Malaysian crafter sells crochet portraits to make ends meet during Covid-19

Norlisa has crocheted 24 photo portraits since the pandemic. Photos: Art Chen/The Star

When Norlisa Mohamad Nor’s photocopying business was affected during the pandemic, the businesswoman knew she’d have to find a way, fast, to make ends meet.

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

“Due to the restrictions and various phases of the movement control order, my small printing business – owned by my husband and me – took a beating. In addition, our income was down by 80% as universities and schools were closed,” she says.

“I first learned needlework like crochet, knitting and embroidery in 2006. It started off 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 forked out RM3,500 and signed up for a one-month online digital crocheting or graphghan crafting course.

Graphghans are afghans (a decorative blanket or bedspread) laid in a digital graph. Like colour knitting and cross-stitch, the idea is to crochet individual squares to represent each block of colour on the chart.

Norlisa uses a word chart method to crochet the pattern according to rows.Norlisa uses a word chart method to crochet the pattern according to rows.

Even though Norlisa’s finances were tight at the start of the pandemic, she took the leap of faith with an open mind.

“Covid-19 brought about many challenges to me, and it was tough dealing 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 is important to take the risk and try something new,” she shared.

Coincidentally, crochet has been gaining popularity, and was on the Spring/Summer 2021 runways of major fashion brands like 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 about 387,000 views on TikTok. In two years, Norlisa has crocheted 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.

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’s done include one of Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman’s historic declaration of independence at KL’s Stadium Merdeka in 1957 and popular tourist attractions like the National Monument and Sultan Abdul Samad colonial building.

Last May, she got her name into the Malaysia Book of Records for crocheting the biggest digital crochet portrait measuring 6.5ft (2m) by 4.8ft (1.49m).

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

She took a month to complete the piece.

“I was born and raised in Ulu Tiram. I am a true blue Johorean and I’m proud of my beloved rulers. I chose to work on their digital portrait because Sultan Ibrahim was proclaimed as the fifth Sultan of the state. Plus, it was the first time my home state has a Permaisuri Johor,” said Norlisa, who moved from her hometown to Kuala Lumpur after her marriage in 2007.

Digital e-learning

Norlisa is among many Malaysians who have taken advantage of e-learning platforms to build on her needlework skills. But out of the many handiwork techniques, she decided to focus on digital crocheting.

Crochet pattern generators are a dime a dozen on the Internet. Websites like stitchboard, freepatternwizard and thecrochetcrowd offer free advice to crafters on creating custom-made graph patterns. It requires simple steps like uploading an image and selecting the number of crochet threads.

Yet, Norlisa was willing to invest in e-lessons with a digital crochet creator that is based in Atlanta in the United States because the software used is advanced, and the outcome top notch.

For each crochet portrait, she first selects a photo she wants to work on and then emails it to the digital crafting company in Atlanta. The company then creates the digital graphghan (usually about 120 pages in PDF format) and emails it back to her.

Norlisa has etched her name in the Malaysia Book of Records for crocheting the biggest digital crochet portrait measuring 6.5 ft (two metres) by 4.8 ft (1.49 m).Norlisa has etched her name in the Malaysia Book of Records for crocheting the biggest digital crochet portrait measuring 6.5 ft (two metres) by 4.8 ft (1.49 m).

The colours are assigned for Norlisa, and she uses a word chart to crochet the pattern according to rows. The finished product depends on the graph size, crochet techniques (single crochet, double crochet or treble crochet stitch), hook size, and yarn thickness.

She pays about RM500 for each digital cart.

Separately, she orders the crochet yarn (in various colours) from Canada and the United States, where each roll of yarn costs about RM90. For each project, she uses about 30 to 40 balls of yarn.

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

“Each digital chart is created within five days. On average, eight colour tones are required to complete one portrait. My biggest challenge is sourcing the colour choices of yarn.

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

Her customised pieces don’t come cheap and can cost from RM15,000 to RM55,000, inclusive of framing. So far, she’s sold only two portraits. She updates her Facebook page (CHari Ai YEr) regularly to promote her eye-catching creations.

“Venturing into a new business is a big gamble, but I’m willing to give it a shot. It is essential to be brave and rely on your talent, even if it requires investment. Most importantly, try and never give up. If you never test the waters, you will never know if you will sink or swim,” she concludes.

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Crochet , Pandemic , Graphghan


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