be overlooked for bargain fabric hunting. Here’s a little guide to help you get started if you too are planning to make that deceitfully cheap but ‘pow’ of a wedding dress.
1. Ask the Locals
Nothing is better than word of mouth when it comes to finding the cheap places to go. For anything. I asked a number of local friends and sure enough they gave me some very good advice. In this rather specific case of wedding dress fabric shopping, I supplemented their suggestions with advice from people who already undergone the same expedition of fabric hunting. And this is when local blogs come in handy. Even if you don’t read Chinese, lurk those blogs! Honestly with Google Chrome translations, it cannot get any easier, and you will be rewarded for your efforts. I’m sure there are more places I haven’t been able to cover in this blog of mine!
2. The Safe Bet – Yongle Fabric Market (永樂市場)
Housed on the second and third floor of an old building on Dihua Street in Dadaocheng (迪化街, 大稻埕) you will be walking into a jungle of material. I was told that it’s no where near as big and hectic as it used to be, and that scared me a little because I’m new to fabric shopping. This place, less popular as it may be, is already confusing. Row after row of shops, line up along narrow paths, selling a ridiculous selection of fabric.
It’s probably the number one destination for any kind of material you’re after. My local friends all mentioned it. Foreign expat blogs talked about it, so for its popularity, the prices will be a little bit more expensive. However, it’s reliable and the people here really know their business. When I went here, and asked around for wedding lace, they were able to give me advice on whether the ones I’ve chosen are suitable for the cut and style of dress my sister was looking for. It would help of course if you speak Chinese or at least try. My dress-making vocabulary excelled beyond my expectations within a day. I have half a mind to return, just to practice fabric-related conversation again.
Keep in mind that lace is a much less popular material than your cotton and polyester blend fabrics so you will be walking through shop after shop for awhile.
How to get there: Take the Green MRT Line to Beiman Station (北門站), and heading north, walk along Tacheng Steet. Or, catch the Red MRT Line to Shuanglian (雙連站), and heading west, walk along Minsheng West Road. You will hit Dihua Street after about 15 minutes walk from both directions.
Average price (for lace): 360-450 NT per yard = 15 – 20 AUD per 0.9 metres.
Pro-tip: Always grab that business card to remember how to get back to the store that tickled your fancy. They have shop numbers on them for you to navigate again through that fabric jungle when you have long forgotten the maze-like set up.
Also be sure to check the nearby fabric shops that are not in the building. If you head to Yongle from Zhongshan MRT Station, you will find a number of independent stores along Nanjing West Road and the adjacent streets such as Minyue St worth checking out. They may not all carry wedding lace but they have an abundance of other material and can give you tips on where to go for your lace shopping!
3. The Little Known Secret – Bihua Street (碧華布街)
Ah. I wasn’t entirely sure whether I should reveal this as it is definitely a local’s gem of a place. It also wasn’t as abundant in lace as I would like, but seeing it was quite a delight to stroll around this small area, I thought I’ll spread the joy.
Located in Sanchong (三重區) of New Taipei City, it may seem like a trek to get to, but a slightly longer MRT ride is worth it if you want to get even cheaper material. Out in the street, and slightly less-crammed shops means you won’t get that claustrophobic feeling as you would in Yongle. But don’t relax on your mission just yet, because you may still have to go through boxes and shelves full of different material. There are mountains of it in some shops! For what I can tell from my first time visit, the area is excellent for scrap material – ones that measure less than a full yard. The fabric here is definitely more for your everyday wear, costume making and even upholstery use such as curtains or quilting. It’s worth checking out even if it doesn’t carry that lace you need because it’s dirt cheap!
How to get there: Take the Yellow MRT Luzhou Line (蘆洲線) and alight at St. Ignatius High School Station (徐匯中學站). Bihua Street is about 5 minutes walk away.
Average price: 10 – 50 NT for scrap. 80 – 120 NT per yard for cotton-like materials. So basically less than 7 AUD per almost metre! Some places have buy one get one free deals!
Pro-tip: This place is really all about bargain-hunting and using your own initiative to find those materials you need. Don’t expect the shop keepers to help you out as much as you would like. Though not great for lace, if you need ribbons, buttons, zippers etc, go here.
4. Taiwanese Measurements Vs The Metric System
If you haven’t visited local shops in Taiwan before, you will be surprised that there’s a whole new system of measurements that you should learn. Just to throw you off even more, not all units are the same to the traditional Chinese units of measurements either, so even if you’re used to those of Hong Kong or Mainland China, guess again. But for the purpose of buying material alone, it’s relatively simple and you only have to remember one thing when requesting price per unit. One 碼 (mǎ), is equal to one imperial yard…which for us sane metric users, is almost a metre.
1碼 = 1 Yard = 0.9144 Metres
5. What to Ask the Shop Keeper
Once you nailed down the selection of fabric you want, there are a few things you need to ask apart from the usual question of costs:
a – Is this material / pattern suitable for making wedding dresses?
Bring a photo of the style of dress you want and at every store ask them this question. I’m not an expert so I always checked. As you know there’s plenty of variety, and in this particular case, lace is one of those delicate fabrics you don’t want to get wrong. There’s threading, needlework, cutwork, silk lace or otherwise, and then there’s patterns, embellishments and tattling to think about. Either way, unless you’re a dressmaker yourself, don’t just wing it.
b – The width of the fabric.
This is important to give to your dressmaker so that they could calculate exactly how much of the material they will need to make your gown. You may need to fiddle around with your unit conversions because again, Taiwanese shop owners will give you the width in 碼 or inches. Feel free to ask for a calculator.
c – Take photos to send to the people who want them, and for your own reference.
Because you will get confused after choosing a few. When searching from store to store, I let them know that I am buying for someone overseas, and with their permission, take photos of the pattern. It’s just rude if you don’t ask first.
d – Ask for samples.
And hopefully they’ll come free. Most of them won’t be that generous though and you will be required to purchase one 碼 if you want a sample (which is way too ample for my liking, but least you can make doilies out of the ones you don’t want to go ahead with).
e – Make sure they have plenty of material in stock in case you return!
I foolishly overlooked the need for this question when I went back to one store with my sister’s selection, photos, business card and details in hand, only to be told that they had one last 碼 left! Needless to say, I was freaking out a little. Luckily she only needed that last length of fabric, but that was a close call! So don’t be caught unaware while the dress is being made, as it could be disastrous and even more costly, which could’ve easily happened for my sister! Always, always check with the store before you leave the first time you’re there!
No surprises here. Postage is cheap, fast and affordable! I packaged up my samples and expressed mailed them to my sister. I sent a parcel bag weighing around 2.5kg for 540 NT which is just over 20 AUD. Not too shabby if it’s trackable to her front door via EMS!
All up, the material my sister required for her wedding gown amounted to 40 AUD!…and barely that! Well, seeing the style of her dress, she didn’t need that much…but that is still ridiculously cheap. Even with the added sales of samples and postage, the total cost was still much less than buying material back home. Sorry Australia, Taiwan wins on wedding budgeting.
6 weeks later, those little yards of material transformed into this beauty…
Author’s Personal Footnote: I can’t help but relive that week I had in Provence together with my sister and her husband to celebrate their beautiful wedding. Congratulations again to two of my favourite people on earth! You both looked absolutely smashing, and needless to say, when you’re ready to tailor-make new clothes for your anniversaries to come, you know where and who to go to!
Obligatory Wedding Gallery of that eventful day: