Keep calm and carry on crafting: Meet Singapore's latest crafters

Niki Bruce
Contributor
(Photo: Guido Mieth/ Getty Images)

If you spend any time at all on Instagram or Pinterest, you will have noticed the increase in lovely images of old school traditional crafts being tweaked with a modern edge by everyone from Millennials to Baby Boomers.

The focus on analogue activities like art and craft, and the growing of plants, is part of the growing #slowlife and #slowliving cultural movement that’s taking off around the world. Everything from crochet artworks that look like food items, to the latest fashion trends for handmade garments, craft hobbies are taking over.

In Singapore there are a number of people who love spending time creating items with their hands, from simple hobbies to substantial art works, craft isn’t boring anymore.

Crafters as artists

“When the public thinks of techniques like knitting, crocheting, macrame, weaving – the perception is that they are mostly ‘women’-type crafts, or ‘work that women do’, confined to spaces like homes, or workshops,” explains Ginette Chittick, a lecturer at Lasalle College of the Arts, and a weaver.

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“Work like that is often devalued or denigrated as ‘decorative’, and otherwise not accepted as part of an artistic practice,” she explains. 

But Ms Chittick is a fashion designer, lecturer, mother and DJ who somehow also manages to be a serious weaver of art pieces.

“My friend and workmate Hazel Lim and I are very interested in this area for research as part of our two-woman art show happening at UltraSuperNew Gallery from the 21st of March to 14th April 2019,” says Ms Chittick.

“We are inspired by the work done by individuals and in particular, women whose heritage and cultures are embedded in the craft practices that constitute a part of their everyday life, such as weaving, embroidery, knitting, quilting, crocheting, tapestries, origami, basket weaving, etc,” Ms Chittick explains, saying that these crafts can be simple hobbies, or looked at through the lens of fine art.

The art exhibition, “Planes and Envelopes”, will not feature the usual knitted sweaters, but will display objects woven from different materials like paper, yarn and fabric. Ms Chittick says it will “sit in an intersection of Art and Design”.

While her current weaving work has become an artistic practice, Ms Chittick says that it all started out as a simple hobby.

“I was a week away from giving birth and in a spur of the moment signed up for a creative workshop by Australian Natalie Miller who has made quite a name in tapestry weaving,” she explains.

“There I was, balancing the loom on my massive belly, learning the ropes and I found the technique offered so much free play. There is such a wonderful meditative quality about weaving, I am so glad that I took that step in signing up for that workshop.

“For a while I sold made-to-order home decor pieces but now it’s not a hobby but an art practice as I prepare for our ‘Planes and Envelopes’ show and then in July my solo show at Telok Ayer Arts Club,” says Ms Chittick.

Although it seemed like random chance that she took up weaving, Ms Chittick has always been creative as the director of Singapore fashion brand FrüFrü & Tigerlily, and as a popular DJ and musician. She has created everything from punk tees and CD covers as a teen, and is now making her own yarn for her work.

“I am also making my own yarn out of a blend local kapok cotton and wool. I just bought my first wool carding machine – I previously blended my fibre by hand – so I’m very excited! I’m a maker and I enjoy the making process heaps.”

Another creative, Inez Tan, 42, has also turned her hobby of embroidery into an artistic practice.

“I am an embroidery artist. I create embroidered portraits of people and pets on hoops and accessories (like brooches and necklaces) made to be loved and worn,” explains Ms Tan.

“I preserve kids drawings too, and turn them into thread. ‘She Draws I Thread’ is a collaboration that began between me and my five-year-old daughter Miya, two years ago. She draws, and I embroider.

“Miya loves telling stories through her drawings and I wanted to preserve this beyond leaves of paper that can end up as clutter. Embroidering her drawings and stories help me immortalise these precious moments,” says Ms Tan.

Ms Tan began with making jewellery from bits of fabric, and then moved onto using embroidery as embellishment. She became more obsessed during her second pregnancy with her son.

“I found embroidery to be timeless, exciting, and full of possibilities. I can stitch anything and there is no right or wrong. Embroidery provided a meditative and creative outlet for me as a mother. I provides me flexibility and I can take it along with me wherever I go!

“I love that embroidery is timeless, exciting and provides endless possibilities. I do like a bit of chaos and a fusion of old and new. Embroidery to me encompasses that. Most importantly, it taught me patience,” says Ms Tan.

Twenty-six year old Zoey Wong describes herself as an embroidery artist.

“I majored in illustration in University [but] I started to realise that I could do more than just digital illustration,” she explains. “I began to challenge myself and started to convert my illustrations into different variations using different mediums. I started with embroidery and realised that there is a lot more to explore and discover and it has stuck ever since.”

For Ms Wong embroidery offers lots of room for creative imagination: “I can constantly push the boundaries within embroidery.”

“Most people believe the stereotype that embroidery is just for housewives coupled with a lot of patience. I personally feel that embroidery allows me to explore and break that stereotype.

“I love that a simple stitch can be repeated over and over again to create different pieces and no two pieces will be the same. Having room to push boundaries is also one of the main factors that draws me to embroidery.

Ms Wong says that she recently create an embroidery piece with her own hair, and that the experience “really opened my eyes to what could be achieved with hand embroidery”.

As with other Singapore crafters, Ms Wong has found that she can turn her hobby into a career. 

“I am grateful for all the support and opportunities that I have been given to start turning my passion into a career. I currently do commissioned works and hold embroidery workshops to share the beauty of hand embroidery.”

The Craft as Therapy

For Lisa Koh, who started with macrame and chunky knitting before moving into art weaving, her choice of hobby is “therapeutic”.

“[It is] therapeutic when I am knotting, knitting and weaving. Very satisfying when I complete a project and like what I see,” says Ms Koh.

She also says that when her customers love her work, and knowing that her pieces have found homes with people who will appreciate them also gives her lots of joy.

“Knitting, knotting and weaving is what I do ‘full time’ now,” although she says that she doesn’t really consider her hobby to be a ‘career’ as such.

“I just want to enjoy knitting, knotting and weaving for as long as I can,” explains Ms Koh, “rather than becoming a bigger commercial activity that I have to knot or weave for days on end and kill my passion for this craft.”

Archivist Anna Koh, who is in her early 40s, however, wants to keep her craft hobbies and career separate.

“I don’t plan to turn any of my hobbies into a career, mainly because I already have a profession. I’ve knitted and sewn for commission in the past but generally speaking I don’t enjoy it – there is less freedom and more stress, which in my opinion is something that a hobby shouldn’t cause,” she explains.

Ms Koh describes herself as a “knitter, sewist and weaver”, and starter learning her skills from the age of five.   

“In my late teens while at university, I noticed in the entertainment news that lots of famous models and actresses cited knitting as a hobby they used to keep themselves busy and entertained while waiting around for hair and makeup, or in between shots. I thought to myself ‘I could do that!’.

“So, as an adult I bought cheap yarn and straight needles from Kmart, and taught myself how to knit through books, asking friends and [watching] web tutorials. Over the years I graduated to circular needles and finer yarn – for me, this made a huge difference in my enjoyment of the craft.”

Based in Australia, Ms Koh says she originally started sewing since she didn’t have the money to buy the kind of interestingly designed and textured fashion she wanted to wear. 

“I started by buying a soft toy pattern book, end of mill fabrics and used YouTube videos as my teacher. On reflection, this was probably not the smartest way to get into it – I might have been better off attempting a simple skirt or top. Over time I plucked up the courage to diversify my skills and try new techniques.”

The weaving started after Ms Koh tried a knitter’s loom at the Australian Sheep and Wool Show in Bendigo, Victoria.

“A friend commented (jokingly) that I was a natural and I was so convinced that I splashed out the several hundred dollars on an Ashford loom a week or so later. I only have basic weaving skills but plan to challenge myself a bit more this year – lack of time is the main barrier.”

The main things that attract Ms Koh to her hobbies is the mix of “technique and precision with skill and creativity”.

“I enjoy the entire process, from selecting a pattern, choosing fabrics or yarn and embellishments, getting started, working through problems and fixing mistakes, and ending up with a finished product.

“I’m always proud of my finished work,” says Ms Koh.

Arigurumi. (Photo: Click&Boo/ Getty Images)

Another knitter and weaver, Alicia Tan, 36, hopes that one day she can focus on her craft as a career, but for now the Content Strategist is happy just to find enough time to enjoy her hobby.

“I always liked to crochet when I was younger but just never really got into it. In 2016, I picked it up again when I decided to crochet something for a friend – it was arigurumi – the Japanese art of knitting stuffed yarn creatures,” she explains.

“It was fun but then I moved to Australia and gave it up. I’ve since started arm knitting and weaving again.”

Ms Tan says weaving and knitting gives her peace of mind. “I like practicing mindfulness and I like how knitting let’s me drift off into a zen state,” she says.

Another person who isn’t really interested in turning her craft hobby into a career is sub-editor and crocheter Annabelle Bok.

“I started with rugs and blankets and now am experimenting with boleros, blouses, and little girl’s dresses and skirts,” explains Ms Bok about the things she crochets.

“I tried picking [crochet] up twice as a kid; I watched one of my aunts and our domestic helper doing it in their free time and asked them to show me how, but it just didn’t seem to make sense.

“About four years back a good friend got into it and I asked her to teach me – I got started, but had to stop for quite a while when I got pregnant as for some reason the sight of yarn nauseated me. In January 2017 I got hold of some crocheting books and that was it, I couldn’t stop.

“I’ve been crocheting pretty regularly since then, except for certain busy periods at work or during festive seasons.”

For Ms Bok, crocheting is calming and meditative: “Apparently some studies have shown that crocheting and knitting can result in lower blood pressure in the long run, as well as lowered risk of mental decline and disorders, which is great!

“And I just like the feel of yarn and crocheted or knitted fabric. It’s squishy.”

If you are interested in either gaining some peace of mind, releasing your creativity or possibly starting a new career, Ginette Chittick suggests you head to social media platforms like Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook to be inspired and meet like-minded crafty people.

“I would definitely recommend people take up a crafty hobby. You never know where it might take you and who you might meet and be inspired by,” she says.