From A Borrowed $6 to Successful Clothing Designer: Sarisa’s Story

 Sarisa wearing her new longyi I got her in Burma. A longyi will never look this good on me!

Sarisa wearing her new longyi I got her in Burma. A longyi will never look this good on me!

Growing up, Sarisa said that she wanted to either be a doctor or a dress maker. Being that she came from a poor, rural farm town, there was no feasible financial path to becoming a doctor. Dress maker it would be. Now more than 30 years later, Sarisa says she wouldn’t have it any other way.

At 12 years old she began, of her own volition, drawing, cutting and sewing fabric. In support of her growing hobby, Sarisa’s mother got together the money to buy her a sewing machine and pair of scissors, both Singer brand (my ancestrally unrelated namesake), and both of which she still has to this day. Her mother brought her to a woman in their village to teach her sewing and at age 14, Sarisa began working for a seamstress in a village shop.

Around the age of 16 or 17, Sarisa decided she would move to the nearest city, Chiang Mai. Beyond the 200 baht (~$6) that she had borrowed from her grandmother, Sarisa had no money and no plan. When she arrived in Chiang Mai she sought out an uncle, whom she knew to work at a certain hotel. He said she could stay with him for a little while until she got her on her feet. As for work, she could either be a dress maker or take care of kids. She once again chose dress maker.

Sarisa began working for a seamstress in a shop, making very little money. After she had squirreled away a little nut, she paid for a dress making course at a government school, where she attended at night after work. After working for three different shops, Sarisa opened her first shop at the age of 24.

 In front of her temple at her new home, wearing a vintage Indian textile skirt with a hand-embroidered shirt in a new style of embroidery. Sarisa taught her longtime employee how to embroider like this in an effort to keep the embroidery tradition from the region alive. 

In front of her temple at her new home, wearing a vintage Indian textile skirt with a hand-embroidered shirt in a new style of embroidery. Sarisa taught her longtime employee how to embroider like this in an effort to keep the embroidery tradition from the region alive. 

Sarisa began by doing regular seamstress and dress making work. People would bring her fabric and she would make the garment. One day a friend asked her if she would help her open her shop at the government’s Sunday market. The government had given her a place at the market. Her friend backed out of the venture, but Sarisa continued on by herself.

 A snapshot of Sarisa's wardrobe, or vintage textile museum, depending on how you look at it. 

A snapshot of Sarisa's wardrobe, or vintage textile museum, depending on how you look at it. 

Not knowing where to start or what to sell, Sarisa began by selling antique earrings and papaya salad (som tam). She didn’t speak English when she started but quickly picked up some words by interacting with foreigners at the market. People started asking her who made her dresses (her). Her hands raw from acidic mango, she says a lightbulb went off: she would start making her own designs to sell to people.

There was another woman at the Sunday market who would bring one or two boxes of old fabric from the hill tribes to sell at the market. Sarisa started buying fabric from her to make clothes. Sarisa laughs as she explains this because this woman now has a huge stall at a big market in Chiang Mai. Back then, however, there were very few vendors at this now expansive and crowded Sunday market.  

The first to do so at this market, Sarisa was a pioneer in repurposing and designing with vintage textiles. She is the first to admit there are others who have since taken up a similar line of work and whose business acumen has sometimes enabled them to build successful business more quickly. Some of those women even try to peep (ahem, copy) Sarisa’s designs but she doesn’t really care or want big business. What’s most important to her is making things from the heart.

Sarisa built her parents a home with her earnings when she was 24 (photos from Sarisa's parents' farm home below). 

She has since bought herself a building in Chiang Mai and her store. She most recently bought property outside the city, where she is constructing her dream home and, hopefully, a small workshop where she can employ others to help her realize more of her designs. She really wants to teach more women how to sew and embroider, starting with the women in her new neighborhood who need the additional income. Used to just getting everything done herself, she says it’s now time to get more help. She’s only had one consistent employee for the last 13 years!

 Sarisa instructing a new sewer who lives in her neighborhood. 

Sarisa instructing a new sewer who lives in her neighborhood. 

Sarisa does her work for the love of vintage textiles and designing. And when you see her talk about the pieces in her own wardrobe or her shop, you know this to be true. She is self-proclaimed “crazy!” I say she’s more like possessed by all things handmade and unique, which makes us natural business collaborators and friends.  

 Two peas in a pod, we are. Sarisa made this jumpsuit custom for me from a skirt I picked out at her house. I insisted I wanted this color and fabric, and she understood why when it was finished! I think she's making one for herself, too. Maybe she can make you one? Email me at jess@lemondeur.com.

Two peas in a pod, we are. Sarisa made this jumpsuit custom for me from a skirt I picked out at her house. I insisted I wanted this color and fabric, and she understood why when it was finished! I think she's making one for herself, too. Maybe she can make you one? Email me at jess@lemondeur.com.

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