Malaysian artisan sells crocheted portraits to make ends meet during Covid-19

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When Norlisa Mohamad Nor’s copy business took a hit during the pandemic, the businesswoman knew she had to find a way to make ends meet quickly.

The handicraft enthusiast from Kuala Lumpur decided to use her crocheting skills to supplement the family income.

“Because of the restrictions and various phases of the movement control order, my small print shop – owned by my husband and I – has taken a hit. Also, our income dropped by 80% as universities and schools closed,” she says.

“I learned crafts like crocheting, knitting and embroidery for the first time in 2006. It started as a hobby, but now I’m focused on turning it into an income-generating hobby,” says Norlisa, 40, who lives in Gombak.

During the first MCO in 2020, the mother of two spent RM3,500 and signed up for a month-long online digital crochet or graphghan craft course.

Graphghans are afghans (a decorative blanket or bedspread) placed within a digital graphic. As with color knitting and cross stitch, the idea is to crochet individual squares to represent each color block on the chart.

Norlisa uses a word diagram method to crochet the pattern by rows.

Though Norlisa’s finances were stretched early in the pandemic, she took the leap of faith with an open mind.

“Covid-19 has presented me with many challenges and it has been difficult to deal with so many uncertainties. My husband and I weren’t sure if our business could survive.

“I didn’t mind investing the money to learn digital crochet even though my family was struggling to stay afloat. Sometimes it’s important to take a risk and try something new,” she shared.

Coincidentally, crochet has gained popularity and has been featured on the Spring/Summer 2021 catwalks of major fashion brands such as Bottega Veneta, Fendi and Dior. The hashtag #crochet currently has over 5.7 billion views and 1.5 billion views on TikTok and Google.

The hashtag #graphgan has around 387,000 views on TikTok. In two years, Norlisa has created 24 photo portraits of famous Malaysians such as badminton icon Datuk Lee Chong Wei, former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Muhyiddin Yassin and Malaysian astronaut Datuk Dr. Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor crocheted.

Malaysian astronaut Datuk Dr.  Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor in digital crochet form. Malaysian astronaut Datuk Dr. Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor in digital crochet form.Other notable pieces she has created include one of Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman’s historic Declaration of Independence at Merdeka Stadium in 1957 and popular tourist attractions such as the National Monument and Sultan Abdul Samad’s Colonial Building.

Last May, she got her name in the Malaysian Book of World Records for crocheting the largest digital crochet portrait, measuring 6.5ft (2m) by 4.8ft (1.49m).

The portrait shows Johor Ruler Sultan Ibrahim Almarhum Sultan Iskandar and Johor Permaisuri Raja Zarith Sofiah Almarhum Sultan Idris Shah during her coronation in 2015.

It took her a month to complete the piece.

“I was born and raised in Ulu Tiram. I am a true Blue Johorean and I am proud of my beloved rulers. I chose to work on her digital portrait because Sultan Ibrahim was made the fifth sultan of the state. Also, it was the first time my home state had a Permaisuri Johor,” said Norlisa, who moved to Kuala Lumpur from her hometown after her marriage in 2007.

Digital e-learning

Norlisa is among many Malaysian women who have used e-learning platforms to improve their handicraft skills. But from the many handicraft techniques, she decided on digital crocheting.

Crochet pattern generators are a dime a dozen on the internet. websites like stitch board, freepatternwizard and the crochet amount Offer crafters free advice on creating bespoke chart patterns. It requires simple steps like uploading a picture and choosing the number of crochet strands.

Still, Norlisa was willing to invest in e-lessons with a digital crochet artist based in Atlanta, United States, as the software used is advanced and the result is top-notch.

For each crocheted portrait, she first chooses a photo to work on and then emails it to the digital craft company in Atlanta. The company then creates the digital graphghan (usually around 120 pages in PDF format) and emails it back to her.

Norlisa has her name engraved in the Malaysian Book of World Records for crocheting the largest digital crochet portrait, measuring 6.5ft (two metres) by 4.8ft (1.49m).Norlisa has her name engraved in the Malaysian Book of World Records for crocheting the largest digital crochet portrait, measuring 6.5ft (two metres) by 4.8ft (1.49m).

The colors are assigned to Norlisa and she uses a word chart to crochet the pattern by rows. The finished product will depend on graph size, crochet techniques (plain crochet, double crochet or double crochet), crochet hook size and yarn count.

She pays around RM500 for each digital shopping cart.

Separately, she orders the crochet thread (in different colors) from Canada and the United States, where each spool costs about 90 RM. She uses around 30 to 40 skeins for each project.

It’s an expensive affair and Norlisa estimates that she’s pumped around RM50,000, which is part of her savings, into her budding business.

“Each digital map is created within five days. On average, eight tones are needed to complete a portrait. My biggest challenge is choosing the color of the yarn.

“It takes anywhere from 14 to 60 days to complete a project, depending on its size and complexity. I spend about six hours crocheting every day,” says Norlisa, who also turns to social media platforms like YouTube, Pinterest and Instagram to keep honing her needlework skills.

Their bespoke pieces do not come cheap and can cost anywhere from RM15,000 to RM55,000 including framing. So far she has only sold two portraits. She updates her Facebook page (CHARi Ai YEr) regularly to promote their eye-catching creations.

“Starting a new business is a big gamble, but I’m willing to try. It’s important to be bold and trust your talent, even if it requires investment. Most importantly, try and never give up. If you never test the waters, you’ll never know if you’re going to sink or swim,” she concludes.

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