It’s obvious to say that Kelly stands out – she likes wearing kimonos, has multiple facial piercings and depending on when you see her, has yarn braids or wool dreads in her hair. She might look intimidating but despite feeling under the weather on the day of our interview, she was friendly and chatty.
“I had wanted to source for synthetic hair to knit with but I chanced upon someone with yarn braids online. I thought it was fun so that very night I started braiding yarn into my hair. It was a sad first attempt but I loved it! It’s a combination of what I know and like – crochet and dressing up. While the soft toys and pouches I made are mine, the knitted hair and wool dreads are really a part of me. That’s why I got so taken with the hair immediately.”
Following her mum to crocheting class when she was just seven years old, the first item she made was “this really ugly Hello Kitty.” She went on to teach herself how to knit with knitting books and made soft toys for friends and relatives, but stopped for a couple years when she was teased mercilessly by her classmates.
“The kids would be like, ‘Why are you doing such a granny hobby?’ I still knitted at home secretly, though.”
Eventually, Kelly finished knitting everything from her knitting books to the point where she “didn’t even have to look at the book anymore”, and was on the lookout for certain patterns to knit things for friends. Though she couldn’t find any, the resourceful artist managed with a bit of research and experimenting.
“I guess that’s when people stopped teasing and they started appreciating it. I remember knitting a sweater when I was 15 and I’d bring a huge paper bag to school every day with all my knitting materials inside, and I’d be on the train knitting in my school uniform. Some of my friends would be embarrassed but by that point I just didn’t care anymore about what people said.”
Given her creative start in life, I thought it was no surprise that Kelly enrolled in a fashion course in a local polytechnic, but I could not have been further from the truth.
“Actually, my entry into fashion design in poly was really 误打误撞 (‘wu da wu zhuang’, meaning ‘anyhow’ in Mandarin)! I was supposed to study at a junior college but I missed the admission score by one point, and in the heat of the moment I signed up for the Apparel, Design and Merchandising (AMD) course at Temasek Polytechnic. My parents didn’t speak to me for months and I have no idea why I signed up for it. I really think it was fated and meant to happen, though.”
But fate wasn’t smooth sailing and Kelly proved to be rebellious, clashing often with her course manager and lecturers.
“I was forced to follow the brief to a ‘T’ and that was my biggest problem there. I realised they were training us to do commercial work, which wasn’t the kind of work that I wanted to do.”
Despite delivering more than what the brief required (or perhaps because she was), Kelly’s grades were often marked down and she was shunned by most of her classmates, who considered her a ‘market spoiler’. But the rebel took it all in her stride and didn’t even consider quitting and transferring to another school.
“I don’t like to stop something halfway and you know how school is like – it’s very competitive and people are quick to put you down if you are different. But I just showed up to the studio, plugged in my earphones and did my shit.”
After a short stint doing graphic design at an advertising agency, Kelly started her label ハナナ HANANA by kllylmrck, which is a combination of ‘hana’, which means flower in Japanese, and well, the ‘na’ in banana.
“I wanted something short and easy to pronounce,” Kelly said simply. “I initially started ハナナ HANANA by kllylmrck to be profitable but to be honest, sales was non-existent. I continued anyway because I liked doing it. People from overseas are more willing to pay. I was at an event once and a foreigner saw my stuff and immediately took out a hundred dollar note to buy my crocheted iPad case.”
Unfortunately, Kelly doesn’t knit garments for sale as “they’ll cost way too much. A sweater would cost, like a thousand dollars with my production time and materials!”
Cue sad face. I had been thinking of commissioning Kelly to knit me an awesome sweater.
Kelly recalled her favourite project to date which, unfortunately, met a tragic end.
“I made this big knitted dress for my final year project in polytechnic and I feel for it a lot because it was the first time I combined knitting into a garment. After my project was over, I saw something very familiar in the dumpster when I was walking home. My mum had dumped my dress there and it was infested with bugs!”
It really was a sad end for her dress, but Kelly told it with such comedic timing that we both ended up laughing. While disregarding criticism and forgoing popular opinion is all in a day’s work for an artist, it does require an above-average level of resilience. I was quite in awe of her self-confidence and assurance – Kelly clearly had no desire to seek approval from anybody, which understandably would sometimes result in others labelling her as rebellious.
“I usually don’t care what people think about me, but I can’t totally not care – it’d be very stressful! The reason why I wear my crochet mask is because I got shouted a lot by old people in Japan who found my facial piercings offensive. This man came up to me and said only cows and horses have piercings. Then one day I was wearing a white surgical mask and I noticed people stopped staring as much despite my colourful hair. I made the crochet mask since I just wanted it to look nice and people would stare because it was interesting, not because it was offensive. The mask prevents people from knowing how I really look, too.”
And while she was in living in Tokyo, a city famous for their fashionable subcultures, Kelly lamented that tourists looked at her like an “exhibit or part of the scenery.”
“Some would even run ahead of me when I was crossing a road and turn back to take photos of me without my permission. It was really rude. They’re like, ‘I’m here to see people like you.’ But anyway, it made me realise that there were people who appreciated my look. I do hope for wool dreads to take off in Singapore – it’s just something fun.”
Kelly’s braided yarn hair started to “really become a thing” when she went to Japan for nine months for language studies (at the time of publishing, she would have been back in Singapore for about two weeks), where she started to experiment a lot more with colour and materials. It was also where she discovered felted wool dreads while researching for a fashion shoot (above) with local designer Josiah Chua, who had asked her to do the model’s hair.
“There are a lot of ways to make the dreads, but I use a crochet needle to do the wool dreads. For multi-coloured wool dreads, I either dye them myself or mix pre-dyed wool together. It takes at least 30 minutes to make one dread strand out of synthetic hair, but I usually take a lot longer than that to do a proper job. Making felted wool dreads is a faster process.”
Dreads 101: It takes about 60 dread strands to cover a whole head and is, not surprisingly, a very high maintenance look. It has to be shampooed regularly with your normal hair and novices might loosen the dreads while doing so.
“I realised people didn’t want to trouble themselves with that, so I created dreadfalls. You can attach to your hair with an elastic band, take it off whenever you want and chuck it in the washing machine to wash! It’s very long-lasting.”
Her dreadfalls have proven to be so popular with the youths in Harajuku (fashion icon Shoshipoyo has worn some of them) that Kelly is currently in talks to sell them there on a consignment basis. And now that she’s back home, Kelly plans to do knitted installations as she feels it’s an unexplored territory in Singapore: “I did one for Tiramisu Hero a few years back, but not many people know about it.”
Given her skill and expertise in the craft, many people have asked Kelly to hold knitting workshops but she told them outrightly that it was impossible.
“It takes a month of lessons to learn how to knit properly and there’s no way a beginner can learn and knit a finished product in five hours. A lot of people like such workshops – to be able to walk out with something they made on the spot and Instagram it.”
But before you think all hope is lost, Kelly is introducing an easier knitting workshop using just your arms.
“My initial reaction to arm knitting was, ‘That’s a blasphemy to the craft of knitting!’ But I was thinking about how to make knitting easy and fun for beginners, and arm knitting seemed to tick all those boxes. So I read up on it and made an arm-knitted tank top in two hours!”
It had to be fate, Kelly.
Check out Kelly’s handiwork and style on her Instagram and Facebook page. Kelly recently held an arm knitting workshop with Public Garden in late July 2015. Check out their website to keep updated for future knitting workshops.