Empowering Through Craft with Koh Soek Ying of Mustard Tree

Crafting is a huge part of what we do at Elizabeth Little. It takes immense focus, skill, and patience to successfully complete a project, but the achievement you feel after can be so empowering.

Today, we’re introducing you to one of our beloved partners, Mustard Tree, a social enterprise we partner with to make our scrunchies and mask lanyards. Mustard Tree works with skilled and differently abled craftspeople to provide them with a meaningful, dignified living.

Inspired by her journey with her son, Ryan, Mustard Tree Founders, Soek Ying and her husband, set out to make the organisation an inclusive space where differently abled individuals could showcase their talent and access opportunities to grow.

In anticipation of our latest collection of bunny scrunchies, we asked Soek Ying to share more about Mustard Tree and the makers who work so hard behind the scenes.

Two of the artisans, Ryan and M., at Mustard Tree hard at work on their crafting projects. Images c/o Mustard Tree.

Soek Ying, can you tell us a little more about Mustard Tree and how it began?

Mustard Tree was inspired by the journey of our son, Ryan. He has autism, and needs to be supervised, especially in public spaces. However, we believe that although Ryan is differently abled, he still has a long way to grow. We made it our mission to empower him and create a work environment that will bring out the best in him.

From the breakthroughs we had working with Ryan, we were confident that we could also avail such training to other differently abled young adults. We set up Mustard Tree to offer specially curated craft and training classes to those with different learning needs, help them to discover their interests, and empower them to lead a life of dignity. We want to create more opportunities for our makers to showcase their different abilities, so they can lead a life of independence.

You taught Ryan leather crafting and sewing. What made you decide to teach him these skills?

Teaching Ryan to craft was actually incidental. To be honest, I was anxious and lost during his final year in the SPED school as he was unable to express what he liked or disliked, and decided to let him explore every available opportunity. It was an enlightening moment for us when his teacher highlighted his potential in sewing and craft.

Looking back, I think he already had this innate ability to sew. He was always re-designing the toys of his siblings whenever he could get his hands on them. Stuffing would be removed, a tail of the dog would be sewn onto another toy, Barbie’s hair would be lopped off, and so on!

I am thankful to have a group of friends who are really good at sewing and crafting. They gamely stepped forward and offered to help me teach Ryan. I ended up learning these skills with him.

Ryan working on a patchwork bucket hat at home, with a sewing machine that Soek Ying bought to encourage his passion for crafting. Image c/o Mustard Tree.

How has your experience with Ryan shaped the craft education and training process at Mustard Tree?

Many of these young adults may not be aware of where their interests lie or whether they have the gift for certain crafts, much like Ryan. So, we offer a variety of crafts in hopes of broadening their horizons and helping them to identify their interests! Our programs are also designed to take into account the learning speed and cognitive abilities of the students. Work tools are often modified to help improve their learning experience as well. We focus on the different abilities of the maker and build up their confidence in what they do.

We love working together with Mustard Tree to create our scrunchies and mask lanyards. Could you share a little more about these projects?

We share the same vision as Elizabeth Little, and that is to empower our differently abled makers. We intentionally choose small projects to work on with Elizabeth Little, where the maker can see the finished product more quickly and feel a sense of achievement.

When we first started working on the scrunchies, Eileen exercised a lot of flexibility in adapting the production process to minimise the stress and demand on the makers. She took the time to visit our workshop, get to know our makers, and understand their challenges. Eileen’s husband, Yew Hong also helped by providing us with detailed diagrams of the measurements and steps for the mask lanyards.

Snapshots of the scrunchie-making process. Images c/o Mustard Tree.

Are there any memorable moments or stories you can share with us about the craftspeople you work with?

We are really encouraged when students share some of the crafts they make at home using techniques we taught them!

One of our makers, Madelene, first joined us in 2018 for our weekly craft classes, before working with us full-time. She was fearful of needles and machines and also used to shy away from customers the moment they walked into our shop. Today, Madelene has grown so much! She told us she was buying a sewing machine and since then, she has been sewing small projects at home and giving these away as gifts to friends and relatives! Now, she also confidently attends to customers. We are so proud of her.

Each scrunchie is lovingly made by the various craftspeople at Mustard Tree, from the stitching to the tying of the fabrics. Image c/o Mustard Tree.

How do you think Mustard Tree empowers people with different needs in their daily lives?

Through our journey with Ryan, we realised that if given the right training and opportunities, differently abled individuals would be able to explore a variety of crafts and discover their interests and talents. We also hope that with skills they learn during our classes, these young adults can be more engaged at home. With practice and determination, some may even realise their dreams to be entrepreneurs and operate businesses from their homes. At the end of the day, it is our hope that they can be empowered to lead a life of purpose and dignity.

Discover our latest collection of bunny scrunchies with Mustard Tree and support their good work! These bunny scrunchies are the perfect small gift for your loved ones this season. The collection features 5 new Liberty Art prints, including one of our exclusive bespoke colourways, Berry Joy. Each piece is handcrafted with love and purpose by craftspeople at Mustard Tree.

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