tuft of love | Borneo Online Newsletter

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Aun Ko

CNA – Last week we met a multi-talented craftsman who, among many activities, teaches tufting. This week, I’d like to introduce tufting artist Rachael Wee.

Through her studio Habichl, the 31-year-old former graphic designer and mural artist sells ready-made tufted rugs, wall hangings and coasters, and also accepts orders.

Interestingly, the vast majority of his orders are for pets.

Hello, Rachel. DO YOU THINK YOU HAVE ALWAYS BEEN A CREATIVE PERSON, EVEN YOUNG?

Not really! Looking back, I was never really interested in academic pursuits. However, growing up in Singapore, I had to devote the majority of my time to my studies. There weren’t many options for exploring art available to me at the time. It wasn’t until much later that I found art again – after graduating and enrolling in a polytechnic, where I had more time to explore different mediums and experiment. I am a big proponent of learning new artistic mediums. I think my hobby is hobbies! Tufting happens to be my current creative project and something I’m passionate about.

Rachael Wee, 31, is a full-time carpet tufting artist. PHOTO: HABICHL
Rachael working on one of her projects

HOW DID YOU DISCOVER AND GET INTO TUFTING?

I came across tufting videos online in December 2020 after quitting my full-time job due to burnout, and I was very intrigued. I said to myself that if, after a few months, I was still considering, I would seek to stock up on the real thing, because the capital necessary to start was quite substantial. It turned out to be all I could think of. I was constantly reading articles, learning how-to videos on YouTube, researching suppliers, and researching materials and techniques. So I decided to take the plunge in March 2021, and the rest is history!

YOU HAVE A TRAINING IN COMMUNICATION DESIGN AND MURAL PAINTING. CAN YOU KNOW MORE ABOUT THIS SUBJECT AND YOUR PROFESSIONAL CREATIVE JOURNEY?

I studied communication design in school, and during that time I held several part-time jobs. Back in college, my best friend introduced me to her friend who was hiring, so I became a gallery sitter for a non-profit mural company.

I had the opportunity to participate in community art programs and through the business I gained experience in mural painting. I was finally able to give 10-minute painting lessons on location for virtually anyone, from young children to aunts and business people at community events.

It was through this nonprofit that I met my close friends, and after we left, we started our own mural collective in 2016 called Hardly Studio Environment.

We painted on weekends because all three of us had day jobs. As mentioned, I quit that day job in 2020 and soon after discovered tufting.

WHAT ARE THE MOST RECOGNIZABLE MURALS YOU HAVE DONE, OR CONTRIBUTE TO?

Most of the murals done under Hardly Studio were painted in private spaces. For example, we did a roof for Hmlet, a playground wall for one of Maple Bear’s venues, and community canvases for Tote Board Singapore at an event in Gardens by the Bay. The largest open to the public is at Margaritas in Dempsey. We painted for Margaritas as they were undergoing a huge renovation, and our work is up there on their walls and pillars.

HOW LONG HAS IT BEEN BETWEEN GETTING INTO TUFTING AND SELLING PARTS AND TAKING COMMISSIONS?

It took about five or six months. In that time I’ve practiced a lot – getting used to the machine, learning how to better streamline my processes, a ton of trial and error, as well as creating new models and testing them, and seeing how they react with external elements such as water. It was only after some practice that I felt comfortable enough to start selling my work.

IS TUFTING A SKILL YOU HAVE FOUND EASY TO MASTER?

When I first received my machine, I was surprised at how heavy it was! It took some getting used to holding it for long periods of time. My friends who have attended tufting workshops all lament that it’s a workout for the arms. But honestly, I think anyone can pick up a machine and tuft after a few tips, which is what makes it so addictive. It’s a bit like painting, I guess. Anyone can paint, but it takes years of constant practice to develop an artistic style and perfect techniques. I’m still learning, but I would say I’m happy with my current work and methods.

IS HABICHL YOUR FULL TIME GIG?

He is! After quitting my job as a full-time graphic designer, I poured all my effort and a lot of my soul into becoming a full-time artist. I’ve always wanted to create art and sell my work, and it’s through tufting that I’ve realized that goal even more deeply. I know it’s not easy being an artist in Singapore, which is why I’m constantly inspired by other artists and creators who are perfecting their craft and paving the way for the rest of us. Their existence gives me a lot of motivation to keep doing what I do.

HAVE YOU STARTED SELLING READY-TO-MAKE PIECES OR COMMISSIONS?

I did both. I saw commission work as a way to challenge myself while creating new designs and to help further develop my artistic style. Orders are bespoke and it’s always fun to create a special keepsake for someone.

WHAT WAS THE FIRST COMMISSION YOU UNDERTAKEN? HOW DID THE CUSTOMER HAVE
FIND YOU?

My very first order was from a friend of mine who wanted a custom version of an existing design I had tufted. At that point, I was really into drawing faces and instead of a happy, smiling lemon, she asked for a disgruntled, scowling lemon, hands on hips and all.

He turned out really cute and I’m glad my first custom piece fit him.

WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST DIFFICULT PART OF RUNNING A CREATIVE BUSINESS?

I think emotionally I didn’t realize how lonely you could feel as an independent solo artist. Since the majority of the work I do is done from home, it can get pretty quiet, and that’s when I realized finding a community was more important than before. I started enjoying every interaction even more and forming friendships with other artists online.

Sometimes it can seem daunting to do all the work on my own, but after sharing my experiences, many people have reached out to say they feel the same way. It is a comforting feeling to know that we are all going through the same thing.

AND WHAT WAS MOST SATISFYING?

See photos of my work in spaces and attract repeat customers! The little words of love left by customers on my payment page make me smile a lot.

After my last shop update in September, I sold almost all my new models and got a little cry of gratitude, so probably too.

Knowing that there are people who want to adopt my work is mind-boggling, and all the effort and sacrifice slowly starts to make sense.

A little thing that also comes to mind is that musician Sam Smith follows me on Instagram. He started following me in March and it’s so amazing to think that he cares about what I do.

HOW LONG DOES THE PIECE CREATION PROCESS TAKE? CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE PROCESS?

How long a tufted piece will last depends primarily on its size and complexity. Large pieces can take about a week from start to finish.

I have three stages in my process: design, manufacture and finish. I start by creating a design and usually make a few changes before I’m happy with it. After the design comes the manufacturing stage, where I prepare my frame, trace or draw my design, then tuft it.

In the last step, I remove the part from the frame, glue it and add a support. And finally, I cut and clean up the line work to make the design really pop.

There are other aspects to this whole thing, like taking photos and videos during work and of the final piece, managing my online store, buying materials, upgrading the equipment, creation of brand identity and packaging. It’s a long process but I appreciate it
it immensely.

WHO ARE YOUR CLIENTS ? HAVE YOU FIND THAT YOUR WORK ATTRACTS A CERTAIN DEMOGRAPHY?

In fact, I have no idea because most of my work is sold online, so I’ve never met any of my clients, unless they’re my friends! I think maybe whenever I get my first pop-up, I can meet some of them if they come to visit.

HOW DURABLE ARE YOUR MATS? ARE THEY INTENDED TO BE PIECES OF ART OR CAN PEOPLE REALLY WALK EVERYWHERE AND USE THEM?

The wall hangings I made are meant to be works of art, but some of them double as coasters. I don’t think art always needs to have a function – it’s nice to just look at something and appreciate it for what it is.

I have a floor mat that I made myself, that I walk on, and so far it looks pretty good! The floor mats I make may be walkable, but being handmade items, they are best suited for an area with low foot traffic to ensure longevity. Ultimately, it is up to the customer to decide how much walking they would like to do on their parts.

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