Graphic design graduate Lean Chin Keong introduces himself as “not your regular guy-next-door”. Rather than indulging in guys’ stuff, his passion is sewing and making sock toys. He discovered the art of making sock toys from craft books and decided to give it a try.
A sock toy has a skin made from sock and polyfibre stuffing. Lean uses normal socks but of different sizes, materials and colours. “Different types of socks bring out different results. For example, winter flurry socks are used to make furry toys.
Kids’ socks can be used to make smaller toys or as ‘socks’ for a big toy. It all depends on one’s design and creativity,” said Lean.
He also uses ribbons, felt and buttons as supporting materials to enhance the look of the toy. Black beads are used for the toy’s eyes.
Lean, 31, of Subang Jaya, Selangor, sells his sock toys mostly at his pop-up stall in the Klang Valley. He started in a pop-up market in 2013.
As this is his part-time business, he runs a pop-up stall once or twice a month for sales and exposure. During the peak seasons such as festive months, he would open for business thrice a month. He said: “I can’t run my pop-up stall so regularly as I need time to make my sock toys.”
When he was new in the pop-up market, he used to sell 10 toys. Now during peak seasons, he can sell a max of 60 toys in one bazaar.
Lean graduated with a degree in graphic design from Tunku Abdul Rahman University College in Kuala Lumpur in 2013 and has a full-time job. He began making and selling sock toys as a side income four years ago, under the brand Kakilang Handmade. To-date, he has sold about 1,000 toys.
The brand’s Facebook page (Kakilang Handmade) has garnered 2,375 likes and he also has an Instagram account (kakilanghandmade).
He prefers to sell his sock toys at pop-up stalls than online because sales pick up faster. “At pop-up markets, I can sell to more people, including those who do not go on social media,” he said.
He also makes friends with other pop-up stall operators and interact with his customers. Sometimes, he gets feedback, even ideas, from them.
Lean usually pairs up with a friend who sells needle felt craftwork. “We help each other out in setting up our stalls and take care of each other’s belongings. Also, it helps to have someone to mind the stall if we need to take a meal or toilet break,” he said.
“Kakilang began with girl’s hair accessories and simple fabric craft,” related Lean, who said that he and his former business partner were experimenting with different handmade items for a year before he began creating sock toys.
He chose the brand name Kakilang – a Teochew phrase which means “one of us” – to make his customers feel that they are in his circle of friends.
Lean, the middle child in his family, learnt sewing from his mother, a tailor. He has two brothers. He said: “My mum used to sew baju kurung. When I was 10, my mum taught me how to sew batu seremban cloth bags using leftover fabrics.”
No child’s play
Lean makes the toys after office hours and on weekends. These days, he makes animal-shaped toys. “They are inspired by illustrations in children’s books,” he said.
With each creation, Lean feels he is sharing happiness with others.
Making sock toys is no child’s play; it entails hard work. “The process from idea to paper takes about an hour. Then I begin sewing. It takes one-and-a-half hours to complete one simple toy, and up to four hours for a more complex creation,” Lean said.
When he first started, he could make just three toys a day. But gradually, as he honed his skills, he could double that amount. In 2017, he held his first workshop where he taught a small group how to make the “carrot bunny”. One of his students was Kaylee Tan.
Usually, he makes the sock toys himself but, if he is swamped with orders, he will rope in his retiree mother to help out. Also in 2017, he had a project to complete 50 toys within two weeks.
At that time, he sewed a record 30 sock toys in a day, minus the stuffing. It was a nightmare because he had to work 10 hours non-stop. His most popular toys are bunnies, followed by alpacas, unicorns and chicks.
Pop-up business, he said, is a way to earn extra income. “With the extra money, I can save for rainy days,” he said.