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Exhibition Extravaganza: An Interview with Heath Yeo on the Art of Sulam (One Machine, One Stitch, One Man)

Screenshot 2019-09-28 at 6.41.32 PM

Sarong kebayas are gorgeous clothes synonymous with Peranakan culture, but how many of us know just how much work goes into them? This October, come discover the beauty and craftsmanship that goes into each one as designer Heath Yeo showcases the art form through 20 exquisite hand-crafted kebayas and formal gowns in One Machine, One Stitch, One Man at the Arts House.

More specifically, it is the rare art of sulam that Heath is trained in (Malay for embroidery), which requires makers to stitch together using a manually manoeuvred sewing machine. Meeting him at his workplace at the Catholic Centre, where Heath works as a Community Social Service Worker, he shares“Back in my army days, I was in the Music and Drama Company and there was a project which involved us creating sarong kebayas. We approached Kim Seng Kabaya & Embroidery, and after making the costume, I came to know Madam Mok Tai Ee, the woman who runs it. After ORD-ing and working in the industry for a while, I realised how much mileage I’d be able to get if I had a skill like embroidering and I was determined to learn from Madam Mok, and she took me under her wing.”

Training under her for 2 years, Madam Mok has always emphasised the importance of the basics, and to let the threads and sewing machine lead him in his expression and creativity in embroidery. Heath adds: “The more I threw myself into the craft, the more I saw the beauty in it, beyond simply looking a the final product created for the masses. Perhaps I’ve stuck to it all this time as a means of making a product more beautiful and authentic.”

Arabian Lilac by Heath Yeo

Certainly, that experience has left a lifelong impression on Heath, as not only does he continue to practice the craft today, he also often gives talks to share the art of sulam and has been featured extensively in documentaries and interviews on Channel U, Channel News Asia and Medicorp programmes such as On the Red Dot. The exhibition then, acts as an extension to his sharing. On its origins, Heath says: “Over the last 20 years, I’ve amassed quite a collection of kebayas, and friends have told me that I should share my experience with it through an exhibition. Many people can recognize embroidery, but few can really appreciate it. There’s something special about how a simple pedal machine is all it takes, operational anywhere without electricity and can still produce so many different patterns. Some kebayas have a hole with a lace pattern in it that’s mistakenly assumed to be pre-done. It’s not – and makers do learn how to operate lace the cutting machine and master the techniques behind it.”

Rose by Mrs Tan-Tijioe

Heath will also be joined by fellow exhibitor Mrs Tan-Tjioe, a close friend and fellow embroidery practitioner who was trained in the 1960s, in a small sewing class back when it was popular then to sew and embroider your own clothes or for your families. Mrs Tan-Tijioe will be displaying 4 embroidered works, including a tablecloth and coaster, as part of the exhibition. Says Heath: “This exhibition isn’t just about the wearable fashions – it’s about celebrating embroidery as a whole, where it can be applied to any material and style. The works I’ll be displaying will comprise plenty of traditional patterns alongside various fabrics to show embroidery’s versatility. I see embroidery as a canvas, where I can figure out how to embroider a picture and tell a story, through my own personal style.”

Ru Yi by Heath Yeo

The creation of a kebaya is often regarded as a Peranakan art form and is decorated with motifs such as flowers, butterflies, phoenixes, dragons and insects. Heath’s fashion background imbues him with plenty of creativity, often seeing him injects new elements into each piece, applying sulam on the traditional manual sewing machine using a combination of stitches, such as cutwork, running and satin. “It takes maybe 3 fittings to get the kebaya right,” he continues, “from the motif design, to the rough stitching on of the embroidery, to the final fitting. It could take up to 3 months to do a kebaya, and each one is really tailor-made for each client, from selecting the fabric to the design. It’s a laborious journey sometimes, but I’m thankful my clientele may be small but steady. More importantly, our relationship is one built on trust, where after given a basic brief, I assure them of a beautiful product that suits their needs.”

Maiden’s Jealousy by Heath Yeo

“Honestly, it can be tough to keep doing this because the world is constantly in motion, and as wonderful as this craft is, you can never keep up with the pace of progress,” Heath continues. “It takes a long time just to finish each kebaya just right, and we’re also competing against big commercial factories that can produce so much more. Thankfully, there’s still a very strong appreciation amongst our clients for the craft, and it helps that there’s been efforts by TV series or Peranakan organisations to promote such culture. Fashion is still my first love, but doing this, I feel like I’m supporting the community in my own way.”

On his hopes on what he wants to achieve with this exhibition, Heath adds: “I hope to share my love for this art form which has its inspiration in European, Chinese and Malay cultures. I think guests should come in and just enjoy the journey. I really hope people just come in and learn to appreciate the craft better and acknowledge how it’s part of the fabric of Singapore history. I get so happy when people, especially from the elder crowd, see my work and they go ‘sulam!’ and recognize the artistry in each piece. It’s good motivation to continue creating unique embroidered fashion pieces to continue sharing my knowledge and skills with the next generation.” 

On why he keeps doing this in spite of all the challenges, Heath concludes: “When I was 30, I decided I wanted to serve the community. I gave up a full-time job in fashion to take on part-time work instead in the social service industry. And if you asked anyone, they’ll tell you that they’re very happy for me because I’m enjoying the best of both worlds – I’ve still got one leg in fashion, while still serving the community, and this organisation has really given me the support. They’re glad someone is still doing it this way and not just going into the mass industry. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but because I know this craft so well and I have this capacity to shape it however I want, I can stay true to both myself and the art of sulam. And maybe that’s why they keep supporting me.”

One Machine, One Stitch, One Man runs at Gallery II, The Arts House at The Old Parliament from 2nd to 6th October 2019. Admission is free. For more information, visit their event page here

Heath Yeo will be giving a talk and demonstrating how he designs and embroiders using a traditional sewing machine on 5th and 6th October 2019 at 2.30pm. Register for $5 by emailing dkpocollective@gmail.com

Heath is currently also running a Kickstarter campaign, which you can contribute to here (Deadline by 16th October 2019)

 

 

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