Sew TO turns masks into employment experience for vulnerable Torontonians

A Toronto community agency has launched a collective that sews masks to provide work experience for immigrant and low-income women.

The Neighbourhood Organization (TNO) launched a sewing collective to support women facing barriers to employment who live in Thorncliffe and Flemingdon Park.

TNO had been looking at starting a sewing collective for a few years. The COVID-19 pandemic galvanized this community agency into action.

TNO collaborated with other groups to launch the Sew TO Collective Community Mask Making Project in April 2020. The objective of the  project was to respond to a challenge from Michael Garron Hospital for east Toronto sewers to make 1,000 masks per week. These masks were intended to go to people across Toronto to help communities stay healthy.

This project made an initial commitment to donate 2,000 masks within four weeks. More than 3,000 masks were sewn and delivered to Michael Garron Hospital by May 2020. After the initial successful results, some of the members of the group agreed to become the Sew TO Women’s Collective.

Esel Panlaqui, manager of community development and special projects at TNO, said 16 women are involved with Sew TO. There is another group of about 20 women that are being trained to join the collective.

“Unemployment and underemployment, we see these as some of the barriers that new immigrants and residents in the neighbourhoods we serve face,” says Panlaqui. “We are very hopeful that in time, we will be able to recruit additional women.”

The collective sells upcycled, layered 3D masks. These masks are made from prewashed, donated fabrics.

Masks are available to buy for $8, and the collective is also selling tissue box covers, cushion covers and pouches.

Ayesha Abdul Jabbar, a member of Sew TO who immigrated to Canada from Pakistan three years ago, says she could not find work because she had four children to take care of. Jabbar was able to work for Sew TO since she could do it from home.

“For me, it was a good opportunity,” says Jabbar. “I’m not making that much money, but I’m happy I’m doing something.”

Jabbar says Sew TO has enabled her to meet people in her community and improve her sewing skills.

Pearlita Juan, a settlement counselor at TNO, works as support staff for Sew TO.

“Sew TO is so important, especially to the community,” says Juan. “The goal is to empower and support local women.”

Juan acknowledges there will be less demand for masks now that vaccines are more widely available and cases are down, so the members have been talking about future plans, including sewing grocery bags, blouses, dresses and reusable coffee bean bags.

Juan says the collective will be recruiting additional women through the sewing training sessions TNO runs. TNO holds sewing training sessions a few days per week, and interested women will be given opportunities to sew items for the collective.

She says Sew TO has considered launching a clothing line in the near future with the goal of creating long-term, stable, and fair-paid employment for these women.

Panlaqui says Sew TO serves as a social enterprise for these women.

“For now, we see that a lot of women are benefiting from it,” she says. “Not only in terms of economic benefits, but as well as learning skills that they can use as part of the collective and in their lives.”

Article exclusive to TRNTO