“With unused material from partners, we can create sustainable products while creating more jobs for Mekong Quilts’ artisans!”
Bernard Kervyn emphasised eclectically, while giving details of how the 20-year-old handicraft and fabric work-focused social enterprise managed to turn small, leftover pieces of Scancom International’s proprietary outdoor fabric into beautiful cushions that retain the material’s innate minimalist beauty and toughness against rain and shine.
From aesthetically pleasing yet simple white and grey stripes to just single-toned blue or grey cushions featuring Weather-Tex® fabric, neither benefiting humans or pets could have guessed that the cushions were made from the material destined as a pool chair or an outdoor sofa in a fancy al fresco dining setting.
Right now, Mekong Quilts also makes shopping bags out of the same material to discourage the use of plastic—lasting practically forever, shoppers at Mekong Quilts’ flagship store at 85 Pasteur Street in Ho Chi Minh City receive one for free if they spend more than VND500,000.
The importance of sustainability at Mekong Quilts
Its first years in existence placed emphasis on creating regular quilting work for underprivileged women in Vietnam and Cambodia—starting in a tiny downtown Ho Chi Minh City workshop-cum-shop located conveniently at Mekong Quilts’ first quilt designer’s personal living space, the brand has grown from ten women to more than ten workgroups of nimble-handed artisans dedicated to the craft in numerous provinces in both countries.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced that number to just four workgroups, but the situation remains optimistic thanks to Mekong Quilts’ desire to innovate, especially when it comes to sustainable handicraft.
In the early 2000s, a separate division of artisans began working on creating natural beige-hued tote bags from fibres of the Water Hyacinth—an invasive aquatic ‘weed’ species infamous for clogging waterways and destroying habitats of native aquatic species such as fish and algae that die from the lack of sunlight and oxygen caused by its overgrowth.
Mekong Quilts’ female artisans begin by drying stems of the floating weed for two days to make ‘rattan’ suitable for weaving—a fashionable water hyacinth bag takes about three days to complete in entirety.
Thanks to the abundance of the material, Bernard believes that the material has a highly positive socioeconomic impact. No cost is expended from procuring typical fabric raw materials, while the processing of water hyacinth fibres is in itself a cottage industry that employs countless more women in participating villages.
“On average, a water hyacinth bag maker adds about US$100 a month to her family’s income, [this is] vital to rural children’s continued education,” Bernard informed.
Turning waste paper into timeless gifts for everyone
The dedication to improving lives in villages through Indochina goes beyond creating employment and keeping children in school at Mekong Quilts.
Neither used homework paper from the classroom or old newspapers escape the creative grasps of Mekong Quilts.
Through a painstaking process, papier maché artists turn these discarded materials into anything from festive hangeables to jewellery and resin-coated waterproof vases that are perfect minimalist decorations for any living room.
“It’s not uncommon for guests to believe the vases are made from clay!” Bernard added.
Waste paper is first sorted and soaked for at least a day before becoming a shapeable material after organic glue is added to the mix. After Mekong Quilts’ female artisans shape each creation by hand, each papier maché merchandise is carefully dried for 24–72 hours in the sun—a lack of which results in a dull, grey exterior.
A commitment to eco-friendly lifestyle in rural regions
Since the mid-2000s, Mekong Quilts’ beneficiary communes and villages also see students go on plastic litter collection drives as an after-class activity. Schools that collect the most plastic waste are rewarded with ReForm Plastic’s eco-friendly furniture made from the same material collected by schoolchildren .
A partner of Mekong Quilts and its sister NGO Mekong Plus, the innovative social enterprise focuses on decentralised collection of waste plastic and actively empowers individual collection centres to make high-quality recycled furniture through hot extrusion to create income for detached communities.
At the moment, Mekong Plus is focusing on setting up small-scale pyrolysis facilities in villages in Vietnam, a process that converts plastic waste into fuel using high-temperature anaerobic combustion. Little to no pollutants are produced since oxygen is not involved.
“Ultimately, waste should not be shipped over huge distances,” Bernard insists.
How you can help Mekong Quilts
With such a wide array of environmentally-friendly products at Mekong Quilts, Bernard and team believes that the act of improving living standards in rural areas should not be an effort independent of our responsibility to earth’s future.
Every purchase at Mekong Quilts is a gift that gives twice—please your friends and family with the simple beauty of Indochinese handicraft while giving the families and children of female artisans nutrition and a place in school and a brighter future.
Browse through Mekong Quilts’ range of handmade products and follow the Facebook Page for the latest updates.
If you are an expatriate, local or tourist in Ho Chi Minh City, follow Mekong Quilts for a schedule of bamboo bicycle tours that you can join to discover the picturesque rural south of Vietnam.