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New year, old skills: The resurgence of traditional crafts

The resurgence of traditional crafts

New year, old skills: The resurgence of traditional crafts.


(From left) Letterist Tiara Chew of Robyn Ink demonstrating a hand lettering technique as participants Helga Solares, Saida Chakri and Winnie Leung (back to camera) look on. Ms Solares says lettering lets her go back to basics and reconnect with her creative side.

Glen Poh (right), 30, founder of Training By Glen, and Ashton Law (left), 33, a partner in the firm, setting up a standard teepee campfire. Mr Poh says his students often enrol in his bushcraft and survival skills courses to prepare for emergencies or personal expeditions, and in the process develop greater confidence and ability to solve problems, both in the wilderness and in daily life.

Tan Yutian, 10, a student at Sew Into It, wants to make covers for her books instead of using plastic ones.

MANUAL skills, such as the ability to sew a garment or build a chair, have fallen by the wayside in most developed countries. Why this has happened is likely a function of rampant digitisation - as devices grow ever smarter, it seems as though human beings have become duller. Yet traditional skills and crafting abilities that were in fact developed by intelligent, innovative beings, are now experiencing a revival, as people seek out tactile, creative hobbies in an increasingly digital world.

Interestingly, the medical field, which is in many ways at the forefront of technology adoption, is in favour of a renewed focus on traditional crafts too. Faculty at surgical programmes in the United States and Britain have observed an increased clumsiness and decline in dexterity among surgical students, which they attribute to a lack of experience with materials and techniques through hobbies like sewing and woodworking, The New York Times reported in May 2019.

Dr Michael Lawton, president and chief executive of Barrow Neurological Institute, told NYT that the selection process may need relooking to address these concerns.

"We look at their grades and their test scores, their productivity, like writing papers and doing research, but the reality of being a good surgeon has nothing to do with that," he said. "What matters is how they handle the instruments and what kind of touch they have with tissues, as well as how they react and adapt when under stress in the operating room."

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The recent resurgence of interest in traditional skills in Singapore is probably not driven by children bent on becoming surgeons, but a look at some popular classes finds that adults and children alike are rediscovering the benefits of old-school crafts for everyday life.

Creative liberty

The practical ability to make items that can't be found commercially is an obvious advantage of possessing a creative skill. Artist and educator Natalia Tan, who teaches loom weaving at Soft Studio, notes: "As crafters, we are free to make something for ourselves that we want but cannot find in stores, whereas people who don't know how to make their own things are limited to what they see. They will always be following someone else's ideas or ideals about say, how one should look, if we're talking about fashion."

This opportunity is not lost even on young ones like 10-year-old Tan Yutian, a sewing student at Sew Into It. When asked what she wants to do with her new skill, she said she plans to make custom covers to protect her books from damage.

"I've never seen them in stores, only in pictures. They are good because they help to save (on using) plastic," she says.

Sew Into It co-founder Amy Toh shares that practicality is a key motivator especially for the men who make up about 10 per cent of her students. She has taught a bodybuilder how to sew his own weighted armbands, while another young man learned to hand-sew a tote bag as a gift for a girl he wanted to impress.

The issue of sustainability has also brought these crafts to the fore, as consumers try to avoid cheap, environmentally damaging products. "Increasingly, I've gotten requests for upcycling classes. Sewing gives people the means to create sustainable fashion items and refashion their wardrobes," Ms Toh says.

Tech detox

Busy professionals in particular are turning to handicrafts as a way to relax, away from technology. Helga Solares, a freelancer who joined a lettering workshop by letterist Tiara Chew of Robyn Ink, tells The Business Times: "I feel overwhelmed by everything around me being digital. Everywhere I turn, it's screens and noise. Lettering lets me go back to basics and reconnect with my creative side, which I have lost as I grew up.

"It's engaging, focusing on the mechanics, how you are moving your hand, creating something with your mind and putting it on paper. When it comes out beautiful, I feel proud because I think I'm not a very creative person, but I can create this."

Sophie Arnaud, sewing instructor at So Couture, generally finds her Singaporean students far less familiar with creative hobbies than her students from Western backgrounds. However, she has received more interest from locals and noticed more workshops popping up in the last two years for skills like sewing, pottery and photography, which she feels are signs that Singaporeans are embracing creative forms of recreation.

"Your mind needs to relax also, and when you're in front of a screen all the time, you never relax your mind," Ms Arnaud says. "When you're doing an activity, even if you are using your brain, you feel relaxed because your mind is empty of everything else."

Alvin Tan, founder of ceramic art studio-workshop The 8th Floor Creative Space, has also noticed a growing awareness of clay work among Singaporeans. For instance, when he used to teach at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, his ceramic art classes used to be the first time most of his students encountered the craft, but in later years, some of the newer students said they had tried it before in school.

The message is not lost on those involved in our children's education. Chua Chor Huat, director of the sciences branch in the Ministry of Education's (MOE) curriculum and planning division, tells BT that MOE has implemented several programmes centred on creating and innovation, to nurture critical and inventive thinking skills. Design & Technology remains a compulsory subject for lower secondary students, and since 2013, primary and secondary schools have been developing Applied Learning Programmes for hands-on, experiential learning where "the emphasis is on the application of thinking skills, connecting knowledge across subject disciplines and stretching the imagination in authentic settings", says Mr Chua.

Mr Tan believes that interest in hands-on experiences and skills will only grow as technology takes over more aspects of our lives. "You cannot have a one-sided way of living, where every day you stare at the computer. You will look for activities that bring you out from your routine... The role of these crafts is to bring individuals out of their daily routines to refresh and recharge themselves."

Seeing the bigger picture

While critical thinking and problem solving skills may not be the most common reasons for learning crafts, instructors have noticed their students improving in these areas as they practise what they learn.

Glen Poh, head coach and founder of personal training provider Training by Glen, runs bushcraft and survival skills courses. He says that students often enrol in his courses to prepare for emergencies or personal expeditions, and in the process develop greater confidence and ability to solve problems, both in the wilderness and in daily life.

"The changes I usually notice in my students before and after my training are that at the start, they didn't know that certain things can be created and certain problems can be solved from seemingly nothing, until I explained to them, showed them and taught them how to use the natural environment around them to their advantage... With new knowledge and understanding, they become more creative with their environment and critically think about how to solve problems based on what they have and what they know."

Kung Guangjun, founder of woodworking and metalworking studio Tombalek Workshop, notes that exposure to how things are made can lead to thinking more critically about whether one's choices as a consumer are truly sustainable.

"I posted a picture of a spoon made from a piece of wood online, and someone commented, 'That's a lot of waste for a single spoon.' It's a valid observation," he says. "A lot of people are not aware that for every piece of lumber you use, you generate at least two to three times, up to 10 times, the equivalent weight of the final product (in waste), because of the offcuts and machining involved."

What consumers should then ponder is the potentially larger environmental impact of items made of natural materials, compared to plastic items that are used and disposed of correctly, Mr Kung says.

"When you start to look at the overall supply chain, you realise that trying to understand actual efficiencies is very difficult. And maybe people shouldn't be so reactive towards sustainability... The more people know about how things come about, the better decisions we will make."

A little knowledge can go a long way in everyday decisions - Mr Kung shares that he was shocked to discover that many Singaporeans are discarding blunt knives, because they do not realise that the steel blades can be sharpened. "It's unbelievable because just a decade ago, it was a common thing to sharpen knives. It's a deep problem with society if people don't know knives can be sharpened or that chairs can be reupholstered."

Personal development

Now that these skills and knowledge are less commonplace, those who possess them stand out as a unique breed, even with fundamental skills like handwriting.

"I think a lot of people lose basic skills just because of the convenience of technology, and they don't see the purpose of it anymore," Ms Chew of Robyn Ink says. She compares the idea that good handwriting is unnecessary to thinking that we no longer need to know basic math since calculators exist.

She adds: "It's very sad, because these things form a basic core of your being. We take them for granted and think that anybody can do it, but when it actually comes down to it, not everybody can do it."

Another benefit of knowing a useful skill is a sense of self-worth and satisfaction. Heng Leng, the mother of 10-year-old Yutian, says she saw sewing as a way her daughter could find fulfilment beyond grades.

"Academics is very gruelling. Once we are not good in any or all of the subjects, it can be hard to find self-worth," Ms Heng says. "If we can at least have a hobby outside of academics and be passionate about something, it keeps us going."

Crafting also provides a low-stakes environment for making mistakes, an essential but uncomfortable part of any learning process. Being able to make mistakes without fear of repercussions is freeing and can lead to a better learning experience overall, says Mr Tan of The 8th Floor: "The path of learning is about making mistakes. If you don't let learners make mistakes, they don't learn. But if you let them make mistakes, they learn faster."

Those who struggle with a fear of mistakes might find Ms Tan's weaving classes particularly helpful - or challenging, depending on how one looks at it. She teaches the Saori approach, which discourages "correcting" mistakes, and instead focuses on accepting them as part of the creative process.

"In Saori, the philosophy is that if you see something as a mistake, it's actually not the thing that needs to be fixed. It's you that has the opportunity to grow, to see it as perfect in the way it is. Because that is life," Ms Tan says.

"This creative process has taught me to be more rational and not so uptight about everything... If I had learned weaving from a different teacher, with a different philosophy that emphasises patterns, for example, I would have become more detail-oriented, but I wouldn't have developed as a person to be more accepting."

Never too young to learn a craft

WHILE people can start learning hands-on skills at any age, there are several good reasons to get children involved in these activities early in life.

Rebecca Chan, a lecturer at the Psychology and Child & Human Development Academic Group of the National Institute of Education, notes that children often approach open-ended art-making and traditional crafts differently from adults. Adults tend to focus on an end product that they can use or display, but children take a more exploratory view of the materials and process.

"When they are young, children need broad experiences," Dr Chan says. "Expose them to woodwork, bushcraft, shoemaking, origami, sewing. Make materials available to them and see how they explore. If the child has a good broad base of exposure, you never know - one day they might marry sewing and woodwork together."

Natalia Tan, an artist and educator who teaches weaving, adds: "As a teacher, I believe that education should be broad-based, because it's mainly about kids exploring the world around them, and exploring themselves - finding what it is that interests them, what they are good at, so they can take that and turn it into a career in future."

Creative work provides plenty of exercise for the young brain; for instance, sewing involves putting parts together inside-out and thinking through logical sequences to produce a certain result, notes Shareen Lim, a director at fashion training school Fashion Makerspace.

With a safe space to make mistakes, children can learn better and express themselves without the constraints of "right" or "wrong". Ms Lim has observed that young children are often more comfortable with making mistakes than adults, at times content to go without correcting the imperfections. Instructors will explain how the mistakes can be fixed or avoided, but do not insist on a do-over as long as the structure of the finished piece is not compromised.

"When they don't make mistakes, they often forget why they should do things a certain way. They remember better when they make the mistake," Ms Lim says of the reason for this approach.

Dr Chan believes creative outlets for self-expression are crucial for developing a critical lens for other aspects of life. "When you express differing opinions, that's when you can be a sceptic. You can think critically and have a different way of looking at things," she says.

"If in school, you are taught critical thinking but in class, you're not allowed to express your opinion freely, how does a child apply that thinking? There must be an outlet for them, where they have ownership to say, this is what I think, it's how I feel, and this is what I want it to be."

Dr Chan recommends that parents encourage their children to explore various crafts, provide role models they can emulate, and go with their interests. Open-ended art-making is ideal for preschoolers, and children are usually ready to try more structured activities by the age of nine.

Some activities may take more effort to introduce than others, like outdoor skills. Glen Poh, who teaches bushcraft and survival skills at Training by Glen, notes that the younger generation may associate outdoor activities with being hot and uncomfortable, due to their limited exposure to nature. He suggests introducing them to a variety of outdoor activities so they can find one they like.

"If they are having fun, they won't mind being tired and uncomfortable that much," Mr Poh says. "Thereafter, further outdoor learning programmes can be introduced, and they may be able to find a better connection and personal meaning to getting involved with the outdoors in general."