When the project was first envisioned in 2001, Mekong Quilts’ Founding Director Bernard Kervyn’s goal was simple; Indochina’s first quilting-based social enterprise that would create sustainable income for hundreds of underprivileged women.
Mekong Quilts is not just about quilts
Over the years, Mekong Quilts’ range of products has diversified to fit the needs of trendy consumers. From hand sewn linen tote bags to four-layered facemasks and even a celebrated line of bamboo bicycles designed with everyone in the family in mind, Mekong Quilts has come a long way in terms of developing new products.
What may not be obvious is Mekong Quilts decades-long collaboration with some of Europe’s most admirable businesses that place emphasis on fairtrade and sustainability of both human and planet.
Terre d’Oc’s Incense Sticks a testimony of Mekong Quilts’ trusted workmanship
Terre d’Oc is a French home fragrance and tea retailer that actively focuses on products made with the human element at heart, abandoning the act of placing profit above all else; a value that has motivated founder and sustainable development manager Emmanuelle Bertin for the last two decades. Once a department of a world-renowned retailer of fragrances, Terre d’Oc was formed when she decided that the social and environmental impact of procuring products is more important than profit.
Having previously sold Mekong Quilts’ quilted fabrics at their flagship store in Southern France, Terre d’Oc approached Mekong Quilts to create incense sticks suitable for their fragrances.
“There is a culture of burning incense in pagodas here [in Vietnam],” Bernard explained. “They asked Mekong Quilts to do something similar.”
The request eventually evolved into a 17-year-long collaboration of craftsmanship.
Powdered bark, or jiggat, made from the Bời lời (Indian Laurel tree) and a number of other indigenous medicinal trees, is rolled on to thin bamboo sticks that are a mere 3 – 4mm thick. To ensure even coating, the sticks are tumbled in wooden barrels operated by the hands of expert artisans until the power coating is perfectly round. The incense is all natural with no chemical adhesives since water and jiggat combine to form an organic glue. The process is repeated until a third layer is complete.
“We produce up to 9 tons of incense sticks annually,” Bernard explained.
One of Mekong Quilt’s incense workshop supported by Terre D’Oc
To cater to the demands of European consumers, strict quality checks follow to ensure that every incense is round and even, and careful packaging prevents humidity from damaging the fragile product before and after shipment to Marseille, France. Terre d’Oc then applies state-of-the-art techniques to impregnate its natural fragrances and essential oils into the incense which are then used by customers to liven their homes.
Beyond incense sticks, handcrafted rattan incense sticks that involve no bark powder are also produced by Mekong Quilts’ nimble-handed artisans. Bamboo straws that will be sold under the Terre d’Oc brand name have also been planned for the immediate future.
“We hope to continue this partnership that has generated up to €40,000 a year for Mekong Quilts,” Bernard said enthusiastically.
The margins may not be huge, but large volumes of orders have kept the social enterprise afloat with good social impact as a result.
Mekong Quilts’ Product Philosophy
Ultimately, the drive to diversify stems from the team’s core philosophy; saving the environment and reducing the dependency on “fast fashion”. With over-the-top obsession on the latest designs and competitive price tags, Bernard cites that the fashion industry has become one of the most polluting industries in the world while exploiting millions of marginalised workers.
“We want to create high-quality products that respect the planet while creating a positive impact on people,” Bernard reminded.
Mekong Quilts’ eco-friendly water hyacinth fibre bag is an example of its commitment to sustainable material and community development. A plant long considered to be an aquatic weed, the birth of these bags has created US$5 per day of additional income for countless women in the Mekong Delta.
Bernard Kervyn is visiting one water hyacinth artisan in the Mekong Delta
Since 2001, Mekong Quilts has employed and diversified the income of more than 4000 women in Vietnam and Cambodia, many of which are single mothers carrying the burden of entire families.
Looking towards the future
With the COVID-19 pandemic greatly affecting the livelihoods of its artisans, Mekong Quilts has once again embarked on another journey of seeking new options.
Scancom, a global leader and producer of outdoor furniture, will be working with Mekong Quilts to transform its fabric waste into designer cushions. Since the social enterprise will not need to purchase any fabric waste, hundreds of underprivileged artisans will benefit directly from this development when the finished products are sold.
At the same time, Bernard and team hopes to expand further to wholesale customers; a sound strategy since relying only on tourists is no longer an option.
On the other side of the world, The Quilt Project in Florida has also just signed up for a new partnership with Mekong Quilts.
“We hope to start shipping our quilts to the United States soon!” Bernard remarked hopefully.