• Cheri Hessami

A brief history of the original Banner Bag

Updated: Dec 7, 2021

You may have seen these banner bags around town before.


These colourful, reusable bags are a little piece of recycled history from across the Lower Mainland, preventing old banners from ending up in the landfill, and limiting the use of the now-archaic plastic bag. Although you might have seen a banner bag before (or even own one yourself!), what you might not know is how they came to be, or why Jonnon is now continuing the banner bag program.

For the full origin story, we have to go back to the mid 2000s:


The now-closed Common Thread Cooperative was the original local source of these local banner bags. For over a decade, the team at Common Thread turned retired, donated street banners into tote bags, conference bags, and other creative products.


Jonnon’s founder Azadeh and Melanie Conn co-founded Common Thread in 2009, brought together by their aligned vision to create work opportunities for women, newcomers, and people facing barriers to employment in Vancouver.


Azadeh and Melanie first met at an apparel conference, where Melanie was representing the Afghan Womens’ Sewing & Crafts Cooperative, a local organization that provides work for Afghan women in the Lower Mainland. As a Farsi speaker with technical skills and experience in apparel, as well as first hand experience with immigration, Azadeh offered to connect. The two of them began sourcing sewing projects to provide work for this group of women, and started collaborating with other similar organizations across the city.

One of their pivotal projects was in 2009 - the Sew a Legacy project with the City of Vancouver. Working with the Great Beginnings Program and EMBERS (a DTES-based charity that helps people facing barriers to work) this project hired 20 inner-city women sewers to transform used Olympic banners into drawstring sports bags that were distributed to inner city elementary schools. This project was a success, hiring 20 sewers to sew 730 used banners that produced 1,100 sports bags.


After this successful collaboration, Melanie and Azadeh decided to start Common Thread, a non-profit cooperative, to help match customers with social enterprises that make textile products and sewn goods. Their goal was to reach a broader group of people facing barriers to employment, with a focus on women, newcomers, people living with mental illness or simply people whose lives require a flexible work schedule.


From the same pre-Olympic banners, Common Thread took on another project with Mills Basics, creating notebook covers for a limited-run batch of gifts. From here, the banner upcycling program continued to build popularity and momentum.


In these early days, Common Thread didn’t have its own space. All the sewers worked from home, and Azadeh would transport banners and coordinate projects across the Lower Mainland. Eventually, through generous support from the Flag Shop, Common Thread was able to establish a work space for their team to use. Although it was a small space, having a designated space allowed Common Thread to offer work for those who did not have the means or equipment to work from home. This, in turn, allowed Common Thread to increase its production capacity.


A key challenge Melanie and Azadeh identified through these early-stage projects was that while many people needed the work, not everyone had the skills required to produce even the simplest designs. In result, Common Thread decided to expand their programming to offer an upskilling program, training participants on how to use industrial machines and gain the skills and confidence necessary to take on more complex work.


This emphasis on skills training and a search for a bigger space led Azadeh and Melanie to Craftworks – a long-standing local charitable organization that supported adults living with physical disabilities or mental illness through arts & crafts. Common Thread joined Craftworks in their bigger space in the Russell Building at Clark & Venables, which allowed for the banner program to expand its production. Importantly, it also provided a home base and a community hub for members of the team.

From this new space, Common Thread took on many new banner projects with customers from around the Lower Mainland, and across the country. Projects included banners from West Vancouver’s Ambleside beach, to Whistler and even from the East Coast.


During this time, the need and value of a skills training program became even more evident. In addition to the employment income they were generating through Common Thread, many sewers were also receiving much-needed skills training and work experience.


To address this need, Common Thread and Craftworks set out to develop an official certificate program for sewing training called Threadworks, in partnership with WorkBC. This 12-week program was designed to teach students about the manufacturing process and how to operate industrial sewing equipment, ending in a practicum for industry experience. To qualify for registration, participants needed to self-identify as a person living with a disability, and work with a WorkBC case manager to apply for funding. Threadworks was funded by the Vancouver Foundation, City of Vancouver and the Community Action Initiative.


To mark this partnership, Common Thread and Craftworks merged to become Common Thread Society.


Unfortunately, after several years of programming, Threadworks ran out of funding. Although the program achieved its objectives of skills training, some students had difficulty finding steady industry employment upon graduation, which made it challenging to show the program’s success.


The real challenge, however, was that the apparel production and manufacturing industry is too rigid for most people living with a disability or other barriers to work. Long shifts, minimal flexibility and high-pressure work environments are not welcoming or inclusive for anyone who might need to take an extra break or work at their own pace.


This brings us to Jonnon.


Having worked so closely with many Threadworks students, Azadeh realized that many of them would thrive if they were given the opportunity to work with more flexibility and gain industry experience. As a trained designer and pattern-maker with over 40 years of experience working with other brands, she decided to start her own line, and provide meaningful work experience for those whose lifestyles aren’t compatible with typical manufacturing jobs.


During this time, additional financial challenges led to the closure of Common Thread Society. This meant that many sewers who were used to receiving work through the banner bag program were left without this source of income, and importantly, the sense of community that the organization brought.


Thankfully, even through a pandemic, many former customers were still looking for their beloved upcycled banner bags, and would reach out to Azadeh, concerned about Common Thread’s closure. Sensing a continued interest in this initiative, Azadeh decided to keep the banner bag program alive through Jonnon.

 

While it wasn’t the original intention for Jonnon, it is rewarding to see such support for the banner bag program and other upcycling initiatives. Recently, we have been exploring other types of projects for these banners, like bunting and picnic blankets. Most importantly, projects like these keep our team working, and provide a sense of purpose and independence for people who are often excluded from the industry.


So, the next time you see a banner bag, take a closer look: not only does it carry a small piece of your city or neighbourhood’s story in a sustainable way, but it has also brought meaningful work to the person who made it.