Update, October 6, 2020: This article was originally published on April 27, 2020, and recently updated to include more shoppable masks.
The seamstresses at Tilit were already working from home when Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York put out a call on Twitter.
“On March 20, Cuomo had this call to action, saying that NYC was running out of PPE [personal protective equipment]. ‘Small businesses, small companies, get creative,’ was essentially what his Twitter message said, ‘and start helping out,’” says Jenny Goodman, chief operating officer of Tilit, which makes chef coats, aprons, and other “workwear” items for hospitality workers.
Within hours, the team settled on a no-brainer solution. As Goodman explains it, Alex McCrery, Tilit’s founder, happened to be in the office at that moment. “He cut a mask pattern and sewed a sample, and we were like, ‘Okay, let’s make masks.’”
Tilit is just one of many companies pivoting to masks, as it were. Dozens of apparel companies, big and small, are stepping up to use their facilities or distributors to produce face masks, though the scale and actual products vary. Some companies, like Nike, Eddie Bauer, Ralph Lauren, and Gap, are working to produce clinical-grade equipment that can be used in hospitals and are distributing directly to health care facilities.
Others are making fabric masks for customers, in the hope that their use can free up more medical-grade masks for the frontline workers who need them most. These include companies that typically manufacture aprons and other workwear for kitchen and restaurant use, like Tilit, as well as Hedley & Bennett, Blue Cut, Artifact, and CamCam. Food52 is also selling masks, made of denim and flannel and created in collaboration with canvas manufacturer Steele Canvas.
“With the CDC guidelines in place recommending cloth masks for everyone, and many grocery stores now requiring cloth masks to be worn by customers before entering, it’s safe to say people want to both protect themselves and donate to frontline health care workers at the same time,” says Food52 buyer Aja Aktay, who spearheaded the initiative with Steele Canvas.
Food52 clearly notes online that the masks “are not a substitute for N95 or surgical-grade masks and they are not FDA approved,” a disclaimer echoed on nearly all of the product pages for these masks. Rather, they’re intended for regular folks trying to minimize the risk they pose to others. As Vox.com explained, “Masks can help stop the spread of coronavirus not just by protecting the wearer, but by preventing the wearer — who could be an asymptomatic spreader — from breathing and spitting their germs everywhere.”
Between consumers’ growing awareness of the importance of face coverings and the changed CDC guidance, orders are coming in fast: Food52 sold through its first batch of masks within three days and is working to fulfill the current waitlist of orders by the end of April. At Tilit, Goodman says “the demand is crazy, so we’re literally sewing as fast as we possibly can.”
But there are plenty of challenges for companies pivoting to a product they’re not accustomed to making, especially in a time of logistical limitations. “We went from ideation to releasing a mask in 72 hours,” says Chris Hughes of Artifact, a small workwear company based in Omaha. “The toughest constraints have been sourcing materials and specialized equipment. Many of our suppliers have been shut down due to the pandemic... a lot of MacGyver solutions had to be made in our studio.”
Goodman said Tilit was able to rely largely on fabrics they had on hand, though the elastic straps “were a little bit of a struggle” to source. Shipping is also a real challenge, both for receiving supplies and sending out to customers. “We’ve had to hedge our bets and order something from two to three different suppliers then cross fingers one can deliver to us,” Hughes says.
“UPS is a shitshow,” Goodman says frankly. “The demand for everything is so high right now, for things to be delivered, so getting them out as fast as we can is definitely a challenge.”
The on-the-fly pivots from aprons or shirts to masks has also inevitably resulted in snags when it comes to sizing and fit. “Fit and comfort is something we strive for with every design we create,” Tilit’s McCrery says. “Traditionally we design and test our garments over months or even years, as was the case with our raved-about jumpsuits. However, in this unprecedented era, speed and safety were of the utmost importance in designing our masks.”
The masks tend to be one-size-fits-all, to reach a wider customer base and streamline production, but that means nailing a perfect fit is extra tough. Frequent customer complaints are that the more structured masks — which are sewn and cut to hold a shape that’s molded to the wearer’s face — are often too big (which causes slippage) or small (which causes a gap), depending on the wearer. Masks that are made with a pleated design, rather than a molded structure, can require more material but are more flexible size-wise. “Our pleat design and moldable metal nosepiece form to the face better than any of the more structured prototypes we designed,” says Hughes of Artifact.
McCrery says the vast majority of Tilit’s customers are proudly sharing their masks on social media, but says the brand is “rapidly working to develop an improved design” to address some fit concerns. Ellen Bennett, founder of Hedley & Bennett, has been actively replying to concerned customers through Instagram.
Some may view such business pivots cynically, as a bid for do-gooder PR hits or government contracts, or as a sly way to ensure their workers are deemed “essential” (though Goodman says the various producers Tilit works with were already considered essential workers). But those benefits aside, many company owners say they’re doing it because mask-making efforts help keep staffers employed.
“I am surprised we were able to get to full production considering all the constraints, but the alternative was laying off staff, so we were extremely motivated to work through the obstacles,” says Hughes; ultimately, Artifact was able to hire four additional staffers to support the effort. Aktay at Food52 says the initiative has helped Steele Canvas retain over 50 jobs, and Goodman says the masks have helped Tilit “keep a few more people on our team employed.”
For some brands, it’s also been a way to give back — a particularly powerful proposition for companies that consider themselves part of the restaurant industry. Tilit’s and Hedley & Bennett’s masks are both sold as part of a “Buy 1, Give 1” deal, with each mask purchase funding a second to be donated to frontline workers in need. Food52 is selling Steele Canvas masks as a “Buy 1, Give 1” deal, or allowing customers to choose “Give 2” — essentially just making a donation. CamCam is prompting shoppers to add a $5 donation to their mask purchase, “help[ing] us to continue producing free masks for medical workers, caregivers, and at-risk communities.”
In terms of donations, Food52’s masks are going to a variety of hospitals (as a supplement to, not a replacement for, medical-grade masks), while Tilit is distributing theirs to a mix of medical facilities and food pantries. Hedley & Bennett is also distributing to a mix of frontline workers, as well as soliciting requests for donations through its website.
“Being able to do something in a time like this has been really nice — otherwise it’s just so hard to sit and wait and see while your whole industry is in crisis,” Goodman says. And while Tilit plans on making masks for as long as there’s a demand, Goodman hopes that eventually restaurants can return to their original needs.
“For the long run, our core business is to focus on helping support the restaurant industry with awesome workwear, once they’re back up and running.”