Calgary women sew hope for future with reusable bags | CBC News

In the small community room of a downtown Calgary condo building, four women work diligently on all sides of a table covered in loose thread. 

Bright overhead lights are reflected in flashes across metal tools in a flurry of fingers and machines. Their hands are sewing fine fabric into drawstring bags. 

Their group, Bag by Bag, has a simple mission in Calgary. 

“The idea is to reduce — hopefully eliminate — the use of plastic produce bags for shopping,” said Maria Torres, who started the organization in 2019. 

The women, all newcomers to Calgary, create reusable produce bags and larger tote bags, selling them in exchange for donations to the Alberta Network of Immigrant Women. 

‘Our planet will die’ 

Torres started the project with her mother. 

She says they became invested in fighting pollution after a trip to the Vancouver Aquarium

Before retiring, Maria Torres worked in the faculty of science and technology at the University of Athabasca. (Jo Horwood/CBC)

“We saw … how much plastic was floating in the sea and how much plastic was contaminating the environment, so we decided we have to do this,” Torres explained. 

Her mother is the instructor for the workshops, teaching sewing techniques to the volunteers as they create the bags. 

Torres says her mother, pictured here, came to Canada from Mexico years after she immigrated. (Jo Horwood/CBC)

Torres wanted to put those skills to a noble use. 

“Our environment is changing. We have floods, we have burning fires everywhere,” said Torres. 

“Our planet is telling us that it cannot bear anymore our waste and our pollution, so it’s obvious to me that if we don’t do something, then our planet will die.” 

The project reduces waste in more ways than one. 

“All these sewing machines were donated to us and they were not in working condition. We paid to repair them, so we saved them from the landfill,” Torres said. 

Fabrics are donated to Bag by Bag from the Women In Need Society. The second-hand materials produce a diverse range of styles and colours in their final products. 

Bag by Bag offers handmade reusable grocery bags in exchange for donations to the Alberta Network of Immigrant Women. (Jo Horwood/CBC)

The lessons serve another purpose for the students. 

Torres says sewing is a skill that’s being lost. 

“When women learn how to repair their own clothes, how to sew, then they can take advantage of second-hand stores and get materials and then do their own sewing,” Torres said.

“We eliminate a lot of clothes because we don’t know how to fix them, we don’t know how to mend them. So we want these women to learn to do that.” 

Community for newcomers 

Maria Nieto says she immigrated to Canada from the Philippines in 2019. 

She came to be with her daughter but had to leave behind her career. 

She says it’s important for her to stay productive. 

“I don’t have any Canadian experience to work, so I needed to find … what industry or career would I fit in,” Nieto said. 

“With my education, it doesn’t fit here, so I decided to learn some skills.” 

Maria Nieto says she immigrated to Canada in 2019 to be with her daughter. (Jo Horwood/CBC)

In addition to supporting Bag by Bag’s mission to help the environment, Nieto says she also found camaraderie in the workshops. 

“As a newcomer here, we need to socialize. We need to adapt ourselves with the people around us. So what I decided is to go out in the community, to meet people, to learn their culture.”

Torres says Bag by Bag relies on its partnership with the Women In Need Society and is happy to raise funds for the Alberta Network of Immigrant Women. 

Over the pandemic, some of the group’s members were able to take sewing machines home to keep making the bags. 

With most restrictions now lifted, they hope to get back to a more regular meeting schedule. 

Torres says the bags are lightweight, long lasting and washable. 

“Whatever they can afford, whatever they want to pay for the bags, then we are happy to give them,” Torres said. 

“Please use them, reuse them, and if they need repair, contact us and we will repair them for you.” 

Torres says Bag by Bag has more than 150 products ready to be sold. 

Donations and deliveries can be arranged by contacting Maria Torres at bagbybagyyc@gmail.com

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