CINCINNATI — When COVID-19 restrictions began in mid-March, West End-based Sew Valley closed its doors.
Co-owner Shailah Maynard said the nonprofit startup, which offers affordable rental space and manufacturing to burgeoning apparel designers, made the tough decision to lay off its production staff and management team. But, as the old saying goes, when one door closes another opens.
The facility is operating again with a new directive: to mass produce personal protective equipment (PPE), including urban grade facial masks and gowns for community and front-line workers.
“We started having this conversation before the stay-at-home order was placed in March,” Maynard said. “The bottom line is people need protective equipment, and we have machines in here and capabilities to sew products, so why wouldn’t we try and help out the best way we can.”
According to Maynard, orders and donations are pouring in from the community. She said Sew Valley has not only rehired its eight full-time staffers, but it’s hiring additional sewing specialists to meet the demand. She credits a small grant from the Haile Foundation for allowing Sew Valley to quickly ramp up production by purchasing additional industrial sewing machines. The grant also covered starting wages for four new team members.
“It’s been very helpful that we have this whole new department, essentially,” Maynard said. “So as masks are needed, in theory we can make them.”
The biggest challenge for any production facility these days is finding available material, said Jessica Hemmer, owner/operator of Hemmer Design. Hemmer, who partners with Sew Valley, is a design consultant for major athleticwear retailers including Under Armour, Nike and Lululemon. She said she used her connections with the Cotton Council International to track down U.S.-manufactured, high-quality and affordable cotton for use in production.
“The price of material is fluctuating in a huge way right now. It’s for sale, but you need to know where to find it,” she said.
Sew Valley masks are made using two layers of 100% cotton, or a poly-cotton blend, with a layer of durable, water-repellent finish, Hemmer said. While the masks are not considered medical grade, she said Sew Valley’s “urban grade” masks can be used over healthcare workers’ N95 masks to prolong use.
While Sew Valley is not producing medical-grade masks for hospitals, Hemmer said, smaller care facilities such as Cincinnati Veterans Affairs and the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition have requested personal protective equipment for front-line workers and clients.
“We’ve had a lot of different places interested in purchasing masks and other places looking for donations,” she said. “We’re doing fundraisers, so we have a GoFundMe to cover the cost of manufacturing and the materials needed for the homeless coalition.”
As long as there’s a need for personal protective equipment, Maynard said, Sew Valley will continue to do its part. She said once restrictions ease, she sees the facility becoming a hybrid by also welcoming back aspiring designers who use the space to kickstart their brands.
Maynard said she and co-founder Rosie Kovacs started the business in 2017 after identifying the need to support local design entrepreneurs. In addition to acting as a small business incubator, Sew Valley offers a wide variety of classes that teach skills from simple mending to weaving to industrial sewing, she said.
“So we exist to try to help the little guy out,” Maynard said.
But, ultimately, Hemmer said the goal is to see manufacturing and design return to the urban core of Cincinnati and other cities around the country. As a board member of the Urban Manufacturing Alliance, Hemmer said the national organization is working toward that end, citing benefits to local economies, public health and national security.
“In this type of a circumstance, if we have better manufacturing infrastructures here in the states, the region and even nationally, we would be in a much better place long term,” she said. “And places like Sew Valley would be able to pivot much faster and have a whole ecosystem to support them.”