FROM RAG TO LABEL

by Kapka Kassabova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Seamstresses of Breznitsa toil to supply international clothes markets

seamstresses

If you arrive in the village of Breznitsa in the evening, you’ll catch the glint of a gold-laminated minaret out of A Thousand And One Nights. The minaret and the entire revamping of the mosque was done through a donation by a local entrepreneur who commissioned Ukrainian craftsmen.

Against the blue peaks of Pirin Mountain, the scene is like a film set. Then you’ll see groups of different-aged women walking down the street. They are going home, and they are the women who stitched your clothes from rag to label. 

Breznitsa (population 4,000) is the largest village in the Gotse Delchev region in southwestern Bulgaria. Geographically defined by the Mesta River and two major mountain chains, the Pirin and the Rhodope, this region has never seen heavy industry and enjoys some of the cleanest air and finest climate in Europe. The Mesta basin is home to the Bulgarian Muslims known as Pomaks, and has been a cultural melting cauldron for over two millennia, since the Romans built a town and named it Nikopolis ad Nestum. This is also the centre of the Bulgarian garment-making industry. The picturesque city of Gotse Delchev houses one of the continent’s largest garment factories: Pirin-Tex. During Communism, Pirin-Tex was a factory for the manufacturing of transistor radios. 

golden mosque bulgaria

Breznitsa's central square with the telltale out-of-Arabian-Nights mosque

The rise of private tailoring factories in the Mesta Valley began in the 1990s, when the planned economy collapsed. Locally, this meant the decline of the tobacco industry, animal husbandry, agriculture and all state-run enterprises, including transistor radios. In 1993, the German textile entrepreneur Bertram Rollmann moved his production hub from across the border with Greece. Hungry for jobs, the locals welcomed him. Soon, Pirin-Tex employed thousands of skilled seamstresses and tailors from the region. Additional buildings were designed and state-of-the-art textile technology introduced. 

At dawn, buses bring women and men from nearby villages like Breznitsa, and a long day begins. Clothes for labels like Hugo Boss are designed and made from scratch here. But seamstresses are paid from 300 euros a month. For the same work in Britain they would make around £1,600. Exhausted and underpaid seamstresses are often forced to seek work in Manchester or London. In the wake of their departure, Pirin-Tex struggles to find staff. Rollmann is much liked and respected by senior staff - some have been here for over 20 years. But he faces an uncertain future nevertheless. He cites two challenges: competition in the global labour market beyond Europe and the refusal by many of the fashion brands to step up and match workers’ basic earning needs, so that employers, too, can survive. The chronic problem of wages lies not with Pirin-Tex, but with the fashion industry itself.

But let’s return to Breznitsa which has over twenty tailoring workshops. They operate out of private houses, smartly converted for the purpose, and employ the majority of the women in the village. When tailoring sweatshops mushroomed in the 1990s, they were mostly Greek-owned because of the proximity of the border and the captive labour in what was then a non-EU country. Some are still Greek-owned, but the sweatshops of yesterday are now modern, open-plan spaces. In these anonymous mountain houses, women (and men) who don’t want to emigrate make clothes for H&M, ASOS, and pretty much every other label available in Europe’s and America’s high streets. Today, some of these businesses are owned or co-owned by locals. 

mosque prayer bulgaria

Local men try not to miss the five-times-a-day prayers

Rabié and Yusuf Yumer started their business in 2001. Rabié worked at Pirin-Tex for a few years, and has good memories of her time there. But Breznitsa, like other villages in southern Bulgaria, had already been a hub for state-owned tailoring sweatshops during Communism: there was ready labour here. It made sense to set up shop at home. 

The Yumer family used to operate out of their house, but recently invested in an impressive open-plan building full of light at the entrance of the village. They employ around 30 seamstresses. A seamstress can earn 800 lev (400 euro) a month, typically working a six-day week, which is the norm in these outfits. The minimal wage is higher than the national minimal wage (311 euros). 

Bulgarians have the lowest basic wage in the EU. This is one reason why nearly a quarter of the nation lives abroad. 

"It's an uphill struggle," Rabié Yumer admits. She is a refined-looking woman. "The market price has no impact on us. This tank-top here could sell in the shop for 30 euros or 300 euros, but we still get 38 cents for it. You do the maths to work out how many pieces we have to sew per day to make anything at all. But we fight on."

Their son manages the admin. They work with Greek distributors like Eva Jo in Thessaloniki and Athos Pallas in Athens. Bags of pre-cut cloth pieces arrive in mini-vans from Greece every week, and each woman has a detail - sleeves, legs, backs - to work on. We walk past bags full of faceless rags - future fashion items with labels on them - Mango, Diesel, Desigual, Moskino. ASOS operates entirely out of Greece and the bulk of its clothes are made here in the Mesta valley. 

"Orders come thick and fast," Rabié said. "When we're chasing a deadline, me and my husband sit at the machines and work all night. Because we value our clients."

Their clients are hard-won, and in this highly competitive industry you’re only as good as your speed. The expertise has been well proven over the decades. It is well known that these super-seamstresses can stitch a trouser hemline in five seconds. 

The women at the sewing machine smile and welcome me, pleased to have visitors. 

village street rhodope

A woman goes home after work through the streets of Breznitsa

"We've kept all our original employees," said Rabié with pride. That’s 20 years.

This is an achievement of both entrepreneurship and ethics. The success of this industry has resulted in over-saturation of sewing outfits in Breznitsa and the region, which compete for staff, clients and orders. And orders are getting more complex, Rabié says. 

Another challenge is that the younger women are lured by job opportunities in the West. But permanent emigration is unusual in Breznitsa and generally in the Pomak communities - which goes counter to the general trend in the country. Instead, people here prefer seasonal work, and even when groups of young men and women go raspberry-picking in England, or building houses in Belgium - once or twice a year - they return. Winter-spring is spent at the sewing machine. 

Rabié organises regular picnics for her staff in the alpine Pirin meadows above the village, rich in water springs and biodiversity. 

"My staff are family." Rabié said. "We grew up together, and we learned sewing together."

The impending arrival of the euro is a concern for small businesses here. But she takes a philosophical approach. They have weathered a few storms and right now they are bobbing on the choppy waters of the pandemic, which has brought a sharp decrease in orders. Brexit delivered a severe blow, causing chronic disruption in transport and customs. 

"Brexit is a big deal because 50 percent of our orders are from England. Or were, " she says. "The rest goes to Germany and the US."

The drop in orders from Great Britain looks set to last, Rabié believes. 

"There is just too much of everything now," she says, and adds: "When there isn't too little of it, that is," She smiles and I see the strain behind the stoicism. "But we'll keep going until we drop." 

Come summer, the family go to their field above the village to get the grass mowed and bailed. They do this after working hours. The stony hills of Breznitsa are now wild, but during Communism they were green with tobacco. Every man, woman and child – yes, there was child labour here until the 1990s – was employed in the state-run tobacco industry whose heart was the Mesta basin. The tobacco industry collapsed in the 1990s and was replaced overtime with sewing sweatshops. Everyone born here before 1990 has known back-breaking work. 

Seamstresses Bulgaria

There is a sartorial backstory here, which brings depth to the human story. It goes back to 1972-1973, when the Communist state mounted a terror campaign against the Pomaks. The aim was to destroy their heritage by changing their Muslim names, destroying mosques and cemeteries, and banning the majestic traditional dress of Pomak women, made from silk and wool in characteristic stripes and floral motifs. Women could not wear floral shalvars, head scarves and blue mantles, but were forced into trousers and special state-issued factory-produced polyester gowns. They were so ugly that women refused to wear them and stayed home. Bridal get-ups called kaftans and made from padded silk, Mongolian-style, were burned by political commissars. Women were cornered in the fields and had their shalvars slashed with scissors. Several men and boys were killed here during these events. I know women who were beaten with the butts of rifles. A woman with a baby on her back was shot in the front by a soldier. But you won't be burdened with such memories if you visit - people here are way too polite. You will be welcomed with the famed Breznitsa hospitality and if you drop into a tailoring outfit you can buy a discounted sweatshirt hot off the sewing machine. 

The Yumers have done something remarkable for their home village and for the region. They have turned a vicious cycle into a virtuous one. The vicious cycle is brain-drain, loss of labour at home, loss of belonging abroad, empty villages. The Yumers offer a home-like environment for their work family, an ideal employer ethic - and pay that is enough to keep women in the village without stripping them of dignity. All within walking distance of home. 

Next time we buy a T-shirt with a label on it, rather than think "It's worth it" or "I'm worth it," let's think of the woman from Breznitsa who stitched it from rags. What is her expertise worth? Her eyesight, her hands, her back, her youth spent in the tobacco fields, her own silk kaftan stitched by her grandmother, her silent survival? 

They are worthy of a film set against the peaks of Pirin. Yet her monthly wage is less than the price of a Hugo Boss jacket. 

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Comments

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Well done Kapka. You have captured the dignity & constraints beautifully. Strong women. Makes you grateful for unions, regulations, the ethics market place also. Brava.

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A well written article i will be more mindful of fashion and when I revisited Bulgaria I hope to go to this region

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