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Burnaby woman turns old fabric into bags for food bank clients

It's about the environment and boosting self-esteem
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MARIO BARTEL/THE TRI-CITY NEWS Joanne Morneau, left, and Linda Musika celebrate the achievements of their sewing collective of about 50 hobbyists who crafted 1,500 washable and reusable shopping bags last year that were donated to food banks from Abbotsford to North Vancouver. The group recently dropped off 50 bags to the Share society food bank in Port Moody.

A collective of sewing hobbyists from across the Lower Mainland is helping clients of local food banks feel more welcome, while ensuring they never have to make the choice between using paper and plastic bags to transport their staples back home.

Its founder, Burnaby’s Joanne Morneau, said the idea to turn old shirts, drapes, tablecloths, jeans and various other remnants made of natural fibres into shopping bags stemmed from a snorkelling adventure in the Caribbean where she swam headlong into the ecological disaster created by discarded plastic bags and containers when she saw them washing ashore onto secluded beaches away from the groomed resorts.

Morneau talked to some neighbours, and they started sewing bags.

Their effort had the double benefit of also giving new life to used and leftover fabrics that otherwise might find their way to landfills.

Last year the formative group migrated their individual sewing initiatives from their homes to the Garden Grove community centre in Burnaby. By the third monthly sewathon, every table was occupied, the room alive with the buzz of electric sewing machines and quiet chatter.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The sewers retreated back to the safety of their homes, but their enthusiasm for the project was undiminished.

Morneau said they stayed in contact via social media and messaging, sharing ideas for patterns, sourcing material, even tips for getting their machines serviced as the public health shutdowns had created a resurgence in hobbies like sewing, boosting demand for repairs.

“We were competing with everybody sewing masks,” Morneau said.

In total, the group sewed 1,500 bags last year. Most of them were donated to food banks from Abbotsford to North Vancouver. Some were sold to raise money for the food banks.

Morneau said the project gave the sewers a sense of purpose, and much-needed distraction.

“The pandemic has given everyone a chance to rethink how they can apply their skills,” she said. “It also helps keep our minds on something other than worries.”

Linda Musiak, one of the volunteer sewers, said crafting the bags gave her days stuck at home some structure.

“You get into the habit,” she said, adding she’s particularly gratified when she sees one of her bags in the community, being used by school children to carry their books or supplies.

Morneau said offering something tangible to people going through a tough stretch is rewarding.

“Getting something handmade really resonates,” she said. “If you like your bag, you want to reuse it.”

With no end to their sewing efforts yet in sight, Morneau said supplies like needles, thread and straps to create handles are running low, so anyone with those items to contribute, or looking to join the collective, can contact her at fabricbagsolution@gmail.com.

“We’re trying to do as much as we can,” she said.