“When we were young, we would help our parents harvest clams and shrimps,” Thanh, the younger sister by a minute, explained.
Today, their place of birth, Gò Công Đông, a rural district some 70-kilometres away from Ho Chi Minh City, remains laidback and untouched compared to many of Vietnam’s fast-growing tourist coastal cities such as Nha Trang and Danang.
As a result, many of Thanh & Tuyền’s neighbours resort to farming rice paddy for basic sustenance, while other female compatriots move to industrial areas nearer to Saigon’s city centre to find work.
Such was the case for Tuyền, who began working for a foreign-owned clothing factory in the mid-2000s after leaving school after completing 12th Grade.
For 8 hours a day, 7 times a week, her wage began at VND400,000 a month, equivalent to less than US$20. Despite the stress, health hazards, and long working hours, she soldiered through and managed to reach an average income of approximately US$100 a month after five years with her first employers.
She recounts how many of her colleagues struggled with being detached far away from their children and their families for extended periods of time.
Young women escape the poverty cycle through sustainable quilting work
In 2007, Tuyền met the founders of Mekong Quilts, a handicraft and quilting social enterprise based in Vietnam & Cambodia. This led to her choosing the path and new journey of fabric work apprenticeship.
From color combinations to the properties of different types of fabrics, she spent almost a year learning the basics of what makes an attractive set of quilts possible.
“Beyond sewing, everyone in the team [based in the Ho Chi Minh City workgroup] learns about managing warehouse inventory,” she added.
The difference between quilting work and her previous life was stark — constantly spurred to learn new skills. No longer was she limited to just repetitious production line work like in a typical factory.
Thanh joined soon after, after discovering that Tuyền’s life was quickly changing for the better. Today, the twins remain in the Mekong Quilts team as two out of five of Mekong Quilt’s post-pandemic team, focusing on managing the arrival of raw fabric material and sending goods out to customers in Vietnam & abroad.
Based on fabric stock, the hardworking twins also assist Mekong Quilts’ designers to complete intricate diagrams which are then dispatched as orders to quilters in the Mekong Delta.
“In the provinces, the elder sisters [in their 40s] can do sewing work at home while taking care of the children, it gives them freedom and motivation,” Thanh emphasised, explaining how many local & foreign companies are unwilling to hire older locals due to responsibilities of welfare.
Interacting with volunteers from all walks of life
Recounting her most memorable moments in almost 15 years of working at Mekong Quilts, Thanh is thankful for the multitude of foreign volunteers who stay with the social enterprise for several months, or even years, to impart knowledge to eager locals.
“I remember living with two American fashion designers who came to live with us for almost a year. Thanks to their meticulous instructions and unique approach, we learned many things that could not have been possible elsewhere!” She added.
How you can help Mekong Quilts
The time of the publication of this blog article (June 2022) also marks a significant milestone — Vietnam and Cambodia are now recovering quickly from the effects of the extended pandemic with the tourism industry seeing an upturn over the last few months.
Nonetheless, Mekong Quilts has been heavily affected by events that transpired over the last two years, with less than 30% of its pre-2020 staff count remaining. At the moment, only one physical store local in Ho Chi Minh City remains with the majority of sales being conducted online.
Every cloud has a silver lining, the pressure of disaster has pushed Mekong Quilts to launch many new collections, expanding the relevance of its boutique products to a wide range of audiences. From designer masks that feature ethnic-inspired patchwork, summer fashion, and even quilted weatherproof cushions for adults and pets, you’ll find something suitable for the entire family.
One of many Mekong Quilts handmade bed quilts
“More products means that our ladies get more work!” Thanh and Tuyen explained cheerfully.
Visit Mekong Quilts and its sister organisation Mekong Plus today to find out more about its mission to empower underprivileged women of the region through sustainable work.