KUALA LUMPUR: For many, 2020 will remain the worst in history – the year the awful pandemic turned the world on its head. Widespread sickness, unemployment, closed borders, restricted movement and of course, the dread of contracting the virus.
But for one Nicole Choo, 53, the pandemic set her on a path of self-discovery, drawing on skills she learned in school to help carve out a new career for herself.
Choo spoke with FMT Lifestyle recently about how she came to be the owner of Neecola Handmade.
It started in secondary school, Choo said, when she hoped to be placed in the commerce class, but was given home science instead and had to learn how to sew and cook.
After leaving school, she worked in the tourism industry, even moving to Johor Bahru for a new job. But the weekends were tough with no family or friends around, and to beat her boredom, she started sewing.
“I found it to be a form of therapy and it gave me peace of mind,” she added.
She took three months to hand-sew her first item, a patchwork blanket. Although she still uses it today, she joked that she’s never made another as it was too time-consuming a process.
Yet, working on the patchwork blanket rekindled her love for sewing. Soon she was working on tote bags.
Her first was made from upcycled denim fabric. Until today, she can recall how proud she was to carry that bag around.
But it wasn’t until 2017 that she started selling the bags she sewed, after posting a photo of her work on Facebook. To her surprise, many of her friends raved about it, and this gave her the confidence to start monetising her hobby.
The following year, she came across a picture of a kiss lock bag, a term used to describe a clasp with two balls that ‘kiss’ when closed shut.
Choo recalled seeing similar bags carried by elegantly dressed women in the period dramas she loved. Intrigued, she started learning how to make them through YouTube videos.
She was delighted with her very first one – a crossbody sling bag – and soon these became her core product.
A blessing in disguise
Then, in 2020, the pandemic hit. With borders closed and travel restrictions imposed, the tourism industry was in dire straits. By October that same year, Choo had left her job and returned to Kuala Lumpur.
But thankfully, she wasn’t left stranded with no means of generating income. All those years of making bags came in handy and within the same month, she started Neecola Handmade.
Today, she sells kiss lock bags with a variety of handles – rings, bamboo, pearl straps as well as coin and drawstring key pouches.
Although kiss lock bags and pouches are loved more by older women, she is on a mission to make them appealing to younger women as well.
“That’s why I use colourful and vibrant fabrics,” she shared, adding that she uses cotton, linen cotton and tweed.
To promote her products, Choo mainly participates in bazaars although the hours are long, and some customers ask for huge discounts.
But there are two things that keep her going: a love for the craft, and the joy she gets from making her products for those who truly appreciate it.
However, for the past two months, Choo has been caring for her sick and elderly mother, and doesn’t have much time to participate in bazaars.
To that end, the support of Persatuan Pembangunan Artisans (PPA) means a lot to her. The NGO helps local artisans market their products through an online platform, physical stores and pop-up events in the Klang Valley.
“It is a very good opportunity to grow my market channel as they have stores in Pavilion, KL and Berjaya Times Square, KL. Before this, I never had the chance to have my products sold inside those malls,” she shared.
Looking back on her journey from the tourism industry to becoming an artisan, she shared: “It’s been fulfilling because I always wanted to do something different. So, maybe the MCO was a blessing from the sky that opened another door for me,” she concluded.
Read more PPA stories and get to know its artisans here.