Founded in 2001 by Vietnam & Cambodia based non-profit organisation Mekong Plus that aims to elevate the lives of impoverished locals in areas in need of infrastructural and human development, Mekong Quilts began its existence as a quilting-focused social enterprise with the aim of creating fabric work for underprivileged women in the region.
A group of craftswomen working on quilts
Beyond its vibrant quilts painstakingly made by the nimble hands of female artisans in the Mekong Delta region, Mekong Quilts has innovated on many other products, a majority of which are sustainably made in terms of both material and people.
From reusable fabric masks that showcase the beauty of Southeast Asian ethnic batik and sapa embroidery to Vietnamese-style hammocks made with the same multi-layered batting essential to quilts, Mekong Quilts is no stranger to developing new ideas since more products mean more work for its beneficiaries.
The return of Mekong Quilts’ signature water hyacinth bags
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic that began in early-2020, Mekong Quilts’ production of its eye-pleasing water hyacinth bags was halted due to the lack of in-bound tourism to Vietnam.
As of June 2022, Mekong Quilts has resumed in its entirety the creation and sales of these products that were providing its artisans with a significant amount of sustainable work and income before tougher times.
Made with the fibres of the water hyacinth plant, a river weed that frequently obstructs drainage and traditional canoe waterways in the Mekong Delta, it all begins with artisans drying stems of the floating plant and selecting ‘rattan’ of an attractive and uniform shade of beige—the very colour that gives pouches and bags made of the material its signature ‘nature-forward’ hue.
A women picking up water hyacinth stems in the river
“The stems must be at least 40 centimetres in length to be practical for weaving, and each bag takes a woman artisan about a full work day to complete!” Bernard Kervyn, founding director of Mekong Quilts, explained.
A close look at a water hyacinth bag
Interestingly, the invasive pestilent plant arrived in the region only in the early 1900s and has resulted in numerous other problems such as housing mosquito larvae that result in outbreaks of dengue fever and the death of river fish due to the lack of oxygen underneath hyacinth-infested waterbeds.
Water hyacinth is even known to have caused power outages in places such as rural India where they drift into hydroelectric generators and cause turbines to clog.
A lady drying up water hyacinth stems in the Mekong Delta
“This makes water hyacinth a good material to use due to socioeconomic reasons!” Bernard emphasised.
In Long Mỹ, a rural district of Hậu Giang province in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region, Lâm Thị Thu Hương, a mother of four children was introduced to the craft through Mekong Plus’ local partner NGO Ánh Dương centre. Working on water hyacinth bags has allowed Hương to stay at home while earning almost US$100 a month—a supplementary income that has kept the children in school.
One of Mekong Quilts’ craftswomen crafting a water hyacinth bag
More designs mean more opportunities
Owing to experience from more than a decade of using water hyacinth as handicraft material, Mekong Quilts has made strides immediately after the resumption of manufacture.
Mekong Quilts’ craftswomen water hyacinth bags
Utilising unused scrap leather acquired from Saigon History Factory, a partner leather workshop in Ho Chi Minh City, Mekong Quilts has managed to bring the designs of water hyacinth bags to the next level by adding layers of ornamentation on its handles and exteriors.
Mekong Quilts’ handcrafted water hyacinth bags
Oxfam, a British-founded confederation of more than twenty charitable organisations, has recently ordered more than 400 water hyacinth bags for its gift shops in Belgium & France sparking a renewal of interest in the unique material abroad.
Two types of water hyacinth bags produced by Mekong Quilts’ talented craftswomen
“The bags are especially loved by our Japanese customers,” Bernard added, quoting the simplistic beauty of the material.
Bernard notes that the difference between Mekong Quilts and other water hyacinth product manufacturers lies in commitment and philosophy—designed by the same artists who created its high-quality quilts.
How you can help Mekong Quilts
As the only organisation in Vietnam that is making water hyacinth bags with the goal of creating work for women in mind, Mekong Quilts hopes that the attraction of these bags goes beyond their pleasant looks and fragrance.
Currently, only five women have returned to weaving water hyacinth fibre and Mekong Quilts hopes that this number will increase along with orders in the near future.
Locals and expatriates living in Ho Chi Minh City may visit the Mekong Quilts pop-up store at The Snap Cafe in Thảo Điền to experience the bags in person.
Visit Mekong Quilts website today to discover other Gaia-friendly products that have helped Mekong Quilts change the lives of people in the Mekong Delta and beyond.