WITH a generation of Singaporeans weaned on maids and modern technology, the idea of making something by hand seems rather twee. But not so to a growing number of local hobby craftsmen who get satisfaction from seeing a finished product emerging from their hands at the end of the day.
No one knows that more than Michelle Tan, a trainee lawyer who teamed up with art instructor Aisah Dalduri to found Handmade Movement, Singapore's first and only large-scale indie craft fair. Their inaugural fair was held last Saturday at Fort Canning Green. Despite the wet weather, the fair attracted over 70 craft vendors and 1,400 visitors. There are plans for a second fair.
"With handmade items, you never know what you are going to get," says Ms Tan of the appeal of such craft. "Each artist has his or her own style and way of making an item, so even if two artists have the same idea, you don't end up with the same end product."
Adds Ms Dalduri,"Handmade goods each have their own story and a personality that cannot be replicated elsewhere."
Such interest has led to a growing cottage industry in Singapore. BT Weekend speaks to some of these craftsmen who have turned their passion into homey enterprises
WHAT started off as a fun weekend activity turned into a growing business for freelance photo editor Rita Chee.
Some years ago, Ms Chee saw a quirky keychain in an American magazine, and thought about making a similar one for herself to hang on her handbag.
Her keychain, which had a small teddy bear, a heart-shaped crystal and crocheted cherries, caught the eye of a colleague, who asked her to make a similar one for his girlfriend.
"Some other colleagues and friends saw the keychains and asked me to make keychains for them too," says Ms Chee, who spends her free time making them.
She also posts pictures of keychains she has made on her Facebook page, which helps garner further interest among friends.
Each keychain that Ms Chee makes is different and she does not repeat her designs.
Her tools include a set of pliers in different sizes, which she uses to attach the trinkets onto chains and metal hoops.
"The pliers and materials to make the keychains are easily available to anyone. How the keychains turn out all depend on my creativity," she says.
To help her create the different keychains, she first tries to understand the personality of the recipient. "I also ask if they prefer a rugged looking keychain or one with a feminine touch," she says.
Ms Chee adds that a short description from the recipient on their hobbies and favourite items also helps her craft a personalised keychain. "Little details such as if they are a dog lover, or a big music fan are useful," she says. "With these details in mind, I will source for the materials and put the keychain together."
She heads to accessories shops in Bugis Village and Far East Plaza to buy the trinkets. Sometimes, if she is out shopping and spots a cute looking trinket, she will buy it first, before deciding on how best to use it.
With her pliers, nifty fingers and some creativity, she can put together a keychain in less than an hour. "Of course, it also helps that I have all the appropriate trinkets on hand," she says. "Some keychains take longer to make, because it takes time to find certain pieces, such as little pom poms which are hardest to hunt for."
Each keychain costs from $18 to $25, depending on the cost of the trinkets.
Although keychains are readily available in shops, Ms Chee believes her designs appeal because "each is custom made with the person in mind, and no two that I make are the same."
In the past two months, she has made 18 keychains and new clients are now on the wait list.
"I like to see the smiles on the recipients when I give them the keychains," she says. "I like to surprise my friends and give them as gifts."
WHILE people tend to be the main customers of handcrafted goods, yorkshire terriers and chihuahuas are the preferred clientele for dog lovers Geraldine Chua, 25, and Zee Xu, 26. The two are founders of Ohpopdog, which retails handmade dogswear.
"We are madly in love with dogs, and we feel that it will be fun to do something that revolves around them," says Ms Chua, a full-time designer.
The duo brainstorm and come up design ideas for the dog apparel. They use only cotton as "it is suited for Singapore's weather", says Ms Xu, a dog handler. "We pick out fabrics that look good and provide optimal comfort for the dogs."
The two also noticed that shops tended to stock flashy canine fashion, whereas they wanted a simpler, down to earth look. There are five designs in the range, from $15 to $28, and they are suited for only toy dogs.
Dogs togged out in Ohpopdog's gear not only look cute, but the designers say clothes can be beneficial for the canines.
"We design for shorthaired dogs as they shed fur easily, and our dogswear reduces fur shedding and serves a hygiene purpose for the owner," says Ms Xu, who relies on her personal observations and experience with dogs to suggest ideas to improve the fit so that dogs do not feel restricted.
The duo come up with their designs at home, and work with another friend who does the sewing. "We are admittedly not the best at sewing, so after initial attempts to do the sewing ourselves, we decided on someone professional to get it done, but we keep a close eye on the process," says Ms Chua. Each design comes in limited quantities.
Since Ohpopdog started last month, it has garnered a growing interest through its Facebook page and website.
"We feel that this is something that make us really happy and will also push us to learn more about dogs and their needs," says Ms Xu. "At the moment dogswear is a stepping stone for us, but we are hoping to involve ourselves in more products that benefit owners and dogs."
While both love dogs, neither owns them. "We are not able to do so with our current lifestyles, but when we do, we plan on giving our furkid the best living environment," says Ms Chua.
MEET Sadie the owl and Marlena the cat. No, they are not cartoon characters nor someone's pets.
They are pillows that art director Rowena Sim handmakes for sale - and they come with back stories.
Sadie, with her half-closed eyes, was the star attraction at Jurong Bird Park until she was retired because she could not stay awake. "She wants someone to love her for the sleepyhead that she is," says Ms Sim, 42.
Meanwhile, Marlena the cat loves motorcycles because they rumble as loudly as she can purr. But the feline does not like wearing a helmet, because it makes her hair flat.
Ms Sim says of The Soft Touch, her range of pillows launched last year: "The names and personalities and stories are my unique selling point, and it is fun creating the little back stories."
The Soft Touch was never meant to be a business; it was started more as a hobby, she says. She made two owls for her godsister's children, and posted pictures of them on her Facebook page. Soon, her friends started asking her to make pillows for them too.
She chose to make pillows because "they make good gifts and unlike clothes, I do not have to worry about sizes". She charges $35 for each pillow, and slightly more for customised orders.
Having studied fashion design and having made her own clothes, making pillows is a cinch.
While most people chill out in front of the TV after work and on the weekends, she spends the time on her creations, often staying up later than she should.
"When I have a new idea, I get excited and have to get it done as soon as I can. I usually cannot wait to see the result too," she said.
The work is split over a few nights. She cuts up the fabric one night, and sews them on another. Most of the sewing is done on her mother's electric sewing machine, but the buttons, flowers and other embellishments are done by hand; the seams on the pillows also have to be stitched up manually to close them.
Most of her pillows are animal-shaped, but she also does monsters and regular cushion covers and welcomes customers' suggestions for new animals.
Her customers are usually friends of friends. "Some customers buy for the background stories of the pillows," she says.
Ms Sim has no plans to give up her day job to pursue this full-time, but even then, she is getting a lot of satisfaction from her hobby. "I gain so much joy from designing and creating them, and seeing them come to completion. And to top it off, the customers' feedback has been totally rewarding."
EXPECTANT mother Susanna Lo found her life lacking in "any sort of creativity" when she was an overworked corporate tax lawyer in London four years ago.
Since quitting her job and moving to Singapore, Ms Lo has been able to indulge in the "therapeutic fun of crafting". In the past, she used to wish mornings would never come so that she would not have to go to work, "now I crawl happily out of bed to continue the project I reluctantly put down at 1am".
The projects that Ms Lo talks about are cute little animals that she crochets. Some even come in cupcake shells, and are "dressed up in hand-sewn clothes for that added element of home-made cuteness", she says.
A few years ago, she donated her handmade crochet cat cupcakes to a Cats of the World Photo exhibition bazaar. The cat lover wanted to do her bit for the Cat Welfare Society. "To my surprise, the cat cupcakes sold so well that the organisers invited me to hold a stall at their next event," says Ms Lo, 32. She did that and the response from the bazaar was so encouraging that she set up an online store, called StuffSusieMade.
While she still crochets, Ms Lo began sewing baby bibs, blankets and other baby paraphernalia, when she found herself pregnant with her second child last year.
She learnt crocheting and knitting from her mother when she was 10. "Mum tried to teach me sewing as well when I was a teenager but I was going through a rebellious phase and refused to learn," says Ms Lo of her late mother. "I hope she would be pleased to know I have learnt to sew by myself."
Her creations, from $12 each, have found fans in both adults and children, from Singapore and even overseas.
Even after numerous projects, the sense of satisfaction of seeing the recipient's delightful face "never gets old".
Ms Lo recalls a cat doll that she made for a girl's second birthday. "The little girl was usually very shy with people but when I presented her with the doll, her eyes shone, she cracked a marvellous smile and hugged the doll so tightly it sent waves of warmth through me," Ms Lo says.
A mass produced object, she feels, can never beat a handmade one, as there is no history behind a mass produced item, little individuality and certainly no love.
"My customers will not only possess an object of my design and craftsmanship but a piece of my toil as well," she says. "They know where the creations come from, who made them and they know every piece has been lovingly created by someone who appreciates its beauty."
MAESTRO Guitar's tagline says Singapore's finest handcrafted guitars, but funnily, its founder, Ho Zen Yong, is no good at playing the guitar. "I only know a few basic chords which is good enough for me to sell the guitar or to know if the guitar sounds fundamentally good," says Mr Ho.
Playing the guitar has never been his passion but "I love to listen to my guitars being played, appreciate the technicalities and I enjoy making guitarists happy when they play my guitars. Making the guitar sound good is my passion", says Mr Ho.
From repairing guitars in his father's shop to building the instruments from kits, Mr Ho eventually started Maestro Guitars two years ago, when he opened his own factory in Guangzhou. "This way, I can choose the quality of parts and strings and raw materials to ensure that the guitars are of a certain quality," says Mr Ho.
He is so particular about what he uses for his guitars, that often he has to hand-carry the materials when he makes fortnightly trips to his factory. He operates from China as not many Singaporeans are keen on this craft.
He learnt guitar making from an English luthier and all Maestro guitars are personally designed by Mr Ho and crafted by a team of highly integrated and skilled luthiers who have been working for him for the past three years. "I am very involved in the entire production process and I am solely in charge of tap-tuning the top of the instrument," he adds.
Tap-tuning is a process whereby the tonal response of the instrument is adjusted by shaping the bracing of the soundboard and backboard. Mr Ho says: "This is a process only found in high-end small scale production and almost never in a factory setting."
The guitars take from two to four months to make and the cost can range from $499 to as high as $10,000.
He points out that even though he handmakes his guitars, it does not mean that machine-made instruments are no good.
"Machine-made instruments are consistent but they are so consistent that nothing is exceptional. If you want exceptional instruments, you have to handcraft them one by one as each piece of wood is different," says Mr Ho, 33. He does not own any of the guitars that he makes except for one. "I only kept the first instrument which I made because I think the workmanship is horrible."
Meanwhile over in a studio in Toa Payoh, Ngoh Thiam Meng has been making classical and flamenco guitars since 2006.
Mr Ngoh's father started him in music early, when the elder Mr Ngoh taught his son to play the two-string Chinese moon lute.
"I made the first guitar as a tribute to him when he passed away," says Mr Ngoh, 39. "It turned out to be greatly therapeutic."
According to Mr Ngoh, there are vast differences between a mass produced guitar and one shaped by an individual.
A mass-producing factory will build the instrument based on fixed specifications by different groups of workers, working on different parts of the process.
"An intuitive guitar maker, on the other hand, works loosely with each specification, adjusting according to the stiffness and density of the wood, since every piece of timber is different, even from the same tree," says Mr Ngoh. "My guitars are more musical and responsive since I work with the wood more intimately."
Mr Ngoh takes at least two months to make a guitar, and it costs about $3,800.
He finds making a guitar from start to finish "therapeutic but traumatic to send it away."
Hooked on bears
LIKE most children, Wayne Lim loved playing with toys when he was a child. He even imagined himself as a toy maker.
Today, Mr Lim, 27, is a graphic designer by day, and a teddy bear designer by night, marketing his bears under Wayneston Bears, which retail from $200 to $500.
He learnt teddy bear making in 2009 from a teacher and has been hooked since. "I was not thinking of making teddy bears when I was child, but as I made my second and third pieces, I began to see more and more creative possibilities in just making bears," he says.
His bears and other animals have found homes in Singapore, Australia, the United States and United Kingdom.
"I get a sense of achievement and satisfaction each time I complete a bear and someone adopts it. Receiving compliments from collectors and customers alike keeps me motivated," he says.
Teddy bears made by machines often have one look, but "creating a handmade bear gives the bear its own unique style and identity," says Mr Lim, who adds that no two bears are alike even if he makes them using the same materials.
Mr Lim makes his bears in his living room at night and on weekends. On the walls are pictures of real life animals which "help me capture the realism of the animals which will then be infused into my creations".
He uses mohair, alpaca, faux fur, calf leather and merino felt, and the bears are stuffed with poly fibre glass beads and crushed garnets, to give them a hefty weight and cuddly feel. Their shiny eyes are made from glass eyes imported from Germany.
It takes him about three weeks to complete a bear, and more than a month to make a bigger bear. "To give my bears a touch of personality, I trim the fur and add colour shadings to enhance their looks. Occasionally, some accessories are added to give the bear a complete look," says Mr Lim, who also regularly participates in overseas teddy bear shows.