Handmade Batik Inspired Leather Wallets in Malaysia

It’s not every day that you come across a data scientist working part-time as a leatherworker. But today is one of those days.

Benjamin Bong is the 27-year-old behind baba_makes on Instagram. He shares photos of finished leather crafts with his 1.6K followers along with soothing videos of the process.

Personally, I was mesmerized by one of his most watched videos – a reel of him making a canvas apron with leather pockets. The sounds of his work are overlaid with soft piano music, and Benjamin’s attention to detail translates into a beautiful apron at the end.

His whole process can also be found in a YouTube video / Image credit: Benjamin Bong

Looking at Benjamin’s sewing and leathercraft skills, it was interesting to think that his formal education was in computers.

Sure, people can have all sorts of hobbies, but Benjamin seems to be pretty serious about his leatherwork. He even has a separate account and brand, Salt & Light Goods, solely for showcasing his craftsmanship.

“My degree didn’t help me at all in this business,” admitted Benjamin. “Well, maybe he did it by helping me get enough money to explore this craft.”

Apprenticeship in leather goods

Benjamin started baba_makes in 2021, but to explain how he got into leather goods, you would have to go back to his childhood. He was home-schooled as a child, which allowed him to try various things that interested him.

“This habit of exploring things and doing things with my hands has never left me and will never leave me,” Benjamin explained.

As he grew older, he became addicted to making his own, as it gave him complete freedom to tinker with the design and functionality of each item. After stumbling across a few YouTube videos, he eventually got interested in leather goods.

Benjamin acquires his skills from online videos / Image credit: Benjamin Bong

“Being able to create wallets, book covers and other things exactly the way I like them gives me immense satisfaction and pleasure,” he said.

Luckily for him, his hobby has so far been self-sufficient. In fact, he hopes to one day make leather goods his full-time job.

“Maybe not just leather, but to diversify,” he said. “The dream is to make a living doing what interests me!”

An ode to its culture

When Benjamin started his account, he wanted it to be a journal of him doing whatever he wanted. That’s why he chose the name baba_makes.

“Baba” refers to himself and his Peranakan culture, while “done” is…well, pretty self-explanatory.

Most of what Benjamin does is a hodgepodge of what he likes in other people’s creations / Image credit: Benjamin Bong

At first, he started with book sleeves, key rings and card holders.

“It was very experimental and based on what I imagined,” he explained. “I would find inspiration from others online, copy design and functional elements from here and there, and combine them with my own creations.”

Nowadays, it focuses on creating well-developed designs. This is so he can produce products from stock instead of creating custom orders all the time, a strategy that will help him build his brand, Salt and Light Goods.

“I have zero business and e-commerce experience,” he shared. “I fly blind, I understand things as I go. Building a brand is just something I felt was necessary if I wanted to make it my full time job. I just wanted to, so I guess it gave me the confidence to start a brand.

Benjamin sometimes uses batik fabric to line his leather wallets / Image credit: Benjamin Bong

A unique baba_makes design that I noticed is their leather wallets with batik lining inside. According to Benjamin, he was inspired by someone else who used fabric lining in his wallets, but he wanted to add a Malaysian touch to it.

He sources all his materials from local suppliers, including batik fabric.

keep doing

These days, Benjamin spends half the day as a data scientist and the rest as a leatherworker. Luckily for him, his boss is flexible enough to allow him to pursue his passions on the side while keeping his monthly income.

Benjamin currently has his orders closed as he struggles to fill backlogs / Image credit: Benjamin Bong

While baba_makes is still a part-time pursuit for Benjamin, his goal of doing what he loves full-time is steadily gaining traction, despite the many other leather goods brands.

“The world is a big place,” he mused. “I think every artisan has their own market to serve. I think it’s a good thing to see more artisans in this hobby, because it means more people are finding pleasure in working with their hands. That means less digital time and more analog creations.

As such, Benjamin hopes to continue to find joy with his craftsmanship and one day be known for creating quality products that will last a lifetime.

  • Read more baba_makes here.
  • Read other articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.

Featured image credit: Benjamin Bong, creator of baba_makes