A young Malaysian couple attracts a crowd of art collectors with their tufted carpets
Forget standard rugs and carpets. How about a rug for the wall if you need to brighten up your home?
Rugmebuddy co-founders Rusman Abdul Rasid and Shazwina Manmohan want you to consider the many ways a tufted rug can add artful character and color to your home. Look down and around. Hang it on the wall.
When it comes to hand tufted rugs, the creative possibilities are endless.
They also hope to one day create experimental installations of tufted rugs and collaborate with more visual artists, tattoo artists and textile designers.
In person, the couple’s infectious energy is like a breath of fresh air for the art scene, which has never ceased to pay attention to their tufted rug designs.
The husband and wife team now sells its tufted rugs through social media and also at an independent art retail space in Kuala Lumpur.
A year ago, the duo took the plunge and set up a carpet tufting studio in Ara Damansara, Petaling Jaya.
Lockdown disruptions haven’t stopped them from realizing their dream of creating a space to indulge their fascination with yarn.
They were also inspired by female European artists who experimented with tufted rugs, adding textures, layers and a bit of chaos to what would otherwise be routine textile work.
“Yes, we do get custom rug orders, but I would like us to do something beyond what we normally see and are used to.
“There’s something exciting about collaborating with our local artists, sharing knowledge and creating something different with tufted rugs,” says Shazwina, 27, adding that it’s a way to elevate a decorative object to something more artistic.
The University of Gloucestershire Fine Arts graduate in Britain admits Rugmebuddy (founded January 2021) is a labor of love that has faced many challenges due to the pandemic.
But resilience and ingenuity have played a huge role in keeping this small business going.
Like most people around the world, the couple, who wed in December 2020, were housebound due to movement control orders. It was in the midst of the lockdown that Rusman, originally from Sandakan, Sabah, came across a viral trend called “tufting” on social media platform TikTok.
In the wake of the pandemic, DIY craft activities such as knitting and crocheting have seen a resurgence in popularity. Tufting, in particular, has also seen a renaissance.
Tufting is a technique used to create soft and fluffy rugs. Its origins date back to the ancient Persian and Oriental worlds, where artisans made hand-tufted rugs, using punch needles. Nowadays, people use a tufting gun, a special device that shoots a needle into fabric (known as monk’s cloth) up to 45 times per second.
“I first saw posts on Instagram about this tufting craze on TikTok. When I checked out, I was immediately drawn to the idea of making my own hand rugs.
“You see, when I was a kid in Sabah, it was only on festive celebrations and special occasions that your parents would bring out the fancy rugs and carpets. And I always liked that.
“So when I watched these tufting videos on social media, it brought back childhood memories and made me wonder if I could make my own rug. In Malaysia, not many people make custom-made rugs,” says Rusman, a graduate in multimedia from Universiti Selangor.
Soon the friendly 31-year-old, who dabbled in photography, skateboarding and even building, was scouring the internet for more on tufting.
The research was crucial, says Rusman, who saw his efforts lead to a good start for this new venture.
A thread to remember
At first, he bought a clipping machine or tufting gun, monk’s cloths and a collection of yarn to get hands-on tufting experience, while Shazwina crunched the numbers and calculated the finances of a tufting business. .
But she didn’t just play the humble accountant. Shazwina put her artistic training to good use and provided her husband with unique designs for his tufting.
The couple began posting tufting videos on social media and slowly gained traction online with people expressing interest in owning a custom tufted rug.
“We received a lot of orders. At first, Rugmebuddy was purely an online thing. Rusman’s plan was to open a tufting business, but he just wanted to try it out first.
“We didn’t really want to look at the costs right now. He started posting videos of him tufting and because he has a lot of friends from the art industry, they also started sharing his posts. The word got out and we got so many requests (on mats),” Shazwina shares.
What started as a side hustle in their home studio soon turned into a full-fledged business, with a hired designer and assistant. Today, Rugmebuddy receives between 15 and 20 orders for custom tufted rugs per month, with the cheapest starting at RM35 and the most elaborate rugs going over RM1,000.
According to the couple, the tufting process is quite simple. It all starts with the designer, who must ensure that the sketch or project is suitable for tufting. A simple design, if applied correctly, is important.
Once the design is finalized, it will be projected onto the monk’s cloth and traced.
Then the tufting begins using the cut pile machine, and when finished it is cut from the monk’s cloth. The mat is then reversed and the edges of the monk’s cloth are cut and secured with latex adhesive (a process called backing). Finally, it is sheared, shaved and wrapped.
Rusman says a 40cm tufted rug can take up to 10 hours, depending on the design. One of Rugmebuddy’s largest pieces (210cm x 160cm) took almost 10 days to complete.
Spread the tuft love
Besides fulfilling rug orders, the couple took on the responsibility of educating the public about this old-world craft, which has now attracted a young audience. Most weekends they hold three-hour workshops at the Rugmebuddy studio.
“Workshops are the best time for us to educate the public. People see our Instagram posts, they react really well and say they want to see more. And it’s in the workshops that they can actually see and feel the rugs.
“Through these workshops, we can really communicate and engage with people. It’s not as simple as getting a tufting gun and starting shooting. We teach people about the different types of yarn, how to handle the tufting gun, and how to care for the end product. It’s very meticulous work that requires a lot of patience,” says Shazwina.
Rusman fondly shares a moment when a man traveled all the way from Johor to Rugmebuddy’s studio for a tufting workshop.
“The only problem was that he hadn’t booked for the workshop. But he insisted on joining the workshop because that day was his only day off and he came all the way from Johor to join the workshop. It was really inspiring and it was also nice to know that our name and profession reached Johor,” Rusman recalls.
Going forward, he adds, the plan is to move these tufting workshops out of the studio and into public schools to educate the younger generation about tufting and teach them the skill.
The idea is not to let tufting be just a pandemic fad but a craft that continues to grow in Malaysia.
Rugmebuddy is also collaborating with local fashion brand Zuusaha, known for their fun and quirky designs, to create a padded jacket. They also collaborated with Sabahan tattoo artist Alvin Tilok who designed a dragon, tiger, cat and botanical themed tufted rug based on tattoo designs from Borneo. These rugs are on display at Papu, a pop-up art store at Publika in Kuala Lumpur.
“We want to make Rugmebuddy as local as possible. For now, we source our yarn overseas, but we want to source our (raw) material from Malaysia to help the local economy grow. We also want local designs from each state to be done by artists and tattoo artists,” says Shazwina.
For those considering venturing into tufting, which Shazwina says is growing in Malaysia, the most important step is to get proper advice and do your research. You need to know everything about tufting. Trying it out for yourself is also a crucial step, she notes.
“As a business it can be a bit difficult and very competitive. We have a few tufted carpet companies in Malaysia, but the designs are very typical. So you have to stand out, you have to have different designs. But you can’t jump straight to that either. At Rugmebuddy, we were able to do this because we spent a year building our name.
“For us, standards and quality are paramount. If you are already spending money on it, why not do your best. This should be your goal. And contact other tufting companies and connect with them. Building a community, I think, is important to eventually develop the tufting craft in Malaysia,” concludes Shazwina.