My Mother’s Sewing Machine & The Meaning of “Mahjong Paper”

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This is going to be a post about Mahjong Paper…

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…but where the story actually begins is last weekend, when my mother handed down her old sewing machine to me!

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This was the sewing machine that my mother had used to sew everything well before I was born, and on which she had honed her amazing sewing skills to this point where she pretty much can make anything to an extremely precise, professional level. She also makes new strange mashups of things all the time. (Once, I came back home and found that she had sewn my old baybeats shirt into a crescent shaped pillow? And she made me a proper quilt from all the School CCA t-shirts I had worn in the past!) Factory-made clothing and sewn goods have got nothing on my mom’s skillz! My Mom’s expectations of proper standards of workmanship is so critical and precise that clothing from most ‘fast fashion’ shops feel like cheap bits of cloth carelessly tacked together in comparison to her workmanship.

My father said it cost a small fortune back in the day. This was years before I was even born, and my parents were very much younger, barely out of school and my father had only just begun working at that point in time so purchasing such an advanced machine at the time took years of instalment payments. But of course it proved to be a great investment towards my mother’s incredible skills in sewing. If you know me in real life you will know that just about all the clothing that you see me wearing on an everyday basis was actually sewn by my mother. And all of it looks better and works better than store-bought fast fashion! She puts in huge pockets and even replicates the cuttings which I love the best.

A few of the dresses she made for me

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Most people are familiar with other brand names but according to the mother she had done a lot of research on the machines at the time and determined this to be the machine she really wanted. Looking it up it seems that Riccar was at one time the largest sewing machine brand in Japan and peaked in the 70s around the world, but went bankrupt in 1994 so the name is not heard so often today. Now this machine from the 70s is a VINTAGE machine.

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The entire body and all the parts are made of solid metal and it looks like a machine that could last for a lifetime if carefully maintained and oiled every year – unlike the plastic feel of many cheap sewing machines today.

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I did a bit of sewing practice with my mother’s newer machine (she got a newer one with more button hole stitch functions and fancy stitches) and back at home with the Riccar I also did some sewing practice – but I soon realised I was very far off the mark and I’d need to put in a lot more practice to sew something of professional quality…

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But the thing I really wanted to write about is actually this. The mahjong paper.

It has occured to me that readers from outside of Singapore may have never heard this term “mahjong paper” which I had taken for granted was used universally to refer to a large white sheet of paper for art and craft purposes, or for wrapping books to protect their covers when you go to school.

My mother bought a lot of this white paper in rolls so she could cut out patterns for the dresses and clothing she would sew.

I asked my mother if she could give me a few sheets from her extensive collection of papers – but at the same time I wanted to know what size it was.

The Ding Mother: “Its the size of the mahjong table.”

DID YOU KNOW THAT MAHJONG PAPER IS THE SIZE OF A MAHJONG TABLE?

The Ding Mother: “The aunty who sold me this must have thought I’m a real big gambler buying them in rolls of 50. Little does she know I am just making clothing…”

A Totally Unrepresentative Poll of the First 10 People I Could Randomly Message on Whatsapp immediately showed that 9/10 Singaporeans I asked did not know that mahjong paper is produced, marketed, and sold named as such because of the superior tile sliding properties that the ‘mahjong paper’ affords the mahjong tiles!

I think I’ve carelessly referred to any large white sheet of paper as “mahjong paper” my entire life without knowing why “mahjong” was tacked onto the front of the word “paper” and I suspect this probably applies for many Singaporeans – that the term “mahjong paper” has come to mean “generic white paper” without any knowledge of its connection to mahjong. The ‘mahjong paper’ is bandied around in schools as it is cheaply used in so many art and craft purposes – and weirdly enough it is used without explaining the origin of its name.

If you google for “Mahjong Paper”, you will see that all of the hits are from Singapore or Malaysian websites.
Google Trends states that a majority of searches for the phrase “Mahjong Paper” are from Singapore. (Quite a few of them must be from me)

The phrase “mahjong paper” does not appear in Google ngram searches, meaning that the term “mahjong paper” is not used in any books in the Google Books corpus.

And for all the all important question: What size is mahjong paper?

– Mahjong tables are always square, and around 81/82/86cm (playing surface).
– Most of the mahjong paper is around that size: 86cm x 86cm.

Unusual Materials – Felted Human Hair Coaster

I’m going to bet that this is the point in the blog that people are going to go “UGH! GROSS! WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?” But in the spirit of inquiry, I decided to investigate whether human hair will felt up into a mat or coaster.

It all began as a hairball that has been sitting in a tupperware in our room. This cachet of hair had been retained after I gave George a haircut recently, as a kind of joke; it was like a friendly “pet hairball”. But over time, I thought that hair might be an interesting material. Eventually, it seemed natural that one should eventually turn to the question of whether this hair material could be transformed into any other form or shape…

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Following some instructions from nofolete’s felting human hair tutorial, I attempted to use some liquid soap and a rough wooden table surface to felt up the hairball. How you do this is that you just rub the hair into flat layers with a little soap and water until it starts to almost “seize up” into flat clumps. Make a few sheets of matted clumps and then rub these sheets together to form a thicker layer…

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I do find that the water in London is hard enough to be such that if I washed my hair with straight up soap or shampoo, it would literally clump up and felt up if without the intervention of conditioner to stop it from doing so. In a sense, this is similar to the process of making dreadlocks.

You simply rub it in very well and then iron the water out, and repeat the process until it seems like a solid mat.

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So to answer the burning question:
Q: CAN HUMAN HAIR BE FELTED?
A: YES???

But with the hair being quite short, this piece is prone to shedding. So… um… I don’t think I’m going to use this for any sewing projects soon. Perhaps I will need to mix this with other fibres of animal origin to get it to felt up convincingly well.

And in other less scintillating news, I also crocheted a normal coaster (from normal acrylic wool):

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Making a coaster like this just takes a few minutes and it also won’t constantly shed human hair, and nor will it make your friends cry and make them all grossed out when they have to rest their mugs on it.

Craft and Material (Victoria & Albert Museum)

Recently I have been making visits to the Victoria & Albert Museum since its next to my school. One thing that actually kept me from going there in the past was my not knowing what was the origins of the museum; I needed to know what processes had conspired to bring all these collections together, and without that I found it hard to make sense of it (who was curating it? who owned all this? what was all this?). However it appears that RCA’s history is connected with the V&A so a lot of this was eventually answered for me in the various orientation talks we had – beginning with the Great Exhibition of 1851 (thus explaining why one of the streets nearby is also named Exhibition Road) where they held the first “world exposition” to show of the products of the day’s top industrial designers. The origins of the school also begins as a Government School of Design, and a significant number of objects in the V&A’s collection were also part of what students from this Government School of Design would copy as part of their studies. Reminds me of the amazing sculptures, frescos and other antiquities I saw at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, which I was told students would copy as part of their studies of classical art…

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Some of these were used as references…


One section that really attracted me was the ceramics section. It was staggering. It was ridiculously huge. There was so much that I felt it was almost obscenely extravagant to hoard so much plateware. Seemingly endless corridors of glass and ceramics. Whole and perfect collections. A veritable pottery paradise! Isn’t the clay pot always used as that prime example of an object in a museum – when one thinks of the original intended utility of that pot in opposition to its newfound purpose as an artistic object, to be adored for its aesthetics only but never to be eaten or drunk from? Forever removed from its original purpose as a receptacle for food or water?

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Ceramics of Britain

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So many plates and gravy boats you gotta stack em…

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Interesting blue and white from Iran

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Another interesting thing I found out later was that some of this extravagant collection was in part due to slight changes in their collection policy – the V&A began by focusing only on what they deemed to be “elite productions”, but later, on recognising that their collections were a bit unbalanced due to their collection policy, they began shifting their focus and expanding their collection of more everyday objects, or everyday ceramics. Hence the acquisition of a huge range of ceramics including a lot of which we would recognise as very usable in other circumstances…

Personally speaking, I have always drawn a very clear line between “art” and “craft”. For me they exist in separate realms, with the crafts being seen as somewhat “lower” (no offense intended to those who view themselves as working in the crafts). The distinction between the two is that the arts are more about the content before form, and crafts are about the form before content. And since I have never worked with my hands to produce work (such as in that conventional sense that one might if one were doing woodwork or metalwork or printmaking), my main interest or role in producing work has always been about the content rather than the form or medium. Since in the end even the crafts require some degree of autonomous work to complement the material experience, I viewed that as a kind of dilution of intent. So it has been useful for me to read through parts of Glenn Adamson’s “Thinking Through Craft“, which also explores these ideas about the distinction between art and craft.

“Understandably, partisans of the crafts are unlikely to see craft’s second-class status within art theory as something to accept at face value, but this resistance has also led to a lack of serious thought about craft’s inferiority relative to art. While art is a matter of nomination within an infinite field — that is, art is anything that is called art — craft involves self-imposed limits.”

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In another part of the museum, I found something else to convince me of the value of the craft object from a different perspective:

Craft objects stand for skill, quality and individuality. They may also, rightly or wrongly, be associated with job satisfaction and an idyllic lifestyle. Hand-making in small, non-industrial workshops allows the designer or maker to retain greater control over the production process.

Handmade objects often glory in their material and the signs of their makers’ touch. They celebrate rather than conceal the story of their manufacture. As a result, they command higher prices than industrially produced goods, even though they may sell to a very small market.

(…)

Makers of experimental craft objects have emphasized the inherent qualities and significance of their materials and techniques, sometimes at the expense of the traditional function of the object. For example, the vessels by ceramicists and wood turners shown here tend to celebrate their making more than their potential for use.

The artefact thus becomes a vehicle for the exploration of form and meaning, which was previously the preserve of the fine arts, and becomes less about function, the conventional concern of design. The resulting objects, produced as one-offs and in limited editions, are sold through similar networks as those used to sell fine art.

This is similar to what I do understand from the first chapter of Hertzian Tales – that it is also an exhortation for designers to approach materials more adventurously and creativity, such as in the way engineers approach it. However it is still strange how the worlds of art and craft both seem to run at the same time, parallel to each other, but without ever meeting. How different are these networks through which these highly prized elite crafts circulate – as opposed to the networks that fine art circulates within? And what if we have to discuss it in relation to how design is perceived? Isn’t this a really old debate to be having? Or am I just a stick in the mud about these concepts?

(But in any case I do see my next two years as time and space to explore new materials… actual real world materials!)