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All Masks Are Not Created Equal: Washable, Antimicrobial Masks Made in Baltimore

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For several weeks, there was a lot of contradictory information around the effectiveness of wearing a face mask in public, though it has long been a common practice in other regions, such as East Asia. Late last Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that people wear face masks in public places, along with continued social distancing, to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The guidance specifically calls for the use of cloth masks, which can be sewn at home—not medical masks such as N95s or surgical masks. Other American cities had already asked citizens to wear face coverings in public, although there has been much debate over whether homemade masks can be used in hospital settings, especially where PPE (personal protective equipment, worn to minimize exposure to hazards in the workplace) supplies are running dangerously low.

According to the Baltimore Sun, the state of Maryland requested from the federal government more than a million masks, gloves, and face shields for medical workers, but has only received a small percentage of these critical supplies. According to FEMA documents, Maryland has received about a third of the 778,129 face masks and N95 respirator masks, less than half the gloves, and none of the 100,000 testing swabs requested. In the face of a looming shortage, hospitals, health, and government agencies have been turning to local, small manufacturing companies to fill the void. These new partnerships are creating life-saving supplies, and jobs, for those who desperately need them. 

SewLab USA, a Baltimore-based manufacturing company that constructs soft goods from sustainably sourced materials, is one such company. Owned and managed by Cecilia Grimm and Jeremiah Jones, who met in Brooklyn in the early 2000s and are now married with a young daughter, SewLab’s mission has long been to make sustainable, high-quality products in Baltimore rather than overseas and to create well-paying jobs for Baltimore residents who are “highly trained artisans, dedicated to their craft and craftsmanship.”

SewLab Training Classes

SewLab offers teaching and business mentorship for employees and the general public—often in partnership with Open Works, a maker space located a block away in Greenmount West—and both have been devoted to the goal of training a Baltimore-based workforce of industrial sewers and skilled machine operators who can earn a competitive wage.

In the last few years, SewLab USA boasted a growing team of employees and has expanded its business to offer innovative, personal design and custom products, with claims that the business is able to “grow and adapt our techniques to an ever-changing marketplace.” However, once the Covid-19 pandemic was declared, they had to lay off most of their employees. There were no more contracts for custom goods and their employees needed to maintain more space apart from one another in the work environment than was possible.

However, Jones and Grimm noticed very quickly that their business could fill a dire shortage in Maryland by sewing face masks for individuals and health workers. With one of their regular business collaborators, Nightmare Graphicsa Columbia-based company that makes custom print fabrics, and does screen printing, dye-sublimation, embroidery, and more—they embarked on a new initiative.

Unlike most cotton cloth masks, the “cough suppressor” masks include two antimicrobial inner layers for maximum filtration against airborne germs. One inner layer is an activated charcoal cloth, commonly used as an air filter, and the other is a silver-based cloth layer, used as an antimicrobial cleaning product.

“Well, what are our assets?” Jones and Rob Randleman, the owner of Nightmare Graphics, asked themselves. One realization came through family connections of several of Graphics’ employees, whose relatives in South Korea own a mask manufacturing company. The company made their specifications available, and Jones and Randleman agreed to work together to produce the Korean-designed masks in Maryland, with available materials.

“I picked up materials from them [Nightmare Graphics] on the day that they had to lay off two-thirds of their staff, with the other third wrapping up to be laid off the following week,” Jones recounts. Both businesses hope to rehire employees to accommodate the high volume of masks that could potentially be needed.

Unlike most cotton cloth masks, the “cough suppressor” masks, sold at a website called U.S. Madesafe, maintained by SewLab and Nightmare Graphics, include two antimicrobial inner layers for maximum filtration against airborne germs. Jones describes the masks’ two outer layers of cotton and/or bamboo as “benign,” designed to provide comfort against the face. However, what’s most important are the two inner layers, which make these masks superior to many others. One inner layer is an activated charcoal cloth, commonly used as an air filter, and the other is a silver-based cloth layer, a fabric used as an antimicrobial cleaning product. This design is based on the Korean model and Jones says that the silver cloth can be effectively replaced by copper-based cloth as well.

“Based on the model from Korea, we started using the materials that we had available to get production going and we are using all of the purchases to buy more materials, to get this thing into a higher level of production,” he says. “We have silver-based fabric en route currently, that will be spec’d into the next round of masks. We are also working with a tech company so that their equipment can be used to make filtration materials.” The filtration materials are currently being tested at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Jones says, and he expects approval from the military very soon.

Cough Suppressor Masks at USMadesafe.com

Who should use these masks and how? There has been a lot of confusion and misinformation about face masks over the past several weeks, and Jones is quick to point out that these masks are not N95 certified. “These masks are perfect for wearing on the street and won’t impede breathability,” he says. “If you are a medical professional, we are suggesting them as a mask cover to prolong the life of your N95 mask. I have a lot of family members who are nurses, and many of our friends are nurses, so we have been fielding questions from them and asking them what they have available, what they want.”

Because the masks are washable, nurses and doctors can enter different patients’ rooms and not have to discard their N95 mask after each visit, as is typically recommended. “You can throw your mask cover into the hamper and it goes into the wash and can be reused for visits and keep the N95 masks clean,” Jones explains, whereas other cotton masks made at home and donated to hospitals are being used as mask covers, but can only be used once and then thrown away.

Including Jones, SewLab only has three workers at the moment because there is not enough room in the facility for more people working at a safe six-foot distance. “But in the meantime, we are building out our sewing portion to match Nightmare Graphics’ output,” Jones says. “I have been buying equipment to match theirs and modified one of our machines to match the stitches they use. We are hoping to go into production next week to double our capacity, which is right now around 600-700 masks a day.”

“As a partnership, we maintain the website and inventory, quality control, and material sourcing,” Jones continues. “They are currently making the masks in Columbia. We get them and wash them and they go straight from the dryer into sealed plastic bags.”

As the need for high-quality, washable masks increases, SewLab USA is partnering with Open Works, the Baltimore maker space producing face shields through 3D printing, to share supplies and to sell and market these products together. The spirit of community and collaboration is central to their collective success. Jones mentions that Mount Royal Soap Company’s manufacturing space is also located in their building and that they have partnered with Charm City Meadworks to produce hand sanitizer locally, as stores still face shortages of sanitizer. 

Jeremiah Jones at SewLab USA in Greenmount West

To support this cause and purchase these masks, Jones says you can buy directly from their website. All the proceeds are currently going right back into production of more masks. 

“I don’t have a lot of time to spend on social media right now,” says Jones. “We are really in the thick of it and trying to stay ahead, but every purchase helps.” Jones adds that after local buyers place online orders, they can pick them up at the shop, and SewLab will refund the shipping and assign a time for pickup. 

As the need for masks increases, Jones is excited for the prospect of hiring his workforce back, and even expanding it, creating much-needed jobs for skilled sewers that can be safely accomplished from individuals’ homes. “Open Works, the Station North Tool Library, and Made In Baltimore have compiled a list of home sewers—well over 100—right now who are eager to help,” Jones says.

“Ultimately if we can get a government contract in the near future, we plan to employ a home sewing network because these masks can be made safely at home,” he says. “We are looking for the right contract and we know that the need will be high and we will need to hire a lot of people. We want to hire people based here. You can work from home, be isolated and compartmentalized, and individual volume can be variable. The more people we have sewing, it will all add up. And then we will have the volume we need.”

Jones makes it clear that SewLab is just one of many creative manufacturing operations in the region that have changed their output to produce masks. He mentions that Stephen Wise, Jill Andrews, Under Armour, and even Brooks Brothers have stepped up, with a number of larger companies, some based at 1100 Wicomico Street in Baltimore, doing bigger contracts and copper-based fabric face masks that are N95 certified. 

For anyone who has previously believed that local, small scale design and manufacturing was a non-essential part of our economy, SewLab USA, Open Works, Nightmare Graphics, and so many others are proving this assumption false. As the federal government hoards national stockpiles and mistakenly sends PPE supplies to other countries, sends broken and expired equipment to states that desperately need them, and continues to bungle this effort, it’s incredible to see the innovation, dedication, and high level of effectiveness displayed by small, creative businesses. Not only do these organizations create jobs that are based on ethical values and dignity for workers, they are providing supplies that can save lives, where our federal government has failed us.

I ordered three masks yesterday (cheetah-print, of course) and am looking forward to receiving them. We all need to do our part to protect ourselves, our families, and especially our health care workers from Covid-19. If we can support local businesses, create jobs, and bolster our local economy, this support will reverberate and circulate throughout the region, creating a model for other small businesses and to save lives because of critical shortages in PPE gear.

Purchase masks at usmadesafe.com.

 

If masks are out of stock, please be patient and bookmark for later! They are working as quickly as they can and will need our support in the future.

The author and her son, with new USMade Safe Masks
The author's parents wearing their masks on a walk
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