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THE BLUES: Gwen’s furoshiki dyed fabric.

THE BLUES: Gwen Chan quit her graphic designer job, travelled to Japan, and discovered the art of indigo dyeing.

WELL SHOD: From sweeping floors, Edwin Neo worked his way up and recently opened a revamped flagship store, outfitted like a ‘gentleman’s living room’.

WELL SHOD: Ed Et Al’s steel croc penny loafer.

ON A JOURNEY: Hughes Low learned his craft from an Hermes artisan, and now runs a business making small leather goods, with a strong following among local watch collectors.

ON A JOURNEY: Hughes Low learned his craft from an Hermes artisan, and now runs a business making small leather goods, with a strong following among local watch collectors.

ON A JOURNEY: Lilian Choo is passionate about keeping the art of dressmaking alive, and trained at an institute that taught traditional techniques.

ON A JOURNEY: Lilian Choo is passionate about keeping the art of dressmaking alive, and trained at an institute that taught traditional techniques.

GREEN FINGERS: “It felt like I was reborn again, I feel challenged (in a good way), I wake up wanting to start work, I get excited at work daily... all of that makes the risk all worthwhile,” says Bjorn Low.

Hands on

Forget craft beer and coffee shops. The new creative class is shedding sweat and tears over age-old workmanship, and making a decent living out of it.
27/06/2015 - 05:50

MBA? Been there, done that. Achieved the highest GPA score humanly possible? Big deal. Paper qualification acronyms are so last generation. Just like how the slackers of the nineties abandoned the paper chase to wallow in grunge-fuelled apathy, the millenials that followed are equally disillusioned with climbing the corporate ladder. Not only are they forsaking stable desk-bound jobs and the 'marketable' majors that their folks insisted they pursue, they are investing time and cash into learning obscure crafts. And making a living out of it.

Say hello to the Yuccies - the term coined by digital media website Mashable to describe "Young Urban Creatives". Regarded as the successor to the hipster, the Yuccie is a portmanteau of yuppie and hipster and represents young entrepreneurs who actually make a profession out of creative, preferably little-known trades. Closer to home, serious Yuccies don't think twice about spending years apprenticing with master artisans before perfecting their craft and espousing the intricacies of their techniques on Instagram to lure fellow aficionados and ... hipsters. Unfazed by backbreaking labour, these motivated makers are all about being hands-on rather than tapping away on keyboards and touch screens.

Indigo girl

FOR most 20-somethings, taking a break from quotidian life means spending a week in a trailer at Coachella or exploring a yet-to-be-gentrified, blog post-worthy neighbourhood over a weekend.

In the case of 25-year-old Gwen Chan, however, it equated to quitting her job and spending months on a foreign farm, engulfing herself in the acrid fumes of fermenting plants.

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Last year, the former graphic designer signed up for a trip to Tokushima, Japan, organised by Wwoof (World Wide Organization of Organic Farmers), a loose network of organisations that helps place volunteers in organic farms.

"I just wanted a change of environment and to give solo travelling a shot, so I thought, why not go Wwoofing?" she says, revealing that she also took a course on basic Japanese prior to the trip. During her stint, she discovered the art of indigo dyeing - the process of extracting the distinctive blue pigment commonly used to dye denim from the indigo plant.

Working with her Japanese host and Buaisou, an indigo dyeing company founded by two young indigo farmers and dyers, she slowly picked up the process of indigo dyeing, deriving deep blue from indigo and woad plants.

"I never knew I could get blue (pigment) out of green leaves - it's such a sensitive and magical thing when I see the colours change," quips Ms Chan, who recently conducted indigo dyeing workshops with homegrown fashion retailer Faculty at Scotts Square. Having only just learnt the basics of preparing an indigo vat, she will be returning to Japan in August on a year-long apprenticeship. During her initial trip, she went through the process of seeding indigo plants and harvesting them in summer. The leaves subsequently break down and are separated from the stems before they are gathered into a compost, otherwise known as sukumo, to ferment for 120 days. During this period, other ingredients such as wood ash water, lye, calcium hydroxide and wheat bran are added to the compost.

"It is very much like a baby, like a living bacteria that you have to take care of and feed," says Ms Chan, who explains that an indigo vat requires daily checks on the intensity of the colour. Factors that affect the intensity of the indigo would include the temperature and weather changes - lower temperatures lead to a slower fermentation process.

"We usually have to prep 10 days before the launch of a workshop, but once, by the 9th day of fermentation, the indigo pigment still did not appear and we had to cancel the workshop," says Ms Chan. However, it is this wholly organic - albeit unpredictable, process that is intriguing to the artisan-in-the-making. While indigo is available in a chemical form and could easily be found in outlets like Tokyu Hands, the synthetic variation contains reducing agents to help in the seeping of indigo dye into the fibres of fabric, which in turn poses the risk of the colour running. The natural indigo dyeing process adopted by the likes of Buaisou, on the other hand, guarantees that the end product does not stain light-coloured clothing when washed together. Moreover, it poses less of a threat to the environment and even becomes a healthy part of the ecosystem - the nutrient-rich waste water obtained from traditional indigo dye houses can be used to fertilise the land.

"It is just like comparing fast food and organic food, where one is more processed, and the other more natural and healthier," she adds.

Beyond the vocation itself, it was the simple countryside life at Tokushima that won over Ms Chan. For the former graphic designer, embracing a rural lifestyle was a natural progression from the rigours of the modern-day rat race.

"People in the countryside are not rich but are able to lead very happy and simple lives. I think that's something that really struck me when I was there," says Ms Chan, inspired by the phrase her Japanese hosts taught her, nantoka narusa - to somehow be balanced without a plan.

"Like they say, if you love something it would feel very natural, it wouldn't be work," she says. "If you could do something very naturally, you have found something special that you feel connected to. It's like when you love someone, you are just naturally connected to that person."

The shoemaker

TO spur them on to hit the books, folks of a former generation would warn their kids that academic failure would only lead to one profession: road sweeper. Edwin Neo, founder of Singapore men's shoe brand Ed Et Al, however, willingly swept the floors of his shoemaking master as part of his tasks as a lowly apprentice.

"You swept the floors, did whatever the master asked of you, and in turn you gained knowledge and skills," recalls Mr Neo, who underwent an apprenticeship in Budapest, Hungary.

"I remember fondly that the best compliment I got was a 'not bad'. The real compliment came when I was preparing to return to Singapore, when my master asked if I would like to remain and work for him. I would have if I was not already planning to get married."

Mr Neo recently feted the fifth anniversary of his company with a revamped flagship boutique at Millenia Walk, executed to resemble a "gentleman's living room", complete with bottles of premium Auchentoshan Single Malt Whisky laid out on a leather bound coffee table. And to think that he was a regular in the Singapore Armed Forces in a previous life, conducting training on weapon systems and developing instruction manuals.

"I already had a very strong interest in shoes and menswear in general, but I wouldn't say that it felt like a calling back then," says Mr Neo. "When I came out from the army, I ventured into the footwear industry because my brother-in-law needed manpower at his shoe repair stores. Initially, it was supposed to be for a short stint, but it eventually became years and my interest in shoes, especially in making them, was piqued."

After teaching himself the art of shoemaking and spending what was a meagre salary on buying tools, books and materials, Mr Neo took two months' unpaid leave and overdrew his credit accounts to study with a master in Budapest. And floor-sweeping was just one of the many challenges he faced as a trainee.

"The art of shoemaking is an old tradition, and because of that, some of the text that you read while learning is arcane to say the least," says Mr Neo, who started his business with just S$14,000 and suffered from insomnia due to stress. "From the use of barleycorns as measurement units and never-heard-before acronyms like SPI (stitches per inch), arbitrary measurements that are added to certain portions of the shoes without explanation, these were the hardest to wrap your head around. I would be lying if I said I didn't feel like giving up at times."

While cynical types (most probably closet Yuccies) may be taking the mickey out of individuals who have made the creation of letterpress stationery or gourmet popsicles a career, adopting a serious craft as a profession doesn't come easy for the likes of Mr Neo.

"When I went to study shoemaking, not everyone around me was supportive. There was no foreseeable future in it, and we were up against 100-year-old companies with size and heritage," reveals the 34-year-old. "But shoemaking is magical like this: hunched over a bench, you forget all those everyday worries."

Skin specialist

THE proliferation of mass produced goods ought to eliminate the desire to work with one's hands. Hughes Low, however, is not a product of the digital generation. Once a quantity surveyor, he has since decided to buck the trend of bargain-priced accessories churned out by sweat shops, and to craft articles out of rare and exotic leathers, often made to order.

For the 29-year-old, this passion for craftsmanship was one that blossomed in childhood when he would help his mother, an interior designer, with her drafting. It was in university that he started tinkering with leather craft to create a bracelet to fit his slim wrist. Soon, this side hobby grew into a mini online business that sparked his decision to pursue the craft full time. Never mind the fact that a local leathercraft school has yet to exist here.

Writing to established schools and craftsmen for contacts and advice, he finally hooked up with an Hermes artisan and started honing his craft through email correspondence and occasional face-to-face mentoring sessions.

"It was a whole process of re-learning and getting rid of old habits and the techniques I was familiar with," says the local leathersmith, emphasising the importance of having an experienced mentor guide him through the learning process. "Training for me will never be over as there are so many things to perfect and learn, and I am also learning from other craftsmen as well."

Most would find it a colossal risk leaving a stable job to pursue an age-old craft from scratch, especially when its techniques hail from centuries-old brands that used to produce steamer trunks and luggage in Europe.

"Self-learning has a plateau and I would not have known what is the right way to work," he says, relating how he saw the many mistakes he made only when his mentor corrected him. Much like other crafts, the processes and methods of leathercraft can only be passed down from a wizened artisan, first-hand.

Besides, with plenty of established marques offering a plethora of coveted leather goods, sustaining a local bespoke leather label would require a bit more than a few supportive fans with a penchant for croc cardholders. However, with the modern man becoming increasingly style-savvy, Mr Low began to build his clientele and gradually widened his range of products from wallets, cardholders, gadget cases and folios to include bespoke items and even watch straps.

"Now, straps make up most of my orders, not by choice but by market demand," says the craftsman who enjoys the texture and patterns of exotic skins, despite the fact that they are more challenging to work with. Catering to mainly watch collectors and clients referred from watch retailers, his typical client is in his late 30s with discerning tastes, and someone who values craftsmanship over snazzy brand names. Mr Low has since grown his business, imparting his skills to four apprentices who share his industrial work space, and often conducts private events during which he showcases his skills and work.

"I think young people now are more gutsy and willing to pursue what they like instead of following a well trodden path," says Mr Low. "My advice to them would be to just plough through and not give up, to be persistent and sincere when seeking help and lastly to just enjoy the journey."

The vintage-style seamstress

WHAT'S cooler than wearing vintage finds? Making your own vintage-style frocks, of course. Not that Lilian Choo is your run-of-the-mill hipster maker. A former advertising account lead, the 37-year-old is passionate about keeping the art of dressmaking, and not just the more glamorous job of fashion design, alive.

"Although this is one skill that is harder to pick with age (poor eyesight will hinder the ability to sew properly and having to sit for long hours will affect one's posture), I was more afraid that the more I delayed my training, the chances of me finding someone to impart this skill would lower," says Ms Choo.

"The institute I attended is one-of-its-kind in Singapore. It is a real gem and I am very fortunate to be able to learn directly from the still surviving founders. They are getting older each year and I would say soon the skill of dressmaking will be lost in Singapore without them!"

Despite not having trained to design clothing, Ms Choo used her skills in garment construction to create figure-flattering, retro-style dresses from whimsical, vintage fabrics.

"When I was a kid, my sis and I would take scraps of cloth from pillow cases to hand stitch-clothes for our Barbie dolls," says Ms Choo, who spent four years training to be a seamstress in an old dressmaking institute that taught traditional techniques. "Later when I was studying, I would go to a regular seamstress and with fabrics bought off the shops, get her to make clothes of my own designs. They would always be vintage styles as these were always not available in the shops. I never knew where I could take up sewing then so I remembered hanging around in the seamstress' shop as long as I could."

When she first decided to swap a Macbook for a sewing machine as her tool of the trade, however, her decision wasn't entirely popular with her loved ones.

"In today's context, especially in Asia, sewing is often associated as a job you would do if you lived in a third world country," explains Ms Choo. "Friends often sound shocked that as a graduate I would forgo a cushy 9-to-5 job to bend over a sewing machine making clothes, when you can buy them cheaply in the shops. Only after they saw what you can actually make with your bare hands that people really do take you seriously as a seamstress."

Instead of scoring cheap wholesale stock and becoming the next big blogshop retailer, Ms Choo explains that picking up the old-school craft of tailoring takes a high level of perseverance and skill, and it isn't a metier easily mastered.

"The art of pattern drafting is the most sophisticated skill I have ever acquired in my life, that involves common sense, sound mathematical knowledge and attention to very fine details," says Ms Choo. "How a pattern is drafted affects how the dress is worn on a person's body."

Although today she doesn't have the time to personally sew every garment she sells due to time constraints, she nevertheless sews a few pieces for sampling and takes charge of cutting every piece of fabric.

"The fabric cutters who do it well will demand a higher minimum quantity to make it worth their time, so to sustain a small production run like ours with well cut clothes, I have no choice but to handle this myself," says Ms Choo. "I find it hard to be hands off when it comes to production since I am well-versed in this aspect. I look into every single detail from the size of the buttons, to the stiffness of the interfacing (used in collars)."

Today, Ms Choo heads a small team comprising machinists who sew together pieces of fabric based on the samples she creates, and a freelance drafter who assists in pattern making. And it doesn't look like she is going into mass production any time soon.

"I often say that chasing one's own dream is always lonely, so when faced with adversity or obstacles, being human, I definitely thought of giving up," admits Ms Choo. "When that happens, I would take a step back and make clothes for my own wear just to remind myself why I love making clothes: to make someone look great with clothes I made."

Ad man turned agriculturalist

SEASONAL Affective Disorder, or SAD, might not be an ailment with which most tropical dwellers are familiar. But a bout of the blues during a dank British winter which lifted with the arrival of spring, left ad-man-turned-farmer Bjorn Low a gardening convert.

"When spring came about and the plants started to come alive, I suddenly saw how this cycle of life affected my mood," relates the 35-year-old, who was sent to London to work by his previous employer.

"I soon related a lot more to nature and what it could do for my wellbeing. During that time in England there was a resurgence of people moving back to the countryside to start smallholdings, and I always wondered what it would be like to be able to feed yourself without any money."

And Mr Low wasn't content with simply erecting a green wall in an apartment or starting a herb garden along the corridor of his home. Instead, he was determined to make it work in his chosen field, both figuratively and literally. To become a modern-day farmer, he spent an entire year working on organic farms in Europe and Japan, another at agriculture college in East Sussex, UK, and yet one more year undergoing an internship in Mid Wales.

"I was a suit in an online advertising agency," says Mr Low, who trained in biodynamic agriculture. "I spent most of my time in the office and in meetings with clients. My best asset was how I could manipulate Microsoft powerpoint slides for sales pitches. I did long hours and the job was highly stressful as there were many deadlines - we dealt with the immense pressure by guzzling a whole lot of booze."

Today, Mr Low runs an urban farming consultancy called Edible Gardens. It started in 2012 as a modest initiative to help Singaporeans grow their own food at home. However, it evolved into projects designing vegetable gardens for companies, restaurants and schools. To date, the company has built close to 30 food gardens for hotels, restaurants, schools, private homes and shopping malls, and gained restaurateur and spa mogul Cynthia Chua as an investor. And it has come a long way in altering the typical urbanite's perception of farming as a menial diversion.

"As a Singaporean living in the tropics, dirt was a big taboo, being dirty was frowned upon," admits Mr Low.

"In farming, the dirt you work with is gold. I started out wearing gloves to protect my hands from the dirt. Slowly I lost the gloves and now I work with my bare hands touching the soil. Working with earth has been proven as a way to treat depression and anxiety and all sorts of mental illnesses in people."

Nevertheless, it wasn't easy to make the leap from a stable career to becoming an agriculturist. Apart from his work, Mr Low still maintains a small garden in his own apartment and personally tends to a garden on the rooftop of Wheelock Place for restaurant Tippling Club.

"Yes it was a risk, I had a good well paying job and was well in the higher end of the rat race. I had quite a lot to lose. I was always a very risk-adverse individual, much learnt from my parents," recalls Mr Low. "My dear wife encouraged me to take the leap and I have not regretted since, it felt like I was reborn again, I feel challenged (in a good way), I wake up wanting to start work, I get excited at work daily... all of that makes the risk worthwhile."