KOEL Stories

Meet The KOEL Kids: Zoe Tan

KOEL Stories

Zoe Tan’s bold and spirited designs was what caught our eyes first, and it was a pleasant surprise to find out later about her Singaporean roots! Currently living in Berlin and a mother of three, Zoe’s fibre practices communicates a different form of regime which is dependent on unconventional methods and surges of vivid colours. Stuck between wanting to sell more to afford supplies for her experimentation, yet not wanting to complete the same repetitive designs over and again, Zoe has set herself a resolve so as to stay true to her craft and brand, Swing Fibers – to create pieces that aren’t just pretty and made with love, but something that can help make the world a better place. Read on to find out how Zoe is setting about doing that!

1. Tell us more about your background and what led you to choosing weaving and macramé as a craft?
The fibre arts are just the latest in my series of deflection, with my chronic inability to commit to one thing and do that whole “grown up” thing. I read law and instead of qualifying for the bar, I flitted abroad to Germany and did a masters in Environmental Technology. No one understood what that was about, so instead of becoming an environmental consultant, I went to do a PhD in Developmental Geography and stumbled upon crochet as a procrastination tactic while writing my dissertation. My mother must have sighed a million times in those six hours I took to learn the single crochet. I was so bad and slow, she begged me to stop. After I discovered yarn stores were the next closest thing to heaven on Earth, the damage was done. 

More than a year ago, my family and I moved to Berlin, and I started cultivating an indoor jungle like all modern urbanites. Then I gave birth to my third child, which meant I had to keep the plants away from naughty baby fingers, so I suddenly “needed” a lot of plant hangers. I bought Createaholic’s book, made my first plant-hangers and wall-hangings, and then Instagram and Pinterest led me down some very fibrous rabbit hole…which brings me to where I am today with my macra-weaves. 

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2. What makes you a KOEL Kid?
Erm. I call it the Erm-factor. It’s that erm-face people give when they see what I make. They are thinking, “What is this” and “How am I supposed to react?”. Most macramé works are so pretty and neutral, but mine are very colourful and weird. Most macramé makers are focused on knots and patterns, while I am busy with the lines and how it travels and crosses over each other. Also, most of my macramé pieces incorporate many different fibres besides rope. Because, why not? My work is a creative outlet, and so it plays antidote and antithesis. Life with three children relies on routine, and I run a minimalist household. So when it comes to my fibre practice, I am terrible at keeping it simple and surrender completely to all the possibilities of maximalism.  

3. Share with us the creative process behind each of your projects.
I usually start with colours. I used to be more of a saturated, autumn-y sort, then mommy brain took over and it was all taupe and mint and blush, and I am currently obsessed with color contrasts. If you look at my work chronologically, you’ll also see that the color palettes constantly change. I am ultimately a capricious and fickle colour-lover, and once I have had a palette, I get tired of it and need something very different. What an analogy, huh? After the colours, I work on incorporating textures. I grew up in tropical Singapore so I didn’t get acquainted with wool until I moved to Germany, and I am still amazed by how fluffy roving is. I’ve never had a plan of action; I cut the yarn and ropes, hang them onto a dowel, and just start knotting. If at all, my only plan is to make something I have not made before. So you see, I am a terrible businesswoman, but I am hoping that creativity can’t be exhausted and there are a million permutations in my head waiting to be knotted and woven. 

4. Pick one of your favourite designs and answer these quick questions.

The inspiration behind this design is… The very unsexy truth is that I had all these t-shirt yarns and cotton yarns leftover from crochet projects, and I wanted to use them up. That is usually how many of my projects begin. How they develop is usually also determined by how much of a particular yarn is left. I often see behind-the-scenes pictures of artists with metres of rope pooling around their feet; this is not how it looks with me. I usually measure too short and end up running out, so the turns and twists in my work are always a direct result of me wrestling with the remaining length. In my case I would say necessity IS the mother of my inventions - carte blanche is terrifying. 

The dream store in which I would like to stock this design is… I did my homework and read that the other Koel Kids all dream of an Anthropologie day. But I’ve never seen Anthropologie, and I don’t even know what the German or Berliner equivalent is. To be utterly honest, I wouldn’t want to stock this design, because I would die of boredom having to make this a hundred times. What I dream of are large commissions for hotel lobbies, cafes, or shops, so I can make something fantastically impractical and unique. 

Which celebrity house can you picture your design at… I am going to pass on this. I haven’t been to a concert or cinema since 2013 so I don’t have any celebrity crushes useful for answering this question. Although, how about the writer Margaret Atwood, writer of feminist dystopian novels? The irony of a macramé wall-hanging, resulting from a technically emancipated woman’s relapse into domesticity, hanging in a feminist writer’s home, ha! 

If this design made it big, I would… I would have to make this over and over again? Until I started selling more, I didn’t realise how much administration and repetition commercial success would mean. I think I don’t know anymore what I am wishing for. How does handcrafted stay handcrafted with LOVE when it gets commercially successful? But the first thing I would do when I am commercially successful is to return my 6-year-old daughter’s bedroom to her, and rent a space for myself where I can let my rope, yarn, and wool just lie around freely instead of being packed away in plastic boxes to stay safe from prying grubby kiddy fingers. 

If this design could talk, it would say… She had no idea what she was doing when she started this, and maybe it was pure luck that someone offered to sell it for her, and even more serendipitous that it sold on the same day, but now she’s got it so bad for macramé and weaving she’s hardly sleeping. 

5. Great things take time, so how much has changed since you first started weaving and macramé and where do you see it in the next five years?
It was only last July that I started making wall-hangings for sale, though I am terribly impatient and wish I could sell more in order to afford more fibres and experiment even more. But I have already started questioning the purpose of my work. I think handmade is often seen as a better alternative to mass-production, and by proxy, craft is seen as an answer to consumerism? That at least is how I came into weaving and macramé , as a more meaningful activity than mindless shopping. And yet, I am asking people to buy my things, but even pretty things made with love are things no one really needs, and that won’t make the world a better place. So I really want to try to incorporate a social and environmental aspect to my work. I already use recycled ropes and macramé cords, but I want to find a way to incorporate more traditional trash like old photos and film, packing materials, etc.. Still, not to be cynical, but in five years’ time, macramé will probably be dead again, because that’s what already happened before. Come what may, even in ten years, I will still be that girl whose heart skips a beat when she sees a yarn store, and that yarn store pervert who can’t help getting all touchy-feely with all the yarn.

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Photo Credits: Zoe Tan