"A lot of people know about rug tufting but not many know about punch needling,” says Azalea Azman, the founder of Hey Zales. What started as a hobby during the pandemic turned into a life-long mission to get more Malaysians familiar with the ancient technique — also known as rug hooking — that originated in Egypt and China between the third and seventh centuries, according to historians.
The 42-year-old was working as a copywriter and designer at agencies for 15 years before she became a stay-at-home mum a few months before Covid-19 hit in 2020. An arts and crafts geek, Azalea toyed with different kinds of projects involving ceramics, block printing, sewing and embroidery.
Having to juggle time for herself, her three kids and household chores, she was looking for something “easy” to do. Azalea discovered punch needling in 2018 through YouTube and Instagram and picked up the skill again during the Movement Control Order.
“I tried it out and I really liked it. The only problem then was that nobody was doing it here. So, resources and information were very scarce. I learned a lot by watching YouTube and [what I did] was mostly just trial and error.”
For the uninitiated, punch needling or rug hooking is a technique used to create rugs by punching materials to create loops using yarn and needle. Nowadays, people use this method to make cushion covers, wall hangings, table mats and other things.
She started making small pieces for her home, such as wall hangings and cushion covers, before giving them out to friends and family as housewarming gifts and birthday presents. Two of her close friends were the inspiration behind the brand name. “They always greet me with ‘Hey Zales!’ whenever we meet. Zales is short for Azalea.” Both encouraged her to push further by showcasing or even selling her creations.
“I decided to set up an Instagram account in 2020 to display my work. Months later, people began showing interest, asking if I could make wall hangings or coasters for them.”
Azalea is now taking bigger orders such as large wall hangings, rugs and table mats. “The recent project I did was actually the biggest piece I’ve ever worked on (50cm by 60cm). I told my client I’d never done a huge piece before. But if she was willing to wait three months, I’ll gladly try. She said she was.”
Another distinction that makes Hey Zales stand out is its colourful designs. “Customers like my use of colours. They like that it’s bright and bold. I love pushing boundaries when it comes to colours. The problem with yarn is that you can’t get every shade of pink, for example. So you’ve got to work with what you get. I like that challenge.”
Azalea likes stripes, squares and circles. A lot of her designs, which she draws on her iPad using a digital illustration application called Procreate, are inspired by childhood memories. “I like repetitive patterns and tend to gravitate towards circles. I used to collect marbles when I was nine years old and I remember my grandfather’s house used to have this old-school grill — it really stood out. This business is like reliving my childhood and bringing some fun from those times into my home so my kids can see them too.”
Do you need a lot of tools, materials or funds to start the business? “Not really, depending on how fast you want to go. For me, it was a hobby to begin with, and it did not require that much material. You need a frame and a monk’s cloth. You also need yarn, scissors, and needles; there are different kinds of needles for different thicknesses and types of yarn.”
While she runs the business by herself, Azalea gets help from her husband, who assists in calculating costs. “My biggest challenge is figuring out the business side of this. It started off as a hobby and in my mind, I feel like it’s still that — just me playing around with yarn and colours. I see it as a passion. So it’s really hard to have a business-oriented mindset.”
Azalea reached out to those with experience in the field for advice about costing and pricing before launching the business. “They would always tell me, whatever you do, do not underprice your products. Make sure you cover everything. It was hard at first because I didn’t know if people would be willing to pay that much for this kind of art form. Now, I have increased my prices. Luckily, people have been very supportive. They appreciate the fact that it’s handmade from start to finish.”
Hey Zales recently had its first offline presence at KLoé Hotel, Kuala Lumpur. It is hard to participate in bazaars because she does not have enough creations for display, Azalea admits. “I’m used to custom orders, so it’s not easy to prepare many pieces. But now I really want to do more pop-up stores because it’s an opportunity for me to educate people on the art of punch needling.”
This article first appeared on Nov 14, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.