A little old lady who quilts

It is not uncommon for lawyer Lee Suet-Fern to pull an all-nighter to finish her work. But it is not always legal documents that keep her up until the wee hours of the morning.

The senior director and founder of Stamford Law Corporation can often be found hand-sewing patches into quilts that can measure as long as 2.5m.

To say that she is passionate about patchwork would be an understatement.

Visit her home in the Thomson area and quilts that she has sewn cover every centimetre of wall space. Beds are covered in these warm spreads and even the dining tables are decked out in quilted table mats.

Her clothes get the patchwork treatment too. At this interview, the brown skirt she wears has applique patches on them. She had sewn them on to cover curry stains.

"Professional work will always take precedence, but this is a hobby which has become my passion. I sew through the night because I've got some momentum," explains the 56-year-old, who is married to Mr Lee Hsien Yang, 57, chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore and younger brother of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

The couple have three sons aged 29, 28 and 19.

Since picking up the hobby 18 years ago, she has made about 90 quilts.

Last month, two of her quilts were picked for the finals in the Traditional Pieced Quilts category at the International Quilt Festival Houston.

The prestigious annual event in the United States, which lasted for four days from Oct 30, is said to be the world's largest and most competitive quilt show. More than 60,000 people attended this year.

The quilts she submitted were selected in May by a jury to compete against 20 other finalists from around the world, from countries such as Australia, Brazil and Canada. This is the first time she is taking part in a quilt competition.

Her two entries are King's Parade, which features blocks made of 48 one-inch honeycomb hexagons arranged differently, and Magic Carpet, which has a kaleidoscope of stars and hexagons.

Although she did not win in Houston, the King's Parade quilt has made it through the selection rounds for the Tokyo International Great Quilt Festival next year. The event, which is considered the biggest quilting festival in Asia, will take place at the Tokyo Dome in January.

The two quilts which were submitted for the Houston festival took her almost three years to complete. She even took small parts of the quilts along with her on business trips so she could continue sewing in her spare time.

She says her friends in the quilting community were stoked about her nomination as it is the "first time that a Singaporean quilt has made it to the finals" there.

"To be chosen is already a dream come true. I couldn't imagine more," adds Mrs Lee, who went to Houston for the festival.

Her interest in knitting started while she was studying at the University of Cambridge in the 1970s.

Her then boyfriend, now husband, who was studying engineering science at the same university, used to wear only jumpers knitted by his mother, the late Madam Kwa Geok Choo, wife of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

"That was what really sparked it off. He didn't have any store-bought jumpers. Not to be outdone, I wanted him to wear jumpers I had knitted too." With help from a guidebook, she taught herself to knit and went on to sewing.

She also bonded with her mother- in-law, who was also a lawyer, over knitting. When Mrs Lee had her first child, Madam Kwa would share with her patterns on baby booties.

Recalling those times fondly, Mrs Lee says: "We madly knitted. I think my son had the largest collection of baby booties at that time. I still have some of those booties today, carefully stored away."

From knitting, she discovered other types of sewing skills, such as embroidery.

By the early 1990s, she was collecting fabrics as she was "entranced by their patterns and textures", though she did not know what she wanted to do with them yet.

While in Auckland, New Zealand, for an Inter-Pacific Bar Association's conference in 1997, she visited a quilt exhibition and fell in love with the elaborate designs.

"The penny really dropped for me at that exhibition. Everything was so beautiful and lovely. I found myself taking my lawyer's pad out and sketching some of the beautiful quilts at the exhibition. And of course, I wanted to make one of my own."

She has not looked back since. She has a workspace set up in her study with two sewing machines - a Swiss Bernina 820 machine and a Japanese Babylock Sashiko - and separate tables for cutting fabric and ironing.

Cupboards are stacked with fabrics such as Liberty Tana Lawns from London, batik and even those with quirky prints such as Hello Kitty.

Some quilts can take months or years to complete, as they have to be designed and pieced together from scratch.

"Inspiration comes from everywhere, as much of the quilting is in the geometry. Floor and wall tiles, Islamic patterns, pavement stones and, of course, naturally occurring shapes are gorgeous," says Mrs Lee, who has at least three to four projects going on at the same time.

She rarely gives away her quilts, but if she does, she gives them to fellow quilters.

"I take an incredible amount of time and much love and care to make a quilt. If I give it away, I want to be sure it will be loved and in a good home."

She belongs to a quilting group of about six other women, who gather at her house once a month to sew. All but one are homemakers and their ages range from the 30s to the 60s.

"The nice thing about sewing is that it's social and not a solitary pastime. You can watch television or listen to music at the same time. Even when the family wants to talk, I take my quilting out and work," says Mrs Lee.

"There's a satisfaction in making something with your own hands. When you make a quilt, it's something which is unique... it's yours and yours alone. Every artist's palette is different."

But despite her love for quilting, she says she rarely speaks about it to others. "I generally do not tell anyone that I quilt. The person who finds out is naturally surprised.

"Perhaps quilting is perceived as a 'little old lady' hobby, so those who find out I quilt realise that I'm a little old lady after all."

This article was first published on November 8, 2014.
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