Sew TO turns reusable masks into wages and skills for vulnerable Torontonians

(This story is sponsored by Live Green Toronto)

Sometimes a disaster can turn into an opportunity.

TNO (The Neighbourhood Organization) is a community-based agency that provides services in multicultural communities across Toronto, including Thorncliffe and Flemingdon Park. For the last few years, it’s been preparing to launch a sewing collective. 

Then, overnight, everything changed. COVID-19 sent everyone home, and the idea of launching an in-person program seemed impossible. But the pandemic forced everyone to rethink how to work collectively and be together, and the situation galvanized TNO’s community. 

“It started with a call from [from Michael Garron Hospital] to donate masks,” says TNO’s Executive Director Ahmed Hussein. “We got six donations for sewing machines from the City of Toronto [Solid Waste Management Services Division] and distributed them throughout the community.”

The collective decided to come together to make the masks out of recycled materials and clothing. 

“In less than 24 hours, we had 25 women donating their time,” recounts Esel Laxa Panlaqui, TNO’s Manager of Community Development & Special Projects. 

By May, they’d sewed and delivered 3,000 reusable COVID masks. It saved many in the community from buying multiple boxes of disposable masks for their families and kept that non-recyclable material from ending up in a landfill. 

Now, many more months into the pandemic, the project has morphed into an ongoing project called Sew TO Women’s Collective

The women of Thorncliffe and Flemingdon Park – many of them new Canadians, people with lower incomes and barriers to employment – have a place to connect with their community, avoid isolation, build valuable skills and training while working from home and make some money. All the equipment and materials are provided to them.

The masks are for sale for $8 at They’re upcycled, made from washed and recycled materials and clothing, and available in two, three and high-barrier four-layer varieties with filters, as per public health guidelines. There are also masks with metal wires to avoid fogging for glasses-wearers, and you can buy mask pouches, cushion covers, tissue box covers and more. 

No longer a purely voluntary program, through the city’s TransformTO Climate Action Fund, donations, sales and other funding, the 28 women of Sew TO are now being paid for their time and labour. The goal is to reduce overhead and pay a full living wage. Some women have donated their money back so that others who need it more can earn more. 

“These are communities with a vast amount of experience and huge potential that we as Canadians haven’t tapped into or supported. I find that incredibly frustrating,” says Cathy Richards, whose Cathy J Richards Foundation is one of TNO’s partners on Sew TO’s advisory committee. 

Sediqa Nawrozian is one of the sewing instructors, providing 10 hours of virtual training a week on Zoom. Nawrozian, who arrived in Canada from Afghanistan in 2016, is a community member herself. She has over 20 years of experience in community development, holds a master’s degree in public law and is a women’s rights activist.

Here in Canada, she has multiple certificates from different colleges and institutions in customer service, community leadership, computer training and working in the Toronto shelter system. But she’s had trouble finding a job in her field. The pandemic hasn’t helped.

Back in Afghanistan, she was a headmaster at a high school and taught sewing to more than 15,000 women and girls in her house, out of sight of the Taliban. She brings that experience and perspective to Sew TO.

“In my opinion, many gender issues come from economic issues,” Nawrozian says. “Financial independence is very important. If a woman can earn money, she can get many other rights.”

The program doesn’t only provide sewing training, but also language skills, training on healthy eating and living, climate action, even public health tips. Many in the community, she says, have learned how to get tested while working with each other in the collective. 

The project works toward a handful of positive goals at the same time. It provides local jobs and training while also working toward Toronto’s climate action goals. It keeps disposable masks from ending up in landfills, creates vital PPE and other goods from recycled materials and reduces waste and energy. And the impacts will carry beyond the pandemic.

Nawrozian wants to give women the skills and capacity to start their own businesses, and has her own ambitions to start her own sewing, alteration and clothing brand. 

“I’m so happy to help myself and my community,” she says. 

The next stage in Sew TO’s evolution will be to expand to other neighbourhoods. Then, the sewers of Thorncliffe and Flemingdon Park will become the trainers and pass along their knowledge and skills that they’ve built. 

“It’s amazing how from nothing you can come up with everything,” says Panlaqui.

You can buy SewTO’s masks here.

Read more TransformTO stories here

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