Thread Talk With Lorraine Lee, founder of Talee Studio

Tie a knot, make the moment last.

Thread Talk is a series venturing into a designer’s inner workings and thoughts. Today, we have Lorraine Lee, the founder of TALEE, a Sabah-based hand-crafted jewellery studio that weaves stories together through knot-tying.

Knot-tying is a set of survival skills and also a meditative activity to calm your ruminative mind, but for Lorraine Lee, the founder of TALEE, it’s an art that best depicts her life—her upbringing, her family and eventually, her career.

Based in Sabah, TALEE is an accessory-making studio that focuses on making hand-crafted knot-tying jewellery, something Lee has been familiar with growing up making ocean trips and nautical knots with her father who is also a boat enthusiast. “Since my father’s incident (read on to find out more), I find myself reflecting deeply on the small peripheral moments around me, both past and present,” Lee shares, confessing that founding a jewellery studio was never a career path she envisioned herself to be in as an architecture graduate. The intertwined knots she crafted, carried the stories and moments she wanted to capture, enliven and ultimately, call it eternal.

Ahead, Lee unfolded her journey of weaving stories—of her or others—into knots that withstand the test of time.  

How did the name Talee come about?

It was an “ah-ha” moment when I realized the name felt right. TA- comes from tali, rope in Bahasa and -LEE is my family surname. These two elements reflect my work and what TALEE represents, from how it started to where it’s heading, tying moments that matter and later wearing the story as an accessory.

Of all jewellery designs, why knot-tying specifically?

In 2010, my father was diagnosed with a rare heart condition, the Brugada syndrome, which led to short-term memory loss at the age of 51. We tried many ways to aid his recovery and discovered that nautical knot-tying helped jog his memory. My father was a proud Boy Scout, waterskier, and boat enthusiast, and my childhood was filled with ocean trips where he taught my sister and me to tie nautical knots.

Even after he lost his memory, knot-tying remained an activity we could share, allowing us to reconnect with the person he used to be. During these sessions, we accumulated many leftover rope pieces from knots my father couldn’t complete. I saved these pieces, intending to turn them into art or wearable items to remind me of our moments together. This led to my interest in recreating those “mistake knots,” reconstructing and beautifying them into my first TALEE knot. My works are typically released not by season but by chapters of stories.

Talee is known for being sustainable. Apart from being handcrafted, what other efforts were taken? What are the boon and bane of managing a sustainable brand in this day and age?

Beyond being handcrafted, all materials used are also sustainably sourced. The materials used include recycled organic cotton, Egyptian cotton and Pima Cotton, all made in Italy, the United States or Peru. Because our pieces are made from fiber-based materials, they are not only washable but also easily repurposable for new functions. In other words, all the earrings can be deconstructed and transformed into a keychain or another new coloured pair.

Our made-to-order approach also minimizes material waste, as materials are precisely planned and utilized according to specific needs. Additionally, we extend our commitment to sustainability to our packaging methods—packaged in our signature TALEE cloth wrap, which doubles as a versatile accessory for customers to use as a handkerchief, cloth for wrapping gifts, or for various household purposes.

While our knotwork concept sets us apart in the jewellery market, navigating this niche landscape comes with both advantages and challenges. Maintaining our distinct position requires meticulous attention to detail throughout the entire production process, from materials testing and sourcing to prototyping and production. Furthermore, effectively conveying the uniqueness of our products to our audience demands comprehensive product knowledge and clear communication of the values TALEE embodies.

“Designed and handcrafted in Borneo”—how would you say that your upbringing as a Sabahan has influenced your design or how you manage your businesses?

Since my knot works aren’t influenced by traditional Sabahan motifs, they draw inspiration from my personal experiences growing up by the ocean. This upbringing fostered my deep appreciation for Sabah’s natural landscapes. Many of my childhood moments were spent outdoors—by the sea, on land, or in the mountains. This connection to nature is reflected in the names of the knots, often named after our natural habitat.

Moreover, Sabah is a developing region with communities that need support, especially in rural areas. As a Sabahan and a quarter Dusun, there’s always an urge in my heart to give back to my community, regardless of what the impact is and I carried that same passion into my business. This commitment has been integral to TALEE’s practice and hoping to be able to continue to do more as long or as far as TALEE goes.

Back in 2018, we worked with Sabah Women Entrepreneur & Professionals Association (SWEPA), an NGO that empowers female entrepreneurs to retain active roles in their economic development. This non-profit works with individuals in impoverished communities to teach them hand skills like handicraft making, agriculture, sewing and bee harvesting. We partnered with SWEPA on their ENRICHE program to provide opportunities for women in the villages to develop confidence in their sewing skills. One of the lessons that we have taught them in this project was basic sewing techniques to produce our TALEE care pouches that come with each earring purchase.

Talee collaborated with other businesses and designers, like Byrenu, Weihao Yong, Brian Khoo and more businesses based or founded by Sabahan. Is that intentional?

To be honest, it was all unplanned! Since my studio is based in Sabah, I naturally gravitate towards collaborating with local artisans. This proximity allows for easier troubleshooting of designs and physical prototyping with the local artisans as well. Surprisingly, TALEE led me to collaborate with Sabahan designers based in KL, and it was only later that we discovered we were from the same hometown. They say there’s an indescribable bond when you find someone from your hometown—it just feels like home.

If you were to choose one design, which would be your personal favourite and why?

This is hard. If I had to pick one design to wear from morning to night, it would be the Ania loop. This design is versatile and can seamlessly transition from a casual brunch date to a black-tie event. I crafted an Ania Loop for my wedding reception, and it was the perfect accessory for the occasion. Its elegant simplicity and adaptability make it a timeless choice that complements any outfit or occasion.

Can you walk us through the process of making—from coming up with ideas to putting it out on the platforms? How long does launching a new series normally take?

Over the years, we’ve refined our production processes to ensure timely delivery of our products to customers. Crafting each pair of knot earrings from scratch typically takes 5-7 days. However, the overall time frame from receiving raw materials to beginning production extends to one to two months as the fibre materials require time to acclimate to our humid weather. A significant portion of our production involves intricate twinning techniques, which are influenced by the behaviour of fibres in our climate, hence why the initial stage takes longer.

The design process for TALEE knot works is slightly unconventional. Knots are discovered during the making process rather than through initial sketches or designs. This hands-on approach also allows organic exploration and prototyping as each knot takes shape.

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A post shared by TALEE | Knot Design (@talee_studio)

Colour selection is a meticulous phase that requires significant time and attention. Because with our knot works, colours play a primary role in expressing the form and story of each knot, so we conduct extensive testing and trials on colour to ensure the tonality and combinations complement not only within the knot structure but with various skin tones.

Overall, TALEE’s main collections are usually launched once a year and some sub-collections run throughout the year that are either collaborative or festive works. For the main collection, it would take me a year to plan through collection storytelling and knot designs, from colour schemes, production materials and structure to the final output ready for customers to place their orders.

Of all the facets of this business, which takes the utmost priority?

Navigating multiple roles and wearing all hats within a business is a common challenge. However, if I had to focus on one aspect, I’d prioritise leveraging my strengths in the ideation and making phase. By dedicating time to crafting better products and continuously improving them, I believe the quality of the product will speak for itself. Ultimately, when the product excels, everything else falls into place seamlessly.

What is something that you have always wanted to do with the brand, but currently lack resources to do so? 

This is an interesting question. If given the opportunity, I’ve always envisioned creating a TALEE app. This app would allow customers to design their earrings and try them on virtually. Given that 70% of my orders involve customization, this app could streamline the process, reducing the back-and-forth conversations needed to finalise knot designs and colour combinations with clients. It’s an ongoing project of mine for TALEE, and I’m hopeful that when the timing is right, you’ll see it available for download on your phone.

Do you have any new projects planned for the year ahead? What are you working on next?

Yes. TALEE has been operating online, at pop-ups, and special events for quite some time now, and we’re thrilled to announce that we’re finally working on establishing a physical space, starting right in our hometown. Additionally, we’re currently focusing on creating special wedding season gifts & a bridal collection which has been highly requested by our customers. We are also working with Weihao Yong for the second year on a new collection which we are very excited about.