Weaving a Future with Borneo Bags

Apparel Magazine sat down with Jacky McLaren who founded Borneo Bags to talk about their journey.

McLaren was a science teacher that left New Zealand to teach on the tropical island of Borneo for ten years, where it was impossible not to be distressed by the plight of the indigenous tribe. The Penan people struggled as the rainforest was felled and palm oil plantations took over. McLaren trekked to the island's interior, lived with the Penan people, and decided that she wanted to do more than supply toothbrushes, glasses and medicine in her privileged position. 

“I wanted to help them to help themselves, to create something sustainable for their future, and there the gem of the idea, selling their beautiful craft, was born,” said McLaren.

McLaren has helped set up two charities funded by selling handwoven products and artefacts for the people of Borneo. Borneo Bags, however, was founded in New Zealand in 2020; lockdown provided time to consider how a brand on the other side of the globe would sell as successfully as it does in Asia. 

The bags are hand woven in Borneo, in the weavers' homes. Families often get together and catch up with news and gossip while their children play and look after each other. Made from rattan, a jungle vine that can be stripped and treated into a flexible fibre in three months and pallet strapping, a recyclable polypropylene that is colourful, waterproof and durable.

McLaren has always been experimental with her clothing, not afraid to mix colours, the classic with the traditional, and push the envelope. Even though she is a science teacher, art and design were her favourite past times and the subjects in which she received the highest grades. Her parents encouraged the pursuit of a scientific career, and she has loved being a teacher while nurturing artistic tendencies on the side. 

To sell Borneo Bags on the western market, McLaren designed contemporary items in colours and styles that fit with classic and world-leading fashion innovators. The Borneo Bag team consists of McLaren herself, her two daughters and their three toddlers. “Some members of the team are more productive than others!”

The design process varies, sometimes the weavers come up with their ideas and ask for McLaren’s opinion or she will suggest colour combinations and ideas to them. 

“The range of styles is limited only by our imagination; the weavers are capable of creating almost anything from one-off, bespoke items to supplying a large corporation with products fashioned in their company's colours.”

McLaren’s personal connection to the weavers spans nearly two decades, and she has been able to change the lives of multiple generations. A family recently told her that Borneo Bag purchases over lockdown enabled them to build a new longhouse to replace their rotting one. “I will be staying in it with them shortly. How wonderful is that?"

Borneo Bags has plenty of future plans. McLaren is continually looking for retailers in New Zealand and overseas. They have also just opened up in Australia. The weavers had never been to a post office until three months ago. Now, they can send a bag anywhere in the world, which is precisely the type of empowerment McLaren is after. As a social enterprise, the business does not have the funds to manage heavy online advertising. Most of the sales occur in physical retailers, at the markets or from McLaren’s home, but the online store is slowly ticking over sales.

For more information or to become a stockist, visit www.borneobags.com.