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NYC-based reusable bag designer uses co-op to empower women

Deborah Chusid (second from right) with women of the sewing co-op that create Tembo tote bags. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Chusid)

BY GRANT LANCASTER

One New York fashion designer is partnering with a women’s sewing co-op to creative bags that are sustainable, fashionable and ethically produced.

Deborah Chusid, founder of Tembo, wanted her reusable tote bags to be made with fair-trade labor, so she turned to Wishwas, a Queens nonprofit that gives immigrant and refugee women the chance to make money by learning to sew.

Chusid got the idea of using a co-op from seeing women’s sewing co-ops in Africa, but wanted to work with women in New York City, she said.

Tembo bags are sewn by about 20 women working from their homes, led by Zahida Begum, a Bangladeshi woman with a passion for workers’ rights and women’s empowerment.

The women in the sewing co-op are sometimes unable to work a full-time job because of the need to care for children or cultural restrictions placed on them, so the co-op offers them a way to make money for themselves, Chusid said. Giving them a chance to work from home is the best way for many of them to make money, which many of them spend taking care of their children.

“You have to bring the work to them,” Chusid said.

Women of the sewing co-op working in making Tembo reusable tote bags. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Chusid)

Chusid provides the fabrics, which are wax print designs often called African or Dutch wax print, and originate from designs Chusid saw when she volunteered in Africa, she said. Tembo means ‘elephant’ in Swahili. Chusid has a background in graphic design and advertising, but hopes to be able to move to producing Tembo bags full-time in the near future.

Using the co-op is more expensive than mass manufacture, Chusid said, but in addition to the benefits it brings to the community, the bags are higher quality than a mass-manufactured product because they are made with more care.

Tembo bags are washable and can fold and pack down to a small size to make them easier to carry, but many of the people who have the bags enjoy wearing them all day because they are fashionable and functional, Chusid said.

“I designed a bag that I would want,” Chusid said.

One of the main features of the bag are three large pockets suitable for safely carrying wine bottles, Chusid said.

Going forward, Chusid wants to integrate designs that highlight recycling and sustainability as well as art forms from under-represented groups, she said.

The Tembo Six Bougies tote, which features a fabric from the Congo that depicts the six spark plugs of a woman who owned six Mercedes – a symbol that she was as strong as six men. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Chusid)

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