Madam Li Qiying, originally from Guangxi, China, picked up cheongsam-making from her mother, who had learnt it from Shanghainese teachers. At 9 years old, she began sewing buttons on cheongsams to help her mother. At 10, she stopped schooling and at 13, started making cheongsams. Later, she went to Beijing to further her studies in fashion design. There, she studied under a teacher who specialised in cheongsams and Chinese tunic suits.
After coming to Singapore in 2004, she initially stuck to sewing at home and taking in sewing from factories. But, in 2007, she rented a shop space to do general alterations. To keep alive her cheongsam-making skills, she started making a few of the garments. Her creations were well-received and, thereafter, business took flight.
She says more young people are wearing cheongsams to work, but that they prefer longer and looser fits below the waist, sans slits at the hem, for a more conservative look. Cotton and lace materials are favoured to suit Singapore’s hot weather.
Small as it seems, the simplest knotted button takes about half an hour to make, according to Madam Li. Complicated designs like butterfly-knotted buttons, which involve the turning over and ironing of cloth, can take at least one hour per pair to make.
Another challenging aspect about cheongsam tailoring is the traditional sewing of the “split”, or cha (叉), as it incorporates single or double trimmings into the fabric. Great skill is needed to sew this well, as it affects the way the cheongsam falls. Fabric choice also affects the difficulty of sewing, as thinner materials are harder to sew.
Madam Li does not believe in mass-producing cheongsams. She says mass-produced cheongsams tend to “go out of shape” and the quality and materials used in their making are compromised. “For cheongsams to be pretty, (they have) to be tailor-made... Whether it’s simple, ordinary, cheap or expensive, we make them one by one.”