Breathtaking fabrics, explosions of colours and dizzying choices of materials. It’s the kind of place your husband wishes you hadn’t discovered, but your friends abroad will be endlessly grateful for souvenirs from. Welcome to Kuwait’s one and only fabric souk, also known as Souk Safat.
The souk is one of the best known in the world, and certainly in the Middle East. There’s no surprise. Historically, Kuwait has been a seafaring nation and along with golds, spices and precious jewels, sailors used to bring back fabrics from as far afield as Indonesia or Italy.
Fast-forward the clock and centuries later and the souk is still at the crossroads between continents, influences and cultures. It epitomizes what we love about this country. You’ll find hand-embroidered textiles, just as the plain quality linen fabrics that make ideal cushions for your West coast beach house.
If you haven’t already been, it’s the kind of place one would happily get lost in. From faux designer bags, to Kashmiri raw silk and cashmere you’ll find anything you could wear, as well as inevitably what you downright shouldn’t.
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Dinosaur curtains for children or copied Ted Baker flowery shirts for men. It has everything, including raw silks that you can purchase for a tenth of what you’ll find them for in Europe or the US. There are also shops which can embroider fabrics, so you can make personalized cushions, advent calendars or beach bags for children and relatives.
There is the clothing section, in the main hall above the covered parking. The building behind is dedicated to home fabrics for curtains, cushions and upholstery. It is also known as “block 9”.
The souk is run by Indians and Iranians, who work in shops owned by Kuwaiti merchant families. You will be welcomed by young Iranians from Shiraz in most of the quality textile shops and other Persian cities famous for their textile industry. Other shops stock up in Pakistan and India, where silks and wools are particularly sought after. From the outset there is no difference, but Iranians are more likely to drop prices and enjoy bargaining.
The best thing about being in Kuwait is that you can have everything copied. From leather goods to dresses, silk dressing gowns and much much more. Or in my case reverse the process: find the material you love before you decide what you need it for!
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The first floor of the souk is where the tailors can transform your textile into your fairy princess dress. The general advice is to bring a small item to be copied until you find a tailor that you think can copy the real deal. The ones that are used to western tailoring are above the Indian Heritage shop in the central hall. Not all have changing rooms.
Men can also have shirts copied for as little as 2 KD, suits and even military uniforms tailored if the original is stretched beyond the waistline. There is a great selection of plain cotton materials in most of the men’s dish-dash material shops that can also be made into women’s clothes.
The tailors in the furniture section can also come to your home to measure up or upholster. Be aware that the stuffing used for cushions can sometimes be very hard and its often best to get your own cushions.
The haberdashery and jewellery section is also mind-boggling. From turquoise stones to mirror buttons, you can find most things to make a very sophisticated fancy dress costume. It’s in this section that you can also print personalized ribbon with your name on it for as little as 3 KD a roll and accessories for jewellery making. The end shop on the outside of the haberdashery also has a great selection of wrapping paper, paper bags and small gifts.
Finally, the best time to go is inevitably in the morning as the first sale is often seen as a good luck omen and discounted heavily. The opening times are ten to one and four to eight. Friday’s most shops open at four. The souk gets particularly busy ahead of Eid as Kuwaitis refurbish their homes and it’s a particularly interesting time to go for the cultural experience.
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No question about it, haggling is part of the experience. Very few shops, of which Indian Heritage, stick rigidly to their prices. Don’t go by the written prices and you may find that discounts may as popular as the smiles and humour you use to negotiate them. And be warned: the souk is deeply addictive. Once bitten, never shy. And don’t forget to dress conservatively… It is after all one of the most traditional quarters of the city.
Our favorite shops in the souk are:
For quality silks and hand embroidered textiles:
Indian Heritage, central Square, central Hall 1, Tel: + 965 240 3301
For plain/western style fabrics for cushions, curtains and a great selection for children’s fabrics: Lozan Fabrics, Souk Safat, Commercial area 9, Block 2, shop 52. Tel. 224 56 810 or call Danny on 94 97 21 70
Women’s tailor, first floor, Souk Safat, block 2, use stairs facing Lozan fabrics
For men’s tailoring, Prince Tailors, central aisle, Haberdashery section facing outwards. Zaharat Al-Sharq Souk Al-Safat, Tel: + 965 243 2424 or 240 6683
Written by: Maryann Horne