When she was a child, Lillian Lee-Wylie would read fairy tales and become fascinated by illustrations of tiny cottages and figurines. Now, at 54, Lee-Wylie is still excited about miniature houses. It’s because the child in her still exists.
Lee-Wylie, who was born in Ipoh but grew up in Gopeng, Perak, could not afford to get those fancy Victorian dollhouses when she was little. But these days, this secondary school teacher needs no magic wand to fulfill her dream. Her creativity allows her to create her own miniature wooden houses at her whim and fancy.
Prior to picking up this hobby, Lee-Wylie, who worked for a year as a buyer in a departmental store, loved to collect miniature clay cottages. She bought 10 of them, for £1 or £2 (RM5.40 or RM10.80) each, mostly from charity shops in Britain.
In June last year, Lee came across a beautiful driftwood miniature house while surfing the Net.
“I fell in love with it instantly,” said Lee-Wylie, who added that she could not find those houses in Malaysia. That chance encounter gave her the impetus to start her hobby on miniature wood houses shortly after.
However, Lee-Wylie, who started teaching in 1990, could not take up craftwork except for the occasional self-made birthday cards for loved ones and friends. Hence, when she chanced upon the miniature wood houses online, she could not wait to get back to her crafting.
Building her own mini houses
Lee-Wylie’s miniature houses are made of recycled wood (from scaffolding planks at construction sites), metal hooks, wires and cloths, then painted with watercolours, and decorated with nails and screws. The setting for the houses is a little coastal village.
She opted to use recycled wood as it is difficult to find driftwood in her area. Her favourite playground, a construction site, is a place where she can find plenty of materials for free.
Said Lee-Wylie: “My houses are quite easy to make. The only difficulty is cutting and sawing the wood into minuscule sizes.
She would relegate that sort of work to her British husband Fabian Beresfordwylie, 54, who is happy to lend her a helping hand.
Lee-Wylie likes to think that her little houses are never really complete.
“When I’m in the mood, I will add extra accessories, like a pine tree or a long bench. All these accessories are also made of natural wood. No plastic. I can’t stand it as it is not environmentally friendly,” she said. Her woodcraft also allows her to do her bit for the environment by recycling any unwanted wood into something beautiful and useful, she said.
Lee-Wylie has always loved arts and crafts.
“I used to make soft toys for my nephews and nieces from rags and leftover materials I had collected from my late mum who could sew very well. She never learnt how to sew formally but she was a brilliant tailor. I guess I inherited this artistic side from her,” Lee-Wylie said.
It began in childhood
As a child, she loved to draw and make crafts, like photo frames, for friends until a close friend requested her not to give her any more picture frames. The latter has amassed quite a lot from Lee-Wylie as birthday and Christmas gifts!
She also made dollhouses from cardboard and boxes. She amused herself with this hobby as her parents could not afford to buy expensive toys for her and her five siblings.
“My workshop is a little DIY-ed table that my husband and I salvaged from the construction site. It is placed next to our bed,” she said.
While her hubby is her reliable helper, she said: “He always complains that our bedroom is messy with boxes of cut wood and materials for crafting!”
The time spent on making each house varies, depending on its size and complexity. Her clientele comprises friends and customers. She also accepts custom orders.
On days that she is teaching, Lee-Wylie is not able to make so many cottages. “I can still make one or two cottages in a week, provided I have wood in the right sizes. However, during school vacations, I can easily make one cottage a day if I have the wood already sawn to the size needed,” she said.
Besides deriving joy and satisfaction from this hobby, Lee-Wylie also earns some money from selling her woodcrafts.
She has sold 20-odd miniature wood houses to friends and also online via Carousel and Facebook. A friend’s friend who lives abroad saw her craft on Facebook and helped to promote it.
Lee-Wylie felt proud and touched that the person mentioned her as a miniature artist and asked her friends to contact Lee-Wylie if they wanted to buy any of her pieces as gifts or for personal collections.
The first house
Her first little house was sold on Carousel for only RM10 to a collector in Ipoh.
“My hubby cycled from Gopeng to Ipoh to deliver it as he loves cycling. I packed the cottage carefully as it was very fragile. My customer loved it very much,” she said. Her most expensive miniature wood house was a custom-made “gingerbread house” requested by a friend. Lee-Wylie worked on the house with her husband last Christmas.
“The house was made entirely from twigs to resemble a log cabin. We had to search and collect twigs of the same size. My husband patiently sawed all the twigs to a uniform size. It was very challenging but fun. The result was simply amazing,” she said.
Most miniature artists, she said, are based in Europe and they sell their miniature wood houses for more than RM100 each.
The prices of her miniature houses range from RM10 to RM100.
Lee-Wylie has lost count of how many little houses she has made.
“Perhaps over 100,” she said, “and they come in many sizes and shapes.” She has also given some gifts to friends who appreciate little works of art.
“There are also a few regular customers who just can’t get enough of my little houses!” she gushed.
Lee-Wylie can sit for hours to construct the little cottages. Her indulgence in woodcraft is “a very therapeutic hobby” as it helps to take her mind off worries and stress from schoolwork.
During the year-end school holidays last year, Lee-Wylie was swamped with many orders for the miniature houses, especially for Christmas. She was so engrossed in her craft every day that she sometimes forgot to eat!
In December when she had her vacation, she could not get her mind off her wood houses.
Lee-Wylie said, “I went cold turkey when my husband and I were in Vietnam for a holiday. I looked at the pictures of miniature houses online and saved all the photos in my smartphone! Just looking at them gave me so much joy and ideas for future projects.”