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Tucked-in cloth a thing of beauty

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During a two-week family holiday in Japan, Latifah Hamzah noticed a simple fabric art hanging on the wall of her sister’s home in Tokyo.

Her sister then took her to an underground craft centre in the city where Latifah saw many senior Japanese women making their own art pieces and putting them up for sale.

The art, known in Japan as kimekomi (tuck into a groove), is a doll-making technique first developed in the 18th century.

Kimekomi is a craft where a pattern is first drawn, then cut onto a surface of either soft wood or foam board. Fabric or paper is then placed over the pattern and tucked into grooves between patterns.

“It looked like a very relaxing hobby, and at the same time, they were able to earn some pocket money,” she said.

She got herself a number of these DIY kits, thinking she would indulge in a new hobby when she had free time. But days turned into months and when she finally took the kit out six months later, she was aghast to discover there were many steps to follow.

It didn’t help that the instructions were only in Japanese.

“I wondered to myself, how in the world did I have the impression that this was a relaxing hobby? Needless to say, my first piece was simply horrible. Although I had second thoughts about my new hobby, I still managed to complete all the kits I brought home from Japan, with my husband’s assistance.

“I found it actually helped me to leave my work-related stress behind, due to the concentration required in producing the art.”

Reflecting on the tediousness in completing a single piece of kimekomi, Latifah discussed with her husband, Raflly Nann, on how they could streamline the steps and yet make an art just as captivating.

Inspired by kimekomi and its “easy tuck” technique, Latifah and Raflly began experimenting with their own patterns and fabric scraps lying around the house.

“The biggest challenge for me was drawing. Raflly would come out with a pattern, but how do I reproduce this piece onto the foam board?”

However, unlike kimekomi, which produces simple pieces the Japanese are known for, Latifah and Raflly want to promote Malaysia’s culture and tradition through their 3D non-stitch patchwork, by using primarily batik and songket.

“Most foreigners have no idea what they should do with a piece of batik or songket, but when it is used in an art piece, they get to enjoy the best of two worlds,” she said.

Since her retirement two years ago, Latifah, 51, has established her brand name, QueenL’s Crafts, to market her improvised kimekomi.

Queen Latifah is a nickname given by her friends, referring to her fierce nature when she was younger.

Assisted by Raflly and sometimes three of their five children, QueenL’s Crafts showcased its selection of art to the public for the first time during the 2016 National Craft Day hosted at the Kuala Lumpur Craft Complex.

The 12-day event drew many curious onlookers, who soon turned into owners and fans.

Latifah’s usual picks are of people, animals, landmarks and flora.

Her current bestsellers are the owl and elephant.

“Somehow, foreigners love these two animals,” she said, while busy completing a commissioned piece of a family of owls — measuring four feet by eight feet — the largest she and Raflly have worked on to date.

Most of Latifah’s pieces with people do not show a full face, as it is prohibited by her religion.

She makes an exception if it is a customised piece.

Raflly said a blank face allows people to focus on the attire and not be distracted by the model’s beauty.

It is no wonder that much care is placed in the purchase of fabric, based on its quality, motif and colour, to ensure the finished art piece stands out.

Priced from RM40, the non-stitch patchwork art pieces are available at Boustead Cruise Centre, Petrosains Gift Shop and soon, Eraman Duty Free retail outlets, aside from craft exhibitions.

DIY kits are also sold, and those interested in honing their skills can sign up for short courses conducted at her workshop in Port Klang.

Despite initial hiccups with kimekomi, Latifah now spends six to eight hours a day at her craft table.

Smaller pieces of A5 size take about three hours to produce, while more detailed ones take weeks.

“Raflly loves to make large pieces with a lot of detailing. He is really patient and has an eye for even the smallest of details.”