Founded in 2001 as a social enterprise with an all-encompassing mission to create sustainable employment for underprivileged women in Vietnam and Cambodia, Mekong Quilts has come a long way from its humble beginnings—a tiny Ho Chi Minh City quilting workshop based in the living room of one of its inaugural fabric designers.
“We only had ten women artisans at that time,” founding director, Bernard Kervyn, recalls.
Today, Mekong Quilts works with a hundred artisans and boasts a range of products that surpasses its team’s initial dreams and imagination.
Queen size handmade quilts sporting Vietnam’s ethnic Hmong-inspired designs fill the walls of its flagship store at 85 Pasteur Street in Ho Chi Minh City, while eco-friendly papier-mâché and water hyacinth bags and assorted souvenirs are amongst other mainstays and bestsellers.
Mekong Quilts’ team posing in front of a quilt at the Ho Chi Minh City shop
Creativity has also kept the sister social enterprise of Mekong Plus NPO alive during the COVID-19 pandemic, where more than three workgroups of nimble-handed women were re-tasked to sew facemasks that borrow from the same aesthetic success of Mekong Quilts’ celebrated collection of home quilts.
But another admirable achievement at Mekong Quilts goes beyond fabrics and sewing and aims to bring environmental responsibility to the table.
“We have taken a natural, heritage material that grows freely in the wild to produce products and employment for the whole family,” Bernard exclaims.
The magic of Vietnamese bamboo and an array of innovation
Some 150 km away from downtown Saigon lies Tánh Linh, a rural district of southern Vietnam’s coastal Bình Thuận province famed for the Mũi Né sand dunes and countless historical Cham relics.
Owing to a unique climate considered by experts to be a transition zone between the region’s wet and dry coastal areas, a prized variety of bamboo grows naturally in Tánh Linh.
“Used [by locals] for thousands of years, it is called iron bamboo [by locals]!” Bernard elaborates.
The “iron bamboo” of Tánh Linh
From building tradition homes and a variety of tools for fishing and agriculture, tầm vông bamboo is still employed today in many parts of the country as construction scaffolding. Its low cost, tensile strength and ability to dampen impact has kept it popular even today.
In the 2010s, the Mekong Quilts team began realising a dream—creating one of south-east Asia’s first line of bamboo-made bicycles.
With the help of a French bicycle designer and after no less than 20 prototypes, a 100%-bamboo made commuter bicycle was born in 2015.
“Except for industry-standard rims, tires, and joints made using hemp fibre and epoxy, the entire frame [of the bamboo bicycles] is made from bamboo,” Hồ Tiêu Đan, long time volunteer and team leader at Mekong Quilts, divulged.
Hồ Tiêu Đan and her bamboo bike
Highly flexible and shatter-proof, the organic material makes for a comfortable ride that arguably triumphs aluminium and carbon fibre bicycles.
Today, Mekong Quilts line of bamboo bicycles see models made for children and beefier ‘fat-bike’ ride outfitted with rechargeable batteries.
Smaller pieces of tầm vông bamboo are laminated, polished and turned into complementary items such as bottle holders and helmets that comply with the safety standards of several countries.
A myriad of possibilities with natural growing bamboo
Another reason for the success of tầm vông bamboo as an artisanal building material is the process in which it is harvested and seasoned for use.
The region’s craftspeople begin by selecting high-quality stalks of bamboo that are at least three years old. After sorting, the best pieces of bamboo are soaked for days in saltwater to dispel pests and to reinforce the cellulose structure for decades of service life.
A craftswoman working on a bamboo helmet
A careful air-drying phase follows to create raw material suitable for making a wide variety of environmentally-friendly products.
Compared to other crops, no slash-and-burn agriculture is involved because the plant has grown naturally in the region for more than 20 million years. Resilient and fast-growing, bamboo also has the innate ability to restore damaged soil and captures 30% more carbon dioxide than other tropical and subtropical trees.
In conjunction with Mekong Quilts’ quilting tradition, tầm vông bamboo is also made into durable hammock frames suitable for both adults and children.
Smaller pieces of bamboo are not put to waste either. Bamboo smartphone speakers and a unique reusable bamboo Christmas tree form the remaining of Mekong Quilts’ collection of bamboo-made products, well aligned with its zero waste philosophy. Mekong Quilts sees this as a vast improvement compared to harvesting pine trees for every festive season—more than 50 million trees are harvested annually in Europe alone.
Mekong Quilts’ bamboo Christmas tree
In the Mekong Delta where smaller trúc bamboo is found, Mekong Quilts artisans also make bamboo straws, a perfect kitchen companion to every earth-loving household and businesses looking to eliminate the use of single-use plastics.
How you can help Mekong Quilts and its bamboo artisans
Despite global trends leading to an increase in shipping costs, Mekong Quilts is proud to declare that the adoption of every bamboo product is a decisive step forward for an eco-friendly lifestyle and eliminating poverty with sustainable employment.
Every order lasts almost a lifetime in both use and social impact!
Put a smile into the faces of Indochina’s craftswomen and craftsmen today, and help their children remain well-nourished and in school for a long time to come.
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