After California issued a shelter in place order on Thursday, March 19, the owners of rowing apparel maker Sew Sporty shut down all operations and sent everyone home in compliance with the order. Over the following weekend, they began thinking of ways to help, and by Monday were training staff and retooling operations to make and ship PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) masks to hospitals and other professionals in need. Within a week they had shipped their first masks, and this week will ship up to 3000 more. We talked to Jen and Michael Gilstrap of Sew Sporty on Tuesday about the effort.
What made you decide/inspired you to start the effort?
Sew Sporty: When California directed residents to shelter in home (on March 19), we closed our headquarters to responsibly do our part to flatten the curve. We were reading about the overwhelming need for PPE and knew we had the ability to help. Even though we are a small family business, we wanted to do our part and help make a dent, even if it was small, in the face mask shortage.
After much thought and discussion, we decided to open back up so we could cut, sew, and donate masks to those who were out there helping others and fighting for lives. We were working on samples, logistics, and training our team the week of March 23, and we started production on March 30.
Once we let our customers know about the project, we were flooded with requests for masks for specific doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers. Two of our customers requested masks for doctors who both happened to work in Brooklyn. Due to their stories of struggles with lack of PPE and an unprecedented number of Covid-19 patients, we decided to send masks there first.
What did it take to retool your production to make it happen?
Sew Sporty: Fortunately, because we have manufactured all of our custom rowing uniforms and apparel in the USA since 1987, we were pretty much set up to make the immediate switch in production to face masks. Obviously, face masks were a new product, so we needed to create a pattern that our team could sew quickly and easily as well as identify and source fabric options.
How did you arrive at a design?
We originally identified a mask design from one of the many online resources that were providing patterns and encouraging manufacturers to start making them. When we worked with our pattern maker to have markers made for cutting, she shared her pattern. We made prototypes of both patterns and ultimately went with the one she had created as we felt it provided a larger area of protection.
Where did you send the first masks, and has that changed/expanded since you started the program?
Sew Sporty: We started sewing masks on March 30 and our first batch of masks were sent to ER doctors and their colleagues in Brooklyn who were in desperate need of PPE due to the unprecedented number of Covid-19 patients they were treating. The stories we are hearing from customers are heartbreaking and we are doing our best to at least send some masks to everyone who has requested them. We created a database of donation requests and are sending them out as soon as we have inventory built. Our donation requests have expanded from doctors and nurses around the country to include an entire emergency response department, a women's homeless shelter, surgery centers, assisted living and memory care facilities, and hospital child life specialists.
What have you heard from doctors and other folks to whom you are sending the masks?
Sew Sporty: Our first round of donated masks are arriving this week, but the gratitude we have already received from family, friends, and loved ones, who are requesting masks for those working with patients, has been immediate and heartwarming. Customers initial requests for masks included stories of doctors and nurses needing washable face masks like ours to make the required PPE last longer because they simply don't have enough. Several customers shared how nurses are carrying one N95 mask in a paper bag for their entire shifts so it can be reused. People are so thankful and appreciative to get any help, and the courage and selflessness of those directly helping others keeps us motivated and inspired.
A post by New York Times photographer Ruth Fremson showing nurses' efforts to get multiple uses from PPE masks.
What have you learned about the pandemic that you did not know/folks might not know?
Sew Sporty: We always try to focus on the positive and although we have learned a tremendous amount about the pandemic's crippling effect on PPE and its distribution, the biggest take away for us has been seeing how individuals, neighborhoods, small businesses, and entire communities CAN make a difference.
Can you describe the masks you are making? Are they made from rowing gear materials?
Sew Sporty: Since speed was of the essence due to the urgent need for masks, we looked at what fabric we had in inventory to get started on our project. We are currently using a bamboo ash blend fabric that we use for cycling jerseys with our sister company, Walz Caps. The fabric is similar in weight and comfort to the fabrics we use for a lot of our rowing apparel.
Is the material approved to stop transmission of a virus? If not, can you tell me what it does do well?
Sew Sporty: Our washable masks are not N95, not approved by the FDA, and not guaranteed for any medical grade standard, which is what we tell everyone that requests them as well as state on our website for individual mask sales. It simply provides a barrier, and we have been told that many are using washable and disposable masks on top of other masks to prolong the life.
How many are you making per week? What about competition in your stock for sales of masks to consumers vs. donated goods, how are you handling that?
Sew Sporty: Our first week, we were able to produce approximately a few hundred masks. We just started our second week and with increased hours, we are hoping to make 3000 per week moving forward. We currently have two sewers dedicated to working on mask donations and we do somewhat of a triage when it comes to who we send donated masks to first. Everyone requesting donations is very thoughtful and always tell us to send to those hardest hit first, which is what we have been doing.
What challenges have arisen?
Sew Sporty: One challenge was figuring out how to ramp up production to meet the demand for donated masks. Initially, We were hoping that customer sales from our three brands would be enough to support our initial costs to donate the masks. Many customers and crews were still placing orders well into March, but those orders started to dwindle as things became more serious and economic fears also settled in for many. But with the cancelling of rowing season, we knew we would need other options to sustain this.
So many customers contacted us and wanted to donate directly to the cause to help get us started, so we created our Masks For A Cause Go Fund Me. We then added individual mask sales to help sustain our efforts. Due to generous donations to our Mask For A Cause Go Fund Me as well as proceeds from individual mask sales to the public, we have been able to increase hours and almost double our output of masks in one week.
A second challenge was ensuring that our team was safe. We separated all our workstations by over double the recommended social distancing requirements, created staggering shifts to have a limited number of people working at the same time, as well as masks for all employees.
We would just like to extend our extreme gratitude to all our customers who have donated, bought masks, shared stories, and sent touching words of encouragement during this time. We always knew that rowers were some of the best people and this crisis has absolutely confirmed it.
Sew Sporty is selling the masks to individuals here; all proceeds from individual face mask sales will support the Masks For A Cause Project that manufactures and donates our washable face masks to medical professionals, first responders, and healthcare agencies throughout the country.
If you know of a healthcare professional or organization in your community that is in need of washable face masks, contact Sew Sporty here or on any of their social media platforms.