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Not many people could pull a shirt out of their closet and know where the cotton grew or who stitched the pattern pieces together. 

The notion spurred designer Tabitha Co to create an
eco-conscious leather goods business. The Nova Scotian designer and entrepreneur’s unique bags, belts, and other accessories are custom-made to order in her new workshop on Water Street in downtown Pictou.

Since starting Tabitha + Co in early 2018, Co (a new surname she chose to help trademark the business) has taken pains to ensure the raw materials, mainly Italian leathers, are sourced from companies committed to safe and environmentally sound operations. Zippers, thread and glue also come from outfits that factor in the environment and working conditions.

“People are more conscious about looking at who’s making their clothes, their bags, their shoes, their jewellery, and where the raw materials come from,” she says, adding that it can be quite the challenge to track down that information.

Her craft harkens back to when downtown storefronts had cobblers and seamstresses, before people started buying their shoes, clothes, and other goods from big-box stores stuffed with mass-made inventory.

“I’m going back to those traditional methods and doing things more holistically,” Co says. “It’s like if you’d go to your shoe cobbler and they’ll fix your soles and you reuse or you repurpose. Or you have a bag made. It’s not mass produced, where you lose sight of who’s made it, what was the cost of making it, was anyone harmed along the way. We knew our cobbler. We knew our blacksmith.” 

She produces the “mindfully made” products in small batches, often on demand as orders come in.

Co studied fashion arts at PEI’s Holland College and got her first job in the business back in her home province as a designer for family-owned uniform-manufacturer Wearwell Garments in Pictou County.

She ended up shelving that career to raise a family. A couple of decades later, with her two children grown, Co was looking to return to her creative roots.

Years earlier, a friend had taken her to meet master leather craftsperson Paul Marsella at his home in Guysborough on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. Co asked if she could visit again and learn his trade. Co ended up apprenticing for 10 months with Marsella, who turns 84 this year.

Co had the patternmaking and sewing skills but working with leather was different.   

“In home-ec, you might sew something, and say, ‘Oops, I made a mistake. I can rip that out and sew it again,’” she says. “With leather, that’s not possible. You glue seams together and then you sew it and there’s a hole and that hole doesn’t go away.”

Co is vegetarian, explaining it’s for the betterment of the planet. She’s comfortable using leather, however, because it’s a by-product of the food industry. “Every raw material comes at a cost to the planet,” she says. “Until we all change our eating habits, if this is only thing that came from that animal’s life that’s beautiful besides feeding somebody, then that life wasn’t in vain.”

Since starting her business with the help of a government small-business training program and loan, Co has appeared on national TV and garnered mentions in the European editions of Vogue and Glamour magazines.

“It validates that I made the right decision and that I’m on the right path,” she says.   

ig: @tabithacompany

Meet each of the makers in our Made Right Here 2023 series in the video below

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