While doctors, nurses, and first responders are the most visible in the fight against COVID-19—and are risking their own health in ways that go above and beyond the call of duty—they certainly aren’t on the front lines alone. Grocery store cashiers, mail workers, sanitation workers, mental health professionals, delivery drivers…the ways people are helping us all get through this pandemic stretch far and wide.
In early March, as COVID-19 transformed from local outbreaks into a full-blown pandemic, Denver, Colorado-based fashion designer Khiember Whiskamp knew she had to do something to help. Whiskamp is the founder of Manus Supply, a small fashion design and manufacturing company that provides fabrics and design support to ethical, eco-minded independent designers. Now, the company has shifted its production process to meet a major need: creating and supplying masks to hospitals and health-care workers.
Here, Whiskamp shares what it has looked like for her company to take on this mission and how they’re getting masks in the gloved hands of those who need them most.
Making the pivot from fashion to making COVID-19 masks
Whiskamp first started thinking about how Manus Supply could help when news about mask shortages started making headlines in mid-March. “Designing something with purpose is part of the ethos for my company, so it really got me fired up and be part of the movement for helping people stay protected from this epidemic,” she says.
Even though Whiskamp regularly sources materials for designers, she had no idea where to start when it came to finding the materials needed to make effective, medical-grade masks. “I spent eight hours researching,” she says.
After doing her homework, Whiskamp decided they should make surgical masks and also an N95-type mask (which filters out harmful particles and has a tighter fit around the nose and mouth) because those items were needed the most. “We can’t technically call our masks N95 masks because they aren’t FDA-approved, but they’re made out of the same materials,” she says. (Official N95 masks used for health-care workers normally must be produced at facilities certified by the FDA; a new law passed in March designed to address mask shortages allows for manufacturers to provide hospitals N95-style masks without fear of liability.)
Whiskamp explains that surgical masks are a three-layer system made out of two layers of sterilized medical wrap (a non-woven cellulosic material) and one layer of polypropylene. “N95 masks are made out of medical-grade BFE99, which is a type of fabric that doesn’t allow any [particulates] to come in and out of the masks,” she says.
While knowing what materials to use was one hurdle, securing them was another. “Most of the medical masks in the U.S. are manufactured in China, but because we wanted to get them to people quickly, sourcing material from outside the States wasn’t an option,” Whiskamp says. Ultimately, she was able to find a supplier in New Jersey. “We’re being very transparent about where we’re getting our materials and sharing that information with others so other companies can help make masks too,” she says.
Getting the team on-board
When Whiskamp brought up the idea to her 11 employees, she says everyone was on board, happy to become part of the movement of fashion designers making COVID-19 masks. “Making COVID-19 masks became our focus the last week in March. Everyone is happy to be helping,” she says. They learned as a team how to make these new masks by watching virtual sewing sessions, which are still streamed every Monday and Wednesday at Manus Supply. “Everyone has their part. One person is focusing on a lock stitch [the most common mechanical stitch made by a sewing machine] to sew something together. Another person is cutting [the materials]. They’re open and willing to help however they can.”
In order to ensure the COVID-19 masks Whiskamp and her team are making are safe—and her employees stay safe while making them—she’s implemented some mandatory measures. First, everyone at Manus Supply must wear gloves, and many also wear masks while working as well. Once the masks are made, they are covered with a sanitizing spray before being shipped. “Since the masks are being shipped to hospitals, they will be inspected by disease control specialists on the other end as well,” Whiskamp says.
Prioritizing mask making of course meant putting the work they normally do on the back burner, but Whiskamp says this normal workload isn’t being neglected. “While making masks is important, we also understand the need to help the economy in this difficult time, which includes getting our designers what they need,” she says. To balance both, everyone collectively spends a couple hours making masks before moving on to their other projects for the day.
“We’ve communicated to all our clients why we’re running a bit behind on completing projects and of course they completely understand,” Whiskamp says. “Keeping them on as clients is ultimately what’s allowing me to continue to pay my employees so they can continue to make masks as well as do this other work,” she adds.
So far, Manus Supply is making 100 masks a week and is suppling them for free to local hospitals as well as hospitals most in need (including in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New Orleans). “We’re working with non-profits to facilitate distributing the masks to medical facilities,” Whiskamp says, including Project C.U.R.E. and Advocates for World Health. The latter organization is shipping COVID-19 masks internationally to developing nations in need.
For Whiskamp and her team, making masks is a way to use their passion and talents to help those on the front lines. She hopes this inspires others to find ways to help, whether they are fashion designers making COVID-19 masks or not in the fashion industry at all. After all, we’re all in this together.