Though there are countless YouTube videos online, a group of women in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, are choosing to learn to tie macrame knots the old-fashioned way.
They are gathering at their macrame instructor, Elizabeth Bain’s home, and immersed in tying knots all day, and sometimes into the night.
Macrame, the 1970s fringed fad that disappeared with disco, is groovy again … not only with this group of local enthusiasts, but also worldwide.
On Instagram, there are 1.4mil #macrame posts, and the comeback is linked to boho-loving millennials, a growing indoor plants trend and booming crafting passions.
This is how you pronounce macrame
The origin of macrame is generally attributed to Arabic weavers during the 13th century, who made decorative knots to finish the loose ends of hand-woven textiles.
Decorative knot-tying can also be traced back to third-century China on ceremonial textiles as well as wall hangings.
Bain certainly didn’t know macrame was cool again when she thought of teaching the craft.
The businesswoman is the administrator of a Facebook gardening group and usually organises activities for their meet-ups, and had to quickly come up with a replacement when a speaker cancelled on them at the last minute.
“In the 1970s, I learnt to make macrame at the wives’s club in the Air Force base where my husband was posted. I used to do lots of macrame, and I’d make them for sale.
“So, when I had to come up with a replacement activity for my gardening group, I decided to teach macrame,” says Bain who did her first workshop in May with a handful of her gardening group friends. She hadn’t tied knots since she put away her ropes decades ago, but Bain had not forgotten.
Knowing the ropes
As a craft, macrame is one of the most accessible because it’s technically easy to master basic knots such as flat knots, half-hitch knots and lark’s knot.
Macrame also does not require expensive tools; cotton rope and scissors are the basic requirement.
You might also need some rings or a wooden/metal rod, depending on what you are making.
Bain’s husband, Robert, helped her source for metal rings for the macrame projects.
But Bain’s students’ projects are not 30-minute tutorials of simple plant hangers most commonly associated with macrame.
She set the bar high from the beginning, and her students usually start off with pretty intricate multi-tiered projects. But by the time students complete their projects, they’d have learnt several knots and the mechanics of constructing a macrame structure.
Instead of being daunted, Bain’s students seem to have thrived on the challenge, guided by her patient instructions and attention to detail, precision and aesthetics.
“Macrame is actually not difficult; it’s just tying some basic knots which everyone can do,” says Bain who has been amazed by the popularity of the macrame classes and her students’ enthusiasm. She now even has students from Penang, Sabah and Singapore joining her sessions.
Twice a week, a group of women (and the occassional man) would be in her dining room – measuring and cutting ropes but mostly tying and tightening knots on projects hung from the rafters, and sometimes unpicking their mistakes.
“Macrame is so addictive. I can tie knots for hours, sometimes late into the night. The projects look elaborate, but I wasn’t put off at all. I just did them step by step.
“It’s worth all the backbreaking hours of blistered fingers, sore palms and aching arms when I see my finished product,” says Viji Murugiah who has completed two multi-tiered plant hangers with trays that she will present to her daughters. Viji’s showstopper pieces will take pride of place in their homes.
The specialist coach with the Education Ministry declares that she is currently “on a break” and hence she is only working on a simple curtain for her kitchen window which would have three pot holders for her herbs. After she has completed that, Viji will start on another multi-tiered macrame project for her third daughter, and there is a waiting list for her macrame gifts.
But it’s not only the craft that draws Viji to Bain’s macrame sessions; she also enjoys gathering with the friends she has made.
Even though some are meeting for the first time, the ice is quickly broken by their shared interest and goal.
Most macrame makers spend hours at Bain’s home, and they usually bring food to share, in the best spirit of Malaysian hospitality.
The sessions are always convivial as the women – of different ages and backgrounds – congregate around the dining table to chat, feast and share.
Apart from doing macrame, they share their knowledge and skills.
Bain learnt bread baking from a student from Penang, Cathrine Lim, and Vigi taught them how to make spaghetti with brown butter and sage sauce. Another student, Allana Yap, shared her recipe for coffee infused with pandan and butterfly ginger flower.
“I’d never tied a knot before but I decided to give macrame a try. I also like meeting new people outside my circle of friends. We chat as we tie our knots; we have good fun and I enjoy the company and good food,” says Siti Jariah Ibrahim who also appreciates the high standards that Bain set for her students, “aiming for perfection, even for something that’s a hobby.”
Unlike some of the older participants who can remember macrame from the 1970s, 23-year-old psychology undergraduate Kyra Lee is a total novice.
As she was on her semester break, she decided to join the class with her mother Sheryn Chan and grandmother Doris Koh.
She trawls the Internet for designs and works on them with Bain, and gifts them to her friends.
“My friends like my macrame gifts because they are handmade and unique,” says Lee.
Bain has generously shared her knowledge and skills by organising classes, be it in gardening or making sugar paste art. But she did not expect macrame to generate so much interest … “I found out that macrame can be quite addictive.”
Being engrossed in the meditative repetition of tying each knot right and finishing each row can be therapeutic, and the reward is a beautiful handmade and heartfelt craft item.
“It has now evolved to seven-hour sessions, twice a week, because of the students’ continued interest. That’s the official timing but sometimes the sessions continue for as long as 12 hours. It’s amazing how the excitement of completing a piece can give my students so much stamina.
“I also do impromptu workshops for students who come from out of town, so sometimes my macrame workshops take four to five days of my week,” says Bain who has built a close community of macrame makers in the past few months.
She likes how her students have become friends as they spend hours tying knots, and spurring each other to take on more projects and try new designs.
Bain’s students’ interactions continue after their workshops, through a Whatsapp group where they keep in touch with each other’s progress, and receive the latest workshop schedules.
On the Liz Bain Macrame Workshop Facebook page, Bain and group members post photos of their sessions. For now, it’s a closed group but you can send Bain a request to be included.
She also does a graduation post for each student, with photos she has taken of them at different stages of their projects.
Many students find completing their macrame projects gratifying, and are inspired to improve their skills.
One of Bain’s students, Suzie Ong, chose a modern macrame curtain design – with a freestyle leaf motif made of half-hitch knots – as her second project.
It’s a such a pretty design that several students have also started on their modern macrame curtain, and Ong has been offering pointers to them. There is a lot of room for creativity from learning a few basic knots, and Bain’s macrame enthusiasts are happily knotting away.
In celebration of Merdeka, Bain and her students will be auctioning off their macrame works to raise funds for Tabung Harapan. Visit the Liz Bain Macrame Auction page on Facebook for details on how you can bid for their beautiful macrame pieces.