Friday, May 27, 2011


Sometimes, life in a foreign country can create labyrinthine difficulties for what would be the simplest procedures elsewhere.

Does anyone know the Italian for "sewing patterns" or "dress patterns"?

I am still more or less housebound, and am going out of my mind with boredom and I thought sewing might be a good time-filler that wouldn't be too physically strenuous. I need some new dresses for the summer and there's nothing in the shops that I can fit into. (Italian shopkeepers regard anything over a size 8 as XXL. It is flatly impossible to buy tights or stockings here that will make it up as far as my waist.)

The trouble is, that no matter how much news, political, medicine, cancer and reastaurant-related Italian I learn, none of it will be any use in a sewing shop.

I once was given the task for the parish of going to a sewing shop and obtaining iron-on pellon. I went to the shop and realised I was utterly at a loss. I spent 20 minutes in that tiny shop looking desperately around, unable to articulate to the shop people what I wanted, before I stumbled upon a packet of fusible interfacing, which more or less served.

Very specialised Italian is a bit of a problem for which dictionaries are useless. And I noticed that, as with most Italian shops, they don't mix the categories in the sewing world.

There's no such thing as "convenience shopping" in this country, and the boundaries between the types of things sold in different sorts of shops are very strictly maintained. It took me ages to figure out that although larger supermarkets will often sell barbeque briquettes and even the white firestarter stuff, they under no circumstances will sell you matches. Matches are sold only at tabacchi.

If you want to buy magazines, go to a newsagent. If you want to buy a packet of crisps and a soda, go to a grocery shop. If you want to buy shampoo and cosmetics, go to a profumeria. If you want to buy bandaids and mercurochrome, or fill a prescription, you have to to to a farmacia. The idea of combining these totally and rigidly separated categories of things into one shop and calling it a "drug store" or a "chemist" as we do in N. America and Britain, would be completely unfathomable to them. So, shopping involves a bit of skill in guessing, from what you know of the Italian mind, what sort of shop would sell the thing you want.

In addition, many of the shops you go to are the old fashioned kind, where the things you need are behind the counter and you have to ask the shop person to give you what you want. I'm sure this has to do with the Italian people-orientation. Italians, no doubt, consider our sort of shopping, where you just roam freely around the shop picking things up as you find them, intolerably impersonal and cold. Where's the human element? I can hear them saying. Well, yes, and I appreciate very much the lovely old-fashionedness of the ladies shops where you go up to the counter and ask the ladies there for your underthings. But it falls down as a system for us ferners when we get in there and realise there is simply NO WAY to describe the thing we want.

I went to that sewing shop in the Jewish section, which we would refer to as a "notions" shop, that sold all sorts of wonderful gadget-y sewing things (men, picture a 19th century hardware/fishing supply store and you will get an idea of the heart's little skip of delight and fascination involved for girls) and realised that neither they nor the fabric shop I had just been to sold dress patterns.

Now, I'm not such a clod that I can't draft my own patterns and come up with the clothes I want, but it does eliminate a step or two if you can start with a basic dress pattern in one's own size. But I have no idea where to get one, what Italian category of shop they might fall under.

For heaven's sake! If not fabric or notions, then what? What?!.



Lise Legault said...

Try asking for a "campione di merce". I was a little surprised by the "campione", but when I found one of its meanings is "master", I was less surprised.

I too was baffled by Italian shops. When I went asking where to find contact lens solution, I found it was sold in neither a farmacia nor a profumeria, but *in a photography shop*.

Lise Legault

Anonymous said...

Given the propensity of modern Italian women to shop for "designer" clothing and to spurn such quaint domesticities as making one's own clothes, dress patterns may be hard to come by. Good luck though.

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Stuck in NY said...


"...intolerably impersonal and cold. Where's the human element? I can hear them saying."

So true:( - and that's exactly what we say too.

Seraphic said...

Hilary, I found a fabric shop just off the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, not far from the Piazza Navrona. I will see if I can find my shopping bag from there and get back to you. Noone there spoke English, but with the help of a dictionary, you should be able to get somewhere.

HJW said...

No worries about the fabric shops. I know they're all in the Ghetto. It's patterns that's the problem.

Andrew said...

I live in Slovakia and have similar problems-- while I'm married to a Slovak woman who speaks fluent English, it doesn't help much when I am in the welding supply shop or the gun store, which also has everything behind a counter and ask my wife how to stay "cast iron welding rod" or "black gunpowder".
What does help sometimes is to look on Wikipedia for an entry about what you are looking for, then look under languages to see if it is in (in my case) Slovak or a similar language like Czech or Polish.
So for your problem:
which, when you click Languages -> Italiano on the left side, would take you to:

Andrew said...

Slovakia has some innovations over Italy-- while there are still a plethora of different shops for all sorts of needs some things do get combined. Common combination shops I've seen include "Painting Supplies / Garden & Seeds" along with "Stationery / Children's toys". The combinations don't really make much sense, but for some reason it is common to combine apparently unrelated things into one shop.

Anonymous said...

The italian name is "cartamodelli". You find them at any newsagents. Ask for "burda" magazine. There are several versions (monthly, seasonal high couture, children, outsize, ...).

hjw said...

You can't get patterns at newsagents. You can get pattern magazines at newsagents. The whereabouts of the patterns themselves remain a mystery.

And Burda has horrible dresses. Dreadful.

I've pretty much decided just to do my own. Dust off some long-disused skills.