Handcrafted batik-inspired leather wallets in Malaysia

It’s not every day you come across a data scientist who part-times as a leather worker. 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 as well as calming videos of the process.

Personally, I was mesmerised by one of his most-viewed videos—a reel of him crafting a canvas apron with leather pockets. Sounds from his work are overlaid with gentle piano music, and Benjamin’s attention to detail results in a beautiful apron at the end.

His entire process can be found in a YouTube video as well / Image Credit: Benjamin Bong

Watching Benjamin’s needlework and leathercrafting skills, it was interesting to think that his formal education was in computer science.

Of course, people can have all kinds of hobbies, but Benjamin seems to be pretty serious about his leatherwork. He even has a separate account and brand, Salt & Light Goods, solely reserved to showcase his crafts.   

“My degree has not helped me at all in this craft,” Benjamin admitted. “Well, maybe it did by helping me have enough money to explore this craft.”

Learning leatherwork

Benjamin started baba_makes in 2021, but to explain how he got into leather crafting, we’d have to go all the way back to his childhood days. He was home-schooled as a kid, which allowed him to try out various things he was curious about.

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

As he grew, he became hooked on making his own things, as it gave him the complete freedom to tinker around with the design and functionality of each item. After coming across a few YouTube videos, he ended up taking an interest in leathercrafting.

Benjamin picks up his skills from online videos / Image Credit: Benjamin Bong

“Being able to create wallets, book covers, and other stuff exactly how I like them gives me immense satisfaction and pleasure,” he expressed.

Luckily for him, his hobby has been self-sustaining so far. In fact, he hopes to turn leathermaking into his full-time job one day.

“Perhaps not just leather, but to diversify,” he clarified. “The dream is to make a living doing whatever interests me!”

An ode to his culture

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

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

Most of what Benjamin makes is a mishmash of what he likes in the creations of others / Image Credit: Benjamin Bong

In the beginning, he started out with book sleeves, keychains, and card wallets.

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

Nowadays, he’s focusing to create well-developed designs. This is so that he can produce made-to-stock products as opposed to creating custom orders all the time, a strategy that will help him as he builds his brand, Salt and Light Goods.

“I have zero business and e-commerce experience,” he shared. “I’m flying blind, figuring things out as I go. Starting a brand is just something that I felt was necessary if I were to make this my full-time job. I just wanted it, so I guess that gave me the confidence to start a brand.”

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

One unique design from baba_makes I’ve noticed is his leather wallets with batik lining on the inside. According to Benjamin, he was inspired by someone else who used fabric lining in their wallets, but he wanted to add a Malaysian twist to it.

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

Keep on making

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

Benjamin currently has his orders closed as he’s working to fulfil backlogs / Image Credit: Benjamin Bong

While baba_makes is still a part-time pursuit for Benjamin, his goal to do whatever he likes full-time is steadily gaining traction, despite the many other leathercrafting brands out there.

“The world is a big place,” he mused. “I think each crafter has their own market to serve. I think it’s a good thing to see more crafters in the hobby, as it will mean more are finding joy in working with their hands. It means less digital time and more analogue creations.”

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

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

Featured Image Credit: Benjamin Bong, creator of baba_makes