“There was this lady in one of my tourist groups – Yuri San – who was helping women and children as a social worker back in Japan. Through her I got the chance to study English in the United States for six months,” Selenge Tserendash from Mongolia explains how her life took a turn twenty years ago. “I stayed with a lady in the States and in her house she had this beautiful quilt. The traditional craft struck me, how can I make this myself?” Selenge took the unpaved road of learning a new craft, introducing it to Mongolia in a sustainable way, while helping women in vulnerable positions to improve their lives.
“I am a city girl from a middle class family,” Selenge tells about her childhood. “Dad was an officer in the army, mum was in economics. I’m a strange tall Mongolian. Clothing was a problem, I was being teased, even by my teacher.” Making her own clothes and accessories from her grandmother’s leftover scraps, became an escape for her. At a later age Selenge decided to become a lawyer: “I felt I had to protect myself and others.” Being trained as a lawyer in international law in Japan, Selenge was offered a job at the supreme court back in Mongolia: “I would earn a monthly salary of the amount I would make in two days as a tour guide. Being a single mum, I needed the money, that’s why I choose to work in tourism.” Selenge’s oldest daughter is now 26, her youngest is seven years old.
Helping single mums and other women in vulnerable positions
After working as a tour guide and going to the States, Selenge was looking for ways to learn the craft of quilting: “Taking a workshop was too expensive for me, but I am a woman who likes to try and not give up. Back in Mongolia the wind blew offcuts from a textile factory to me on the street. It was a nice colour cotton and good quality. I started making clothes for myself, and tried to do quilts. Together with my friend Yuri San I decided to do something to help single mums like me, women who are struggling, women with disabilities. I started sending lots of emails to the United States. Quilting was new in Mongolia, knitting was the only thing we did twenty years ago. This lady Maggie Ball came together with her daughter and a sewing machine from the US to teach us. She just said ‘how can I help you?’. Maggie did fundraising and she helped to make new patterns, like ‘the long life and prosperity symbol’. We started from a basement I rented, with five women. We had no daylight, it was very cold and there were water floods. Then I started to work together with the Ministry of social affairs and international aid organizations World Vision and the Mercy Corps. We made a contract to teach 18 to 55 year-old women in centres of the Ministry throughout the country.” That’s how the ‘Mongolian quilting center’ started.
Challenges from Buddhism and the nomadic culture
Selenge continues explaining how Maggie helped to learn her and the women how to make proper quilts: “We needed the technique to make it and we needed to do it in a sustainable way. Using only offcuts was not enough, we needed old clothing.” This is where Selenge met her next challenge: “In Mongolia 80 percent of the people adhere to the Buddhist faith. People are very superstitious of using old clothes. They think the energy of the previous person wearing it will come to you. They usually collect old clothes in a bag and then burn it in the country side. Now a new generation comes up. They are more ecofriendly. Even younger Buddhist monks are telling on social media that it is not good for the environment to burn clothes. Still you can see black ashes from open fires in the country side.” Despite this Selenge manages to use 70 percent leftover fabric from textile production and 30 percent old clothing for her products. Next to Buddhism, the nomadic culture of Mongolian people also posed challenges upon Selenge: “Some women who did their training with us, started their own brands using our techniques. Before they would live in a nomadic way in which they are used to doing everything themselves. Now sometimes these women become competitors. The first time I found out, it was hard to overcome, but I believe in karma, things will come back. We concentrate on people who need our help as an NGO.“
Positive effects and dreams of upcycling for the future
“We now have five parttime trainers who started out as learners. They teach all over Ulaanbaatar and around in rural community centres,” Selenge explains the organizational structure. “Our income generating programme has reached over 4000 women of whom 17 are still with us from the start twenty years ago. Women will stay as long as the like, they get paid per piece they make for the tourist industry; quilts, bags and stuffed animals. The reason why we sustain this long is that we work as a team.” When asked Selenge gives several examples of what the Mongolian quilting center means to women in vulnerable positions: “A woman with seven children now makes her own money, and is teaching other women from our target group. Her husband is very thankful. Another woman who is in a wheelchair has two children who are also disabled. All the money she makes with us, goes to helping them. A retired lady can buy her medicines now and was even able to save money to get her own apartment. She is not relying on her kids anymore. We have also three women with mental problems with us. They are very happy that they have their own money now.” Selenge is dreaming of doing more to meet what she calls “the big challenge of Mongolia”: recycling and upcycling. Next to left-over fabric and old clothing she is thinking about plastics and what to do with the growing amount. “I want to connect to upcycling people in other countries and learn more!” Selenge concludes with much passion. “Especially with all those plastics flooding our markets, we need to learn more about product development and design to promote similar techniques here in Mongolia.”
Interviewer and writer: Lisa Koolhoven