It was March 2020 when Vietnam, along with the rest of the world, began to feel the dire effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy.
For almost two decades, Mekong Quilts flourished thanks to a symbiosis between quilters from the Mekong Delta and tourists; underprivileged women from Vietnam and Cambodia’s poorest regions could supplement their income by creating elegant quilts and handicrafts through skills training.
“We don’t know how long [the pandemic will last],” Bernard Kervyn, Founding Director of Mekong Quilts, grew weary.
In a swift moment of realisation, he believed that the team would have to shift focus to local customers and create new products suitable for a ‘climate of emergency’.
Adding much deserved life to face masks
To combat the first wave of the pandemic in Vietnam that made wearing masks compulsory by law, the Mekong Quilts team re-assigned 100 quilters from Long Mỹ District in Vietnam’s Hậu Giang Province to produce cloth masks for locals who could not afford surgical masks.
“As masks became more common, streets and public places have started to become littered with single-use masks,” Bernard reminded.
More than just providing the poor with a reusable alternative, the team hopes for a post-covid future that is not one filled with discarded face masks drifting through rivers and down into oceans.
“We advocate the use of safe washable masks so as not to damage our environment further,” Bernard added.
With that in mind, Mekong Quilts’ designers then set out to produce attractive versions of these masks for locals who demanded a fashionable alternative to mask-wearing. After just a month of actualisation, Mekong Quilts launched a new line of designer re-washable cloth masks by the end of March 2020.
With 8 designs ranging from batik to sapa fabrics and patchwork that combines fabrics from an assortment of cultures and origins, these 3-layered cloth masks also feature an anti-bacterial microbe filtration layer that withstands multiple washings.
At the height of this newfound commitment, Mekong Quilts was able to produce 4,000 cloth masks on a weekly basis.
“The quilters were very surprised [by the success of the project] as they have never done it before,” Bernard explained. With a simpler workflow of crafting masks that was straightforward for the quilters who were adept at creating large and complicated designs, Bernard and his team has been able to keep at least 20% of quilters employed.
Going international with Mekong Quilts’ masks
Beyond popularity amongst Vietnamese locals, Mekong Quilts designer masks quickly gained traction internationally through word-of-mouth and with the help of expats living in Vietnam who were more than keen on sharing photos of these alternatives that added colour and variety to their lives on social media.
Bernard and the Mekong Quilts team then begin working with OxFam International, a large nonprofit organisation spanning 20 countries that seeks to combat global poverty through strategies such as women’s rights, improving sanitation, building sustainable food sources and providing aid in areas of armed conflict.
OxFam launches their global strategy for the decade
Thanks to Oxfam’s chain of charity bookstores in Europe that also purveys stationery and gifts, Mekong Quilts has found venues to stock its line of designer masks.
“It was difficult for us to offer quilts with OxFam, [they are] very bulky,” Bernard explained.
He believes that this is a win-win situation for both organisations as the expenditure for maintaining a physical shop during a pandemic can be prohibitive – the sales of essential items such as masks is a welcomed alternative.
Thanks to the designer face masks, Australian customers have rediscovered Mekong Quilts while facing the effects of the fourth pandemic wave.
How you can help Mekong Quilts
Nonetheless, the pandemic has resulted in drastic changes to the livelihoods of Mekong Quilts’ nimble-handed quilters.
“Before [the pandemic], most of our women made at least 150 – 200 dollars a month. Many of them have lost up to 50% of their income,” Bernard said.
To further supplement their incomes, many of Mekong Quilts’ craftswomen now work as labourers in farms or engage in other fabric work such as sewing uniforms for school children. As of July 2021, only 20 quilters are still working on making cloth masks and the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic in the southern region of Vietnam has caused logistics problems which in turn has diminished the earnings of farms since many farmers are unable to sell their produce.
The supply of batik is also becoming scarce as the fourth wave of the pandemic in South-east Asia remains relentless (as of August 2021). We plead with lovers of these designs to order them while stocks last.
Do consider supporting Mekong Quilts by purchasing face masks and many other products including quilts, breathable fashion and handicrafts at https://mekongquilts.com/.
For customers in Belgium, stock is available locally through Mekong Plus.