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Tote bags made from 2010 Olympic banners.

Sewing co-op makes good from Olympic leftovers

Six months ago Jenny Cho did not know how to sew. Now, she is a contractor for a Vancouver sewing…

By Lindsay Sample , in Olympics , on October 20, 2011 Tags: , , , , ,

Six months ago Jenny Cho did not know how to sew.

Now, she is a contractor for a Vancouver sewing co-op, Common Thread, comprised of mostly marginalized women who have been re-purposing 2010 Olympic banners into tote bags and book covers.

Cho sews on an industrial machine purchased from VANOC.

Working with Common thread makes Cho feel good and useful, she said, adding “it helps me with daily life and independence. I learn something new and can get paid work too.”

Common Thread has earned over $100,000 in sales from products made of Olympic fabric and banners, giving contracts to more than 16 people in the peak of its production.

“We were really looking forward to the Olympics being over so that we could get those banners,” said Jenette MacArthur, vice president of Common Thread.

The cooperative combines five local social enterprises: the Kettle Friendship Society, the Afghan Women’ Sewing and Craft Co-op, Sewing with Heart, Progressive Intercultural Community Services (PICS) and Eastside Movement for Business & Economic Renewal Society (EMBERS).

Local partnerships

Cooperative general manager Melanie Conn said not only did they get the banners donated, they were able to purchase 11 industrial sewing machines from the Vancouver Olympic Committee (VANOC) at a reduced price to replace the basic domestic machines they had used in the past.

“Without access to the equipment we would have needed to raise funds to buy the equipment since it is crucial for the production of high volume contracts,” she said.

The tote bags made from 2010 Olympic banners.

After purchasing the Olympics’ industrial sewing machines, Common Thread needed to find a rent-free or low-cost space to house them.

Susan Braverman, president of International Flag and Banner, a Vancouver-based flag maker and retailer, offered the cooperative space at her Powell Street location.

“When we’ve talked to people – except for Susan – they think why would you operate a business with people who require flexibility? You don’t want to hear about their problems,” said Conn.

“You want people who you can count on every day, no personal issues — that’s it,”

Braverman said Common Thread has had a positive impact. “These are people who for whatever reason aren’t able to work in the mainstream work environment and so they are contracted to sew,” she said. “I think it makes them feel good — they get to come to work.”

The co-op’s current project is to make tote bags for the International Year of the Cooperative (2012) out of a variety of banners including: Pacific National Exhibition 100 year anniversary banners, local Business Improvement Association’s colourful street banners, and official signage from the National Capital Commission.

The United Nations resolution 64/136 (PDF) has declared 2012 the International Year of The Cooperative.

More than environmentalism

MacArthur, who is also the coordinator of a self-esteem and employment program at the Kettle Friendship Society, said people are responsive to their products because of the co-op’s commitment to both environmental sustainability and social enterprise. The co-op uses only donated banners and event fabric for its merchandise.

“The women come from all walks of life,” said MacArthur, adding that this program assists people with barriers to employment, which range from mental health to new immigrant issues.

Those who work on contracts for Common Thread are able to work as little or as much as they want, in a variety of locations — even at their homes. “People in our production unit thrive in flexible work environment,” said Conn.

“For the women it’s successful because it’s really like my program in general, it boosts people’s confidence,” said MacArthur.

“I mean once you know that you’ve never been able to sew and now you’re actually in a factory with other people who are doing the same work, and you’re making money, it just builds their self-esteem.”