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From fashion to face masks

When COVID-19 hit, a local clothing manufacturer answered the call for help

Amid the mounting coronavirus pandemic, clothing designer Jennifer Graham knew she had to do something - she just wasn’t sure what.

“Our online sales were brisk and then COVID-19 outbreak happened,” says the owner of Salts & West, a B.C.-based natural and organic clothing wear company. “I began to reach out to people on Facebook to see if anyone needed anything.”

Instantly, doctors in Eastern Canada were messaging Graham about their pending shortage of protective face masks. To increase the supply of reusable masks, Graham reallocated her resources to cloth mask production. Thus, began a busy shift in manufacturing.

Salts & West is known for creating fashionable, natural fiber women’s apparel, like bamboo leggings, dresses and T-shirts. To go from that to creating cloth face masks was a challenge, but one Graham and her staff embraced.

Originally, the company was donating masks to doctors and clinics, but they soon realized the need was much greater, as the public was also asking about the face masks. Online demand for its personal face and Kn95 masks began to climb as medical professionals were encouraging people to add face masks as another layer of protection, in addition to washing hands and self distancing.

“It feels so good to be able to do something to help others during this crisis,” says Graham, who opened Salts & West 15 years ago. “At the beginning, we were donating many masks, but we soon realized we needed to charge for them to continue production.” 

Salts & West was the first small independent company in B.C. to start creating these urgently needed masks. Graham and 10 seamstresses, who all work from home, manufacture 2,000 to 3,000 masks per week.

“All of the fabric comes from Canadian suppliers, including a Vancouver provider,” says Graham, adding they will continue to fabricate masks for as long as there is a need for them. “We are working around the clock to make sure we can keep up with the demand.”

To ensure the safety of the seamstresses, each week Graham gathers the supply of fabric and cuts 3,000 masks at a time. She then bundles a sterilized package for each seamstress for pick up at her front door. To date, thousands of masks have gotten in the hands of first responders, the public and others across Canada and the United States.

“We have heard several stories from vulnerable people with compromised auto immune systems and older people, across the country, telling us how anxious they are about COVID-19,” says Graham. “It’s humbling to know we can help people by offering a little more peace of mind.”

Not only has Graham been providing assistance to first responders, the public and essential businesses, she discovered a way to keep her staff members employed.

“We didn’t have to shut down a factory to do this …. I started with my team of four seamstresses, but as demand grew, I enlisted another six, some of whom are volunteering their salaries to the Food Bank on their own accord,” says Graham, whose company is also donating a portion of mask sales to the Food Bank. “This has been so humbling and gratifying for me and my dedicated staff.”

Seeing the facial marks caused by the long-term wear of masks, the company has released more comfortable bamboo masks, for those who have to wear them for extended periods of time, such as grocery clerks, bakers and other essential workers.