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


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

This needlework enthusiast from Kuala Lumpur decided to use her crochet skills to supplement the family income.

“Due to the restrictions and the different phases of the movement control order, my small print shop – owned by my husband and I – has been beaten. Also, our income has dropped by 80% as universities and schools have been closed,” she said.

“I first learned needlework like crochet, knitting and embroidery in 2006. It started as a hobby, but now I’m focusing on making it a hobby. income-generating time,” says Norlisa, 40, who lives in Gombak.

At the first MCO in 2020, the mother-of-two shelled out RM3,500 and signed up for a month-long online course in digital crochet or graphghan crafts.

Graphghans are afghans (a decorative blanket or bedspread) laid in 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 chart method to crochet the pattern according to the rows.

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

“Covid-19 brought me many challenges, and it was difficult to deal with so many uncertainties. My husband and I were not sure that our business could survive.

“I didn’t mind investing 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, the crochet has grown in popularity and was on the Spring/Summer 2021 catwalks of top fashion brands like Bottega Veneta, Fendi and Dior. The hashtag #hook 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 crocheted 24 photographic 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 as a digital hook. Malaysian Astronaut Datuk Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor as a digital hook.Other notable pieces she made include one of Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman’s historic declarations of independence at KL’s Merdeka Stadium in 1957 and popular tourist attractions like the National Monument and Colonial Building of the Sultan Abdul Samad.

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

The portrait features Johor Ruler Sultan Ibrahim Almahum 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 Johorian and proud of my beloved leaders. I chose to work on their digital portrait because Sultan Ibrahim was proclaimed the fifth Sultan of the state. Also, it was the first time my home state had a Permaisuri Johor,” said Norlisa, who moved from her hometown to Kuala Lumpur after getting married in 2007.

online digital learning

Norlisa is one of many Malaysians who have taken advantage of online learning platforms to develop their sewing skills. But among the many DIY techniques, she decided to focus on digital crochet.

Crochet pattern generators are a dime a dozen on the internet. Websites like sewing board, free pattern helper and the crochet crowd offer free advice to crafters on creating custom graphics templates. It requires simple steps like uploading an image and selecting the number of crochet threads.

Still, Norlisa was willing to invest in online lessons with an Atlanta-based digital crochet maker in the United States because the software used is advanced and the result is top-notch.

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

Norlisa etched her name in the Malaysian Book of Records for crocheting the largest digital crochet portrait measuring 6.5ft (two meters) by 4.8ft (1.49m).Norlisa etched her name in the Malaysian Book of Records for crocheting the largest digital crochet portrait measuring 6.5ft (two meters) by 4.8ft (1.49m).

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

She pays around RM500 for each digital cart.

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

It’s a costly affair, and Norlisa estimates she’s pumped around RM50,000, part of her savings, into her fledgling business.

“Each digital card is created within five days. On average, eight color tones are needed to make a portrait. My biggest challenge is finding the thread color choices.

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

His custom pieces are not 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 his eye-catching designs.

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


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