Where Nikki admits that she’s not actually the most fashionable person, I feel compelled to second guess that. Nikki Chong, the crochet artist behind @Keysstringsss — a one-woman-show stringing together crochet clothing in Singapore — casually emphasises that her crochet style is different from what you might typically expect. Indeed, her catalogue of minimalistic summer staples (think bandeaus, halters and crops) looks like what I imagine would feature in an Urban Outfitters editorial. Nikki started @Keysstringss officially during circuit breaker last year. From what began as a project to pass time, she offered some pieces to her friends, who then became her first customers… And now has a 6-month waitlist if you’re interested in acquiring her creations. We caught up with Nikki on her journey as a crochet artist in Singapore, snooped on her creative process and got some honest advice on why turning your art into a business could be much harder (but potentially easier) than you think.
Also see our video with Nikki here.
1. Tell us more about @Keysstringsss! What do you do and what is its backstory?
I crochet custom tops and pieces. They’re usually very modern looking pieces, inspired by a more minimal staple style. So people get to choose from a large range of colours and pick from my current 11 designs, or they can also choose to make something completely custom! I also custom-make all my crochet clothes specific to each customer’s measurements.
@Keysstringsss started officially during circuit breaker last year. I started making more crochet tops because there was nothing to do… But I couldn’t just keep making tops, because I had nowhere to keep them. So I offered the pieces to some of my friends who supported me and everything just grew from there.
2. How did your crochet journey start?
I had this crochet bag I got from Thailand that got dirty and I couldn’t clean it properly. But my mum told me that I could probably remake the bag — because she knows a bit about crochet — and she taught me the basics. Then I went online to learn more and from there, moved on to making tops for myself. Unlike most of my other hobbies (e.g. embroidery), I really don’t get bored of crocheting. Especially during the circuit breaker, crochet was a big motivation to get up in the morning to make a new piece, or to figure out something that I couldn’t the night before.
3. But what intrigues/delights you the most about crochet? What makes it special?
Crochet can be very predictable but also very unpredictable, in a surprising way. There are a lot of basics in crochet, like basic techniques and very simple stitches, so in that sense it’s quite predictable. But depending on how you combine these basic stitches, they can make a lot of varied pieces (not just clothes too). Another thing I really like about crochet is that there is no machine that can replicate crochet stitches. Every single part, every inch of the thread / yarn has quite literally gone through my hands.
I think it’s very forgiving in the sense that you never waste materials. If you make a mistake, you can just unravel the entire thing and start again. But at that same time you can’t just cut off a bit, you have to restart [the piece]. So it’s also pretty unforgiving at the same time!
4. Why did you decide to focus on crochet clothes? Did you always have an interest in fashion?
I’m not the most fashionable person! But I chose crochet clothes (over other forms) because I crochet mostly out of necessity. Usually when I make a piece, it’s something that for example I can’t afford, or something that I want to customise— or that I want to challenge myself to recreate. I’ve dabbled in other art forms (e.g. sculptures, accessories) but actually find them quite hard. It’s the same basic building blocks, but very different techniques. When I do dabble in other types of creations, I always learn something new that I can apply to crocheting clothes.
5. Can we snoop your creative process as a crochet artist? What does a typical project look like for you?
For orders of my usual set designs (I have a catalogue of 11), it’s not too bad because I already have a formula. So I just apply the customer’s measurements to the formula to make the new pattern. But when I’m coming up with something new — usually because I see a picture of it, or when I just have an idea in my head — I’ll have to sketch it out first and queue it up on my list of things to make. Sometimes I need to source for different types of yarn and that also takes time. There’s also a lot of brainstorming: how I’m going to tackle the piece, what techniques to use, the measurements and math… Then it’s a lot of redoing and adjusting before I finally have a piece that I’m proud enough to share with my community.
6. Where do you find all that inspiration?
It can be from anywhere, really! For example, the idea for the vest top I just made (Psst: See it modelled in our look book video here.) came from a pullover sweater I saw on ASOS. I really liked the colours and how they colour blocked it, so I decided to try making it into a sweater vest. I have another piece called the Vera crop top — it’s inspired by a top that I saw someone wearing in Orchard that I really like the cut of, so I decided to recreate it in crochet.
7. We hear you have a 6-month waitlist. How do you juggle @Keysstrings vis-a-vis your other commitments?
The 6-month waitlist only indicates interest, so the orders are not necessarily confirmed (there’s no payment being made yet). In that way, it’s not too stressful for me because I’ve not made a set commitment. I usually start working on new pieces at the beginning of the month and take about 15 to 20 pieces for the month. I’m only one person and everything is handmade, so unfortunately I have to cut off [the orders] at some point. Aside from @Keysstringsss I actually work 2 part time jobs, both in the dog realm! But my bosses are really understanding and I mostly work 1 or 2 days a week. They’re very understanding and support my crochet artist business, I’m very lucky for that.
8. What has been some of your toughest moments as a crochet artist?
I think definitely dealing with expectations. Whether it’s my own expectations of myself, perceived expectations, or when people tell me they’re really looking forward to something— when they voice their expectations. Or even expectations in terms of social media, it’s a very volatile place. I can get quite caught up in the comparison sometimes.
Another more specific moment was when I was trying to plan out the workshops I held in October last year. I held 2 workshops and had trouble juggling the expectations of what I could deliver with the price point and if the participants would feel like it was worth their time and money. It’s such expectations in general!
9. And what has been the most rewarding?
Definitely the people whom I meet along the way. Whether it’s within the crochet community, like other crochet artists, who are very supportive and inspire me with their own pieces. Or friends and customers that I’ve made. Every time I receive a DM of someone wearing a piece or someone saying they really love crochet clothes from @Keysstringsss, that’s very rewarding for me. No matter what time of day it is, I always get very excited! Also when customers come back repeatedly despite the long wait, when they really see the value in my work. That’s very rewarding and it keeps me going.
10. We’re curious: if time and money were not an issue, what would be your dream project?
I thought this question was so hard! I don’t exactly have a physical project that I want to work on but haven’t done so because of time or money… So the first thing I thought of — if it’s possible — I would like to teach more. Like I mentioned, holding the workshops [last year] I found it very hard to balance the time, money and expectations of my participants. If time and money was not an issue, I would like to spend more time just teaching others. Even for free! Because I really like teaching, but up till now I haven’t figured out how to balance everything yet.
11. Your best advice for anyone looking to turn their passion/art into a small business?
People have asked me this question before and I don’t really know how to answer. Because honestly, I found myself in a very lucky position when I had time to crochet more because of circuit breaker, and it so happened that crochet was trending at that time. I think it was just right place right time and I don’t think I could replicate this success.
But I will say you should have a genuine passion for the art form. I guess most makers dream of doing their art full time. Not that that’s impossible, but sometimes it takes luck for people to notice you— the market is very saturated. So starting your own business for the sake of having a business can’t be your only goal. You’ve got to be able to stick it out for the long run, because you don’t really know when things will pick up. Like, “okay, I just really want to share. If this becomes a business, that’s really good. But if not, I’m just going to keep doing what I do.” In the meantime brainstorm, research your market, learn the marketing side of social media, think about how you can better market yourself… All these will help you while you’re waiting for the right time to strike!
12. What’s next for @Keysstrings?
I definitely hope that this can be a full time career. I really like where I’m at in my life right now, the balance between working part time with dogs and with @Keysstringsss. But I’m still very cautious about placing all my hopes and dreams on this becoming a proper full time job. Eventually, I’m sure the crochet trend will die down and I don’t know what will happen then. If I want to continue @Keysstringsss as a full time crochet artist, I definitely have to think about expanding it in different ways!
When Nikki is not spending most of her time turning yarn into #fashiongoals as a crochet artist at @Keysstringsss, she also works part-time at a doggy daycare. Stay up to date with @Keysstringsss on Instagram and watch our video with Nikki here!