Heath Yeo

Sulam Kebaya in Singapore.

I specialise in sulam, which means embroidery in Malay, on kebayas. It is a traditional way of kebaya-making in which the artisan makes and sews sulam embroidery from start to finish. It is also one of the details that many look out for in their kebayas.
It is a time-consuming process requiring a combination of different stitches. With industrialisation, less people are taking up this skillset. Moreover, embroidery machines have become increasingly sophisticated, replacing manual work in producing sulam in our fast-paced society.
As many would agree, the effect is not quite the same when produced by an industrial machine. Hand-crafted sulam feels more three-dimensional and “alive”. It is this organic and subtle way that gives it that precious difference, therefore, inspiring me to stay devoted to retaining the beauty, heritage and authenticity of traditional kebaya-making.
However, I have not always felt this way about the craft. I first met Mdm Moi of Kim Seng Kebaya and she wanted to teach me the craft, but as I was young then, I wasn’t really interested in traditional art forms.
After spending a decade professionally as a designer in the formalwear industry, my attitude towards kebaya-making changed. I started to appreciate it more, especially since I was trying to learn more about my Indonesian Peranakan heritage and additional applications to help hone my skills and knowledge as a designer.
I started to fall in love with the intricate art of sulam, especially after finding out that the good old manual way of sulam with a treadle sewing machine is a set of skills that not many know.
I went back again and again to Mdm Moi, by then in her late 70s, to beg her to give me another chance, which she finally agreed to!
She went from being a teacher to a mother figure. Even after I have learnt the craft, she made me show her my work, in order to correct my colour usage, shading techniques, and tension of embroidery so I could continue to learn to make my sulam look more alive.
I will always remember her words, “I will go when you have learnt everything”, after inheriting from her this skill set.
She is someone I will remember forever. This is why I feel like I have the duty to honour her legacy—the knowledge, experience, and respect for the craft. This is where i summoned the courage to start my own design workshop.
My workshop is no longer running on a full-time scale because it was a time-consuming one-man operation. Furthermore, it was an uphill task competing with industrial machines which sew at a much higher speed.

Nevertheless, I kept the craft close to my heart. Peranakan culture is simply too colourful to let it vanish or seep away with time!
Although it is a part-time venture, my current studio is where I still manually create kebaya and sulam embroidery with the treadle sewing machine, the way Mdm Moi taught me, the way kebayas were made, the good old way which brings fond memories to many. And just like Mdm Moi, I hope to one day find my successor.
Heath Yeo