Engineers have a variety of skills.
They can create, build, fix, and maintain machines, appliances, furniture, and even cars.
If you think about it, mother is just like an engineer too.
She builds a warm nest for her children, ‘fixes’ their boo-boos when they fall down, and maintains loving relationships through conversations and unwavering support.
For Singaporean mum Swnee Li, full-time engineer and part-time founder of KayKay & SaSa, she’s a combination of both!
Cut From A Different Cloth
36-year-old Swnee Li, a mother of two toddler daughters aged 2 and 4, is an engineer working in the manufacturing industry for 13 years.
She had always liked doing crafts and had got into sewing, especially making Tula accessories. Occasionally she would make dolls and accessories from handwoven fabric to sell as well.
“I had my first sewing machine at the end of 2016 and I started to sew my own accessories since then. I learnt all the sewing techniques [by myself] through Google, YouTube, and also [with] some tips from BROTHER’s sales aunties,” she said.
“I met a mummy who did Tula accessories before I [started] and she also generously shared her knowledge with me.”
Swnee then set up a Facebook page for her workmanship, named KayKay & SaSa (derived from both her daughters’ names) on National Day in 2017.
Ever since Swnee bought her first Tula, she had already planned to make her own accessories, she told me.
But because the actual Tula fabrics are expensive, she felt that she “didn’t have the confidence to [make them]” and mainly sewed with cotton fabrics for her own use.
She had two reasons for starting KayKay & SaSa.
One of the reasons was motivated by a negative experience she had with an accessory maker who wasted the only piece of handwoven fabric she had.
“This particular Tula was a handwoven wrap conversion tula. Handwoven wraps are made with nice colourway from top to bottom. So there are certain placement of the fabrics that are pleasant to me or are pleasant in general,” she explained.
“The maker didn’t remember what I told her and cut another portion which was not what I [wanted]. And once you cut the fabric it is extremely hard to get another piece – and it is very expensive [to get the fabric].”
She recounted, “I sold the Tula later on but I used it for a while. From that incident on, I [decided that] I needed to make my own accessories and [then] I went on to do for others because I know [the pain] when someone misinterprets what you want.”
“The second reason is [because of] some family issues [I faced then] and I needed another small income for the family during that period,” she added.
Practice Makes Perfect
Swnee bought her first mesh canvas Tula from Pupsik, a distributor, in August 2016, when her youngest daughter was around six months old, and she needed to free both her hands to take care of her then 2-year-old older daughter.
She’s only tried two carriers, the Baby Bjorn and Tula.
“My first carrier wasn’t really comfortable for me, so for my firstborn I didn’t use the carrier much. When I tried on the Tula, the weight distribution [worked] amazingly for me, and [I could customise my] Tula,” she reviewed.
As she could decide the style of the hood, the drool pad, and the reach strap, it made the Tula feel personalised.
She only makes the accessories such as drool pads, hoods, and reach straps.
With her skills now, she can make approximately three sets a week.
When she first started, one of the challenges was getting the dimensions right.
“I have sewn at least 20 times of the same drool pads. Sew and unstitch, and sew and unstitch – to finally get the right dimension. That was before I started the business page,” she shared.
Sometimes if I lose focus and get the wrong orientation, I have to redo it. The worst part is when I only realised it after I finished everything. It still happens sometimes.
Her current thought process begins with the planning of the placement of the fabric, and identifying which colour suits the accessory best with the limited fabric she has.
This meticulous planning can take her up to two to three weeks.
I noticed that some of the bows are priced as high as $35, which I thought was a little pricey for such a small accessory.
She explained, “These bows are made from hard-to-find handwoven wraps. The wrap itself can cost thousands of dollars and most of the time it’s not for sale, so people buy the accessories to get a feel of the fabric and as a keepsake.”
A Tight-Knit Community
If you’re wondering what a Tula is, it is a type of baby carrier that emulates a form of babywearing.
As Swnee took the time to explain to me, the structure of the carrier distributes the weight of the baby or toddler equally so the wearer would not feel the strain on just one part of the body.
That’s why there is such a large community of Tula users who swear by it (and some who think it’s almost cult-like); the tula is comfortable for the baby or the toddler, and is easy to use.
“[They] also sell wrap conversions, [using] fabric used for wrapping babies [that are then] made into carriers,” she shared.
She recommends getting one from local baby stores like Bumwear and Pupsik, or if you’d like to own a ‘fancy Tula’, you have to “score it during a wrap conversion stocking launch” that happens every bi-weekly from the official Tula website.
Occasionally, she said there will be a ‘fancy Tula’ launch that stocks handwoven carriers.
Swnee went on to explain that the fabric used in handwoven conversion wraps is also made of the “highest-end” quality, and these wraps are limited to two to three pieces.
According to her, these fancy Tulas are highly sought after; one of such wraps requires 3.5m to 5m of fabric to make and the handwoven fabric typically costs about USD$150 per metre.
As handwoven Tula fabric are scant and pricey, weavers who know their wraps would be made into a Tula would keep a bit of material for people who managed to get the ‘fancy Tula’.
So when she felt upset at the maker who messed up the colour placement, she had a good reason to be.
“[If] the accessories are done wrong, there’s no way you can get another piece of the exact fabric, [because] it usually costs USD$4 to $5 per inch, and a decent set of accessories needs 20 to 30 inches (to make),” she said.
I learnt later that wrap conversion tulas usually require the mummies to tie themselves, and the end result is a stylish tula with pretty patterns.
One can purchase the regular canvas Tula, which Swnee considers affordable, from local distributors but only the original Baby Tula store carries the wrap conversion models.
Giving Back To Society
Juggling a full-time job, motherhood, and a side business is a big feat.
For Swnee, she considers the time spent as her real investment, as she uses it to “research on making good, neat, and likeable accessories”, customising and personalising them takes plenty of time too.
Tangible investments are mainly the good cotton batting and snap buttons she gets to make the accessories.
She charges about $15 an hour to make accessories.
“If I spend more time [making accessories], I earn more, [and] vice versa. So, each month I don’t take back the same amount,” she shared.
“And because I don’t wish to shortchange my time with my girls and [then] under-perform at my full-time job, I mainly sew on Fridays and the weekends.”
The friendly mother-of-two told me about the time she held a Right To Buy (RTB) campaign for a fellow mummy in need, whose husband has cancer.
For the most recent RTB she held, she worked with Charissa, another mother in the community, who donated her handwoven fabric to make into dolls to sell. The profits were used to help that mother in need.
An RTB is a common term in the mummies world, she told me with a laugh. It’s a kind of event where “limited items are sold at retail price to people who are keen” on buying these items.
“Charissa is the second mummy who has [helped me run] donation [drives]. Last year, I did a donation drive with another mummy, Xue Fang near Christmas.”
“She also donated her scraps and I made them into bow clips to sell. We donated 70% of the profit to the Singapore Children’s Society,” she added.
Swnee thinks the most meaningful takeaway from running KayKay & SaSa is the ability to “make other mummies happy”.
When they see the accessories turning out to be what they wished for, you can really sense the happiness in them.
That infectious, positive energy gets passed on to her, and that’s what keeps her going.
At first, there were no weavers making Tula accessories so there was a market for hobbyist seamstresses like her.
But, recently she noticed that some weavers are also starting to make their own accessories.
Then she told me this casually, “By the way, I’m going to set up a site to sell handwoven accessories too. I will still be doing by full-time job as I like [it].”
The enterprising engineer confirmed that it will be an e-commerce site where she will make and sell handwoven accessories like hair clips and earrings that comes in a mother-daughter set.
“All the fabrics [I use] are high-end wraps originating from the US, Europe, and Canada,” she emphasised, and she expressed hope that the site will be ready by the end of this month.
“I can’t say for certain [if I] will do it full-time. It really depends on how well it goes,” she told me with a smile.
Check out KayKay & SaSa on Facebook here.
Featured Image Credit: Swnee Li, KayKay & SaSa