Among the few sewing machines inside the back workspace of The Window Community Art Shop, one once belonged to Katie Piasta’s grandmother.
“My great-grandfather, my grandma, my mom, and myself all were tailors,” says Piasta, dressed in an open red plaid shirt over a white tee and blue jeans. From her blunt shoulder-length blonde hair to her gold circular frames, the founder of Carrall Street Canvas Co. exudes a style fitting of her creative social enterprise.
Inside the busy workshop of textiles, patterns, and thread, Piasta leads a group of women in producing quality canvas goods. From simple utilitarian knapsacks, to tote bags, to aprons, Carrall Street Canvas Co. is a line entirely produced by women of the Downtown Eastside. Part of the PHS Community Services Society—a local non-profit dedicated to providing safe housing, harm reduction services, employment, and more—Carrall Street Canvas Co. was born out of a passion to empower women recovering from addiction, mental health issues, homelessness, and trauma by teaching them employable skills. “I’ve lived in the Downtown Eastside since 2002 in Strathcona and in Chinatown,” Piasta says. “So this is my community.”
Piasta went to fashion school in 2003, and after working for a few different designers as well as intermittently at Community Thrift and Vintage, she began to feel an itch to do something else. She pitched an idea to the executive directors at PHS and was surprised to hear that they were already working towards a similar concept: a retail location in the Downtown Eastside where artists could sell their goods. Piasta became the manager of what was then called The Window Art Shop, and also embarked on a side project—a casual weekly sewing program in which women could master the basics of tailoring and gain confidence in themselves. It became Carrall Street Canvas Co.
Since the beginning, the initiative has retained a solid core of 12 women who are employed under contract sewing, helping to fill orders of tote bags (for the likes of Earnest Ice Cream) and aprons for restaurants (such as Save On Meats in Gastown, and as far away as Original Sin in London) and other wholesale companies. “It’s an easy way for people to get back into the workforce because they can work a little bit or they can work a lot,” explains Piasta. “Whatever their comfortability is.” Recently, Piasta has also been working with seamstresses through Threadworks, a sewing employment program with the same mandate of training women in the Downtown Eastside. In addition to tailoring, the women also learn the retail aspect of the shop, helping customers on the floor and facilitating purchases (products are also sold on Etsy). For Piasta, there’s nothing more gratifying than when a customer talks about how much she loves something, and one of the women is able to respond by saying it was made by her.
“Our mandate is employing women, but also supporting them 100 percent in their life,” says Piasta. “We’re not just giving them a job. If they need help with housing, if they need help accessing a doctor or a treatment, it’s also a part of what we do. Helping them in their whole life and with everything is what I love also about my job.”
In 2017, The Window joined forces with one of the Community Thrift and Vintage locations under one roof (11 West Hastings) and one name (The Window Community Art Shop). In the company of unique ceramic bowls, vintage leather coats, and greeting cards, Carrall Street Canvas Co.’s thoughtful goods can be found. Undoubtedly, they fit right in.
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