By making their tote bags locally, two designers help immigrant women learn a trade

‘We get to make the bags we have designed locally and responsibly … (and) we’re having a direct impact on the women they’re working with and that’s pretty cool.’

Tays Spencer of The Monday Project, standing, with one of the canvas totes made for the Project by Petites-Mains, chats with Fatimatou Ibrahim Sidi, left, and Sonia Hamdi at Petites-Mains. Dave Sidaway / Montreal Gazette

Jane Davie and Tays Spencer are busy enough, what with full-time jobs, young children and entrepreneurial husbands who work long hours, that they could carve out only one day a week — Monday — to work on an idea they had for a simple, stylish, tote bag.

“We decided we would come together and create something that we both love — for the fun of it,” said Spencer, who specializes in branding and graphic design and freelances as a graphic designer and interior designer. “It turned into, ‘Let’s meet Mondays and come up with an idea’ and it evolved.”

Davie, 38, studied business at university and wrote her thesis on female entrepreneurship. She has spent 15 years at the head offices of two large retail chains.

“My mum is always working on some craft project or another, so she taught me the basics when I was small and I’ve been making bags and pouches since my teens,” said the mother of three.

“Jane is more of a sewer than I am,” said Spencer, 43, a mother of two. “I’m the one who is highly obsessed with purses.”

The two friends had a wish list for their totes: that they be made from locally sourced materials, be lightweight and practical with minimal hardware, take users from daytime to evening, generate as little waste as possible during manufacturing — and be produced in Montreal by an organization with a social mission.

They turned to Petites-Mains, a social business and charitable organization that, since 1995, has helped thousands of women from 120 countries to take their place in Quebec society.

“We are looking for women who are isolated and marginalized — and we try to give them something concrete to hold onto,” said organization director and co-founder Nahid Aboumansour. “Most have no social network: Here, there is a network.”

For women to succeed in their adopted home, it’s crucial that they have a sense of self-confidence and freedom, she said. “And how do you get that? From learning. From working. From having your own money.”

About 75 women a year participate in training programs at Petites-Mains in industrial sewing, commercial kitchen work or office work; most have been in Quebec for less than five years. While they train, they are paid minimum wage by Emploi-Québec and supported by instructors and social workers who help with everything from finding a place to live to applying for a Medicare card. When their training programs, which last three to six months, are complete, Petites-Mains helps them find jobs: The placement rate is 81 per cent.

Tays Spencer (left) and Jane Davie share a laugh while brainstorming about their latest bag design — a zippered pouch — at Café Mollo. John Kenney / Montreal Gazette

Sonia Hamdi, a 29-year-old mother of two whose husband works in a research lab, arrived from Tunisia in 2014 and joined the sewing program a month ago.

Sewing program participant Fatimatou Ibrahim Sidi, 47, arrived in Quebec only recently from the French-speaking West African country of Benin. She and her husband have three children, all university or CEGEP students.

Petites-Mains was born out of suggestions from immigrant women themselves. “We wanted a project for the women and with the women, something that would put them in the work force instead of needing handouts — money from government or their husbands,” said Aboumansour.

The first training program was in industrial sewing. As it grew, the organization moved in 2007 from rented space on Côte-des-Neiges Rd. to its own 30,000-square-foot building in Villeray. In 2018 the Petites-Mains, which operates a catering service, opened a daycare centre and established a foundation. That year, programs including French classes drew more than 500 participants. Today Petites-Mains has a budget of about $3 million and employs 30 people.

The organization also has an economic arm — and that’s what draws clients like The Monday Project: They contract with Petites-Mains to do their production. “These are people who have heard that Petites-Mains has a social mission — and they come to support that mission,” Aboumansour said. Rates are competitive and the quality of the work is high, she said.

Said Davie: “I’m thrilled we’ve been able to work with Petites-Mains and that we get to make the bags we have designed locally and responsibly. We know that by partnering with them we’re having a direct impact on the women they’re working with and that’s pretty cool.”

The Monday Project had its soft launch in September; the tote Davie and Spencer designed is available in olive green, dark navy and black: an all-canvas version is $75 and one incorporating leather and canvas is $125.

The two are at work on a second design — a zippered pouch meant to go inside bags. It will be lined with repurposed scraps of material used in the production of bed linen by Montreal-based Maison Tess.

A Monday Project pop-up shop will be open on Sunday, Dec. 15 and. Dec. 22 from noon to 5 p.m. at Appetite for Books, 388 Victoria Ave. in Westmount.

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Post time: Dec-18-2019