Repurposing for a purpose: Turning leftovers into lifesavers, businesses sew masks for healthcare professionals
In the midst of “stay at home” orders and “social distancing,” members of agricultural communities are taking stock of their immediate resources and finding ways to be helpful to others, be it healthcare workers or veterinary practices low on protective gear or school districts who are struggling to make sure each child can participate in online learning.
WyoTech, an automotive and diesel industry technical school in Laramie, Wyoming and the Buckarette Collection, a high-end fashion boutique owned by a mother and two daughters from Corvallis, Oregon, each saw a need for hand-sewn face masks and got to work, one constructing masks out of fabric from old school uniforms, the other using a small collection of fabric scraps left over from handmade western fashion garments.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and mandatory closures, WyoTech had to make a hard decision, sending their students home and suspending the remainder of the term until May 11.
“We are a proud, hands-on training institution, so going to an online model would have been a disservice to our students and the employers that hire our graduates,” says Jadeen Mathis, director of communications for WyoTech. While the school hasn’t been operating, its instructors are still hard at work, especially after learning about the shortage of personal protective equipment that healthcare workers were facing.
“We got wind that people were making face masks,” says Mathis. “We actually had some masks on hand that we were able to donate to our local hospital in Laramie, but we didn’t have much to donate.”
So, instead of calling that the best they could do, the school’s trim and upholstery instructor, Charles McDonald, better known as “Mac,” decided to make more masks to donate.
“Mac’s expertise in the trim and upholstery field is above and beyond,” says Mathis. “He’s owned his own shop, he’s been on numerous TV shows, and when he saw what people were doing, he was like, ‘Well, I can do that.’”
After a recent rebranding, the school was left with a large supply of old uniforms. Using elastic that was on hand already, McDonald started sewing prototypes. In the first four days, he had sewn over 100 masks to donate to local healthcare, with no end in sight yet.
“He’s a one man show because we are a ghost town at WyoTech right now. Once he gets everything cut and measured, he can really crank them out pretty good,” says Mathis. “We also plan to make enough for our students. When COVID-19 is winding down, we want to make sure our students are being safe and we are protecting our students and instructors.”
Each mask is branded with the WyoTech logo, some being embroidered in the school’s own embroidery shop, others were sourced outside of the school as a way to support a local embroidery business during this difficult time.
In addition to the masks, the school offered both its IT services and laptops to the local school district’s online learning program, after hearing about students in Albany County with no internet or computer, as well as a section of the campus’s dormitory for healthcare workers or individuals who contract COVID-19 and can’t quarantine at home without exposing others.
“It hasn’t really blown up here in Laramie, but should it blow up, it may be easier to stay or quarantine in our dorms where there are full housing facilities so they are not exposing anyone else,” says Mathis.
Over 1,000 miles away in Oregon, farm wife and business owner Kristi Schrock has been sewing like crazy, that is when she hasn’t been helping her husband on their small farming operation, or with their road construction business, or their aerial application business.
If that isn’t enough to keep her busy, Schrock and her two daughters, Katie and Nicole, purchased a small boutique a few years ago after seeing a need for high-quality western wear for taller girls, and have been working to launch it as well.
“Both of my daughters were past Miss Rodeo Oregon,” says Schrock, “and one thing we realized when they did that, was that finding clothes for taller girls for that type of stage as a state title holder was challenging in the least. That’s kind of why a boutique was of interest to us, to kind of fill that hole.”
Schrock, who has been sewing since she was a child, saw the need and made most of the clothes that her daughters wore while they were title holders, and despite having no professional training as a seamstress, her creations caught the eyes of other rodeo queens in similar predicaments.
When Schrock first saw a need for face masks, it was a no-brainer decision. She had a whole sewing room of leftover fabric that was used to line custom blazers, jackets, and purses.
“When I first started making them, the virus was taking over and things were really building in New York,” says Schrock. “The threat of how it was going to overpower the hospital system was starting to show up.”
It was right after a number of positive cases were announced at a local Oregon veterans’ home that Schrock says was her “wakeup call” to what could happen. A friend who worked at the local hospital tagged her in a post on social media about handmade masks, and said that it was expected that healthcare workers were going to be needing them soon.
“I worked with her to see what the health departments needed, because I guess kind of like with the Buckarette Collection, I didn’t want to just do something to say I was doing it, but didn’t actually fit the need,” says Schrock.
After her first template got the okay from local health officials, she got to sewing. When shortages of PPE masks became more prevalent and masks with pockets for filters were in short supply, Schrock got in touch with local health officials again, and after getting another pattern approved, she got back to sewing.
“There is a physical therapy office that donated everything they had for masks and gloves to the local hospital, then they didn’t have protection anymore, so I sent a bunch of masks to them,” says Schrock. “Same with the veterinary offices, they donated what they had to the medical professions for their needs and then they didn’t have anything, so pretty much anyone that asks, I’m sending them for free.”
Schrock refuses to take all the credit, noting that there are many, many more men and women in her area who are sewing just as many, if not more masks that she has been able to produce and distribute. In fact, Schrock turned the situation around and says it has actually been helping her as well.
“It’s been great because I’ve been cleaning out my sewing room,” says Schrock.
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