Since its founding, Mekong Quilts has worked with local fabric designers in Vietnam and Cambodia to bring timeless, traditional motifs and illustrations to the homes of valued customers. Many of these quilt designs draw inspiration from imagery derived from local customs and everyday scenes.
Recently, a new series of quilted designs has left a lasting impression in the mind of Mekong Quilts’ founder Bernard Kervyn.
A minority ethnic group in Indochina beloved for beautiful customs
“The Hmongs have a very special culture which some may deem conservative,” he explained.
With at least 4,500 years of traceable oral history, the Hmong people have been living in Northern Vietnam for as long as written Vietnamese records. Apart from a rich culture that features a deep knowledge of herbal medicine, elaborate shamanistic rituals and highly sustainable farming techniques, the various Hmong tribes are best known by outsiders for their visually memorable fashion; stunningly colourful hand sewn skirts that vary from tribe to tribe and person to person.
“A Hmong woman may spend numerous months to complete a skirt that is only to be worn on her wedding day,” Bernard explained.
Fabric designs with several millennia of history
Starting from hand woven fabric, traditional Paj Ntaub (Flower cloth) Hmong textile artwork is achieved by using an assortment of complex stitching methods and a dyeing technique similar to Indonesian Batik where beeswax is used to cover parts of fabric where coloration is not desired.
A traditional Indigo dye acquired from the flower of a plant belonging to the buckwheat family, native to Northern Vietnam, gives many Hmong skirts its signature eye-catching dark purplish-blue tone. The resultant designs are often geometric and sporting angular and concentric elements which vary between region, tribe, and household.
“The fabrics we use for our Sapa line of quilt products are actual clothes used by the Hmong people for family and festivals” says Bernard.
Partly because of a way of life that is highly artisanal in nature, the Hmong people have suffered economical hardships, and Bernard believes that encouraging villagers to sell older fabrics is a way to alleviate cash flow problems in impoverished Hmong communities.
“It can be very heartbreaking for some of the ladies [to let go of their family treasures],” he said. However, by nurturing a mutually beneficial relationship with Hmong women, Mekong Quilts has helped many Hmong families achieve stable incomes where money made from selling pre-owned fabrics can be used to invest in other businesses prospects, including farming and tourism.
Transforming traditional textile into high quality quilts
Pieces of fabrics and clothing acquired from Hmong women are carefully washed three times before being evaluated for destructive colour runs. Pieces that are deemed durable are cut into appropriate segments by Mekong Quilts’ textile designers before being incorporated into quilted products by the nimble hands of quilters in one of Mekong Quilts’ many quilting workshops in the Mekong Delta.
“Many of the pieces we receive have been used by the ladies for years and even decades! They [still] look very new. [They are] very durable,” Bernard explained.
“Since no two pieces of Hmong fabric are identical, every Sapa quilted item is absolutely unique!” Bernard said enthusiastically. The resultant pieces of quilts are a beautiful combination of cotton segments, patchwork, and traditional indigo linen.
All quilt products from Mekong Quilts’ Sapa series can be machine-washed safely, but a maximum water temperature of 30°C is recommended. Machine drying is possible but not ideal. Just like jeans dyed with natural indigo dye, quilt products that incorporate Hmong fabric are very durable but can fade if not treated with care.
Currently, Mekong Quilts is working with approximately 50 Hmong women from Lào Cai and Sơn La province in Vietnam to produce these timeless quilted artwork pieces. With these efforts, Mekong Quilts hopes to generate enough income in the Hmong community to spark future endeavours such as educational and infrastructure projects.