Cranking Out Masks—and Other Great Ideas

Companies and individuals turn their minds and industrial-strength sewing machines—or just the one they’ve had since high school—to ways of helping in the pandemic.

By Alison Osius | March 31st, 2020

Many companies have turned over production to making much-needed masks, given the current shortage during the pandemic. Sonam Eden of Mystery Ranch, Bozeman, Montana. Photo: Courtesy Mystery Ranch.

 

Written instructions, a YouTube video, a Ziploc packet of precut material, and the sewing machine she’s had since high school: with those, Nancy Robillard of Mesquite, Nevada, made 20 masks on Sunday.

“They are so easy!” the longtime climber says.

She received the materials at City Hall from a volunteer group called Just Serve, which is handing out masks to nursing homes, retail workers and anyone else to address the shortage during our current pandemic. The group puts inserts cut from sheets of Blue Wrap material (used to keep medical equipment sterile) into the masks for protection.

The 20 masks took Robillard about three hours: She got her time down to six minutes per mask.

She says, “I’ll keep making them as long as people need them.”

Nancy Robillard, a longtime climber residing in Mesquite, Nevada, makes good use of her old sewing machine. Photo: Nancy Robillard.

You can find examples of bad and great behavior among individuals and companies in the climbing world during the coronavirus emergency. Many people are disappointed to see others still climbing or congregating, but there are myriad examples of community service and people just doing the right thing, in small and large ways.

Niels-Henrik Friisbøl of Valandré, a French company with offices in Tunisia, read about the pandemic brewing in China in January, but, recalling himself as at first “naive and rather egocentric,” says he only paid proper attention as it arrived in the Alps mid-February. On March 11, when the WHO declared a worldwide pandemic, he called his workshop together and closed the doors, with employees still to receive salaries. The company is now hosting voluntary workers to come and sew “better than nothing” masks to give to the Red Cross.

Friisbøl says, “The cotton that we have is not the best for the job, but to combat the COVID-19, you have to do it from the ground: the poor, the homeless etc.”

La Sportiva is converting parts of its facility in Val die Fiemme, northern Italy, to use its leather and rubber to create masks and gowns for the Civil Defence of Trento. The first prototypes were produced last Friday and this week 1000 pieces will be produced per day, according to ispo.com, with a goal of producing 3,000 masks daily.

On these shores, in Bozeman, Montana, the pack-manufacturer Mystery Ranch started out by donating 300 yards of elastic to help the Gallatin Quilt Guild sew 500 masks for the Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital. Now the company is making masks in its own factory. Each mask is washable and contains a slot for a disposable filter.

“They just wish they could do more,” Erin Brosterhous of Mystery Ranch tells us. “I just asked [co-founder] Renee Sippel-Baker if they will do more, and she said, ‘Hell, yes!’”

On April 6, Backcountry, of Park City, Utah, announced that it will provide 9,000 non-medical-grade face masks to the New York Department of Homeless Services. The state Department of Health has advised all community members to wear coverings such as scarves or bandanas, and the mayor’s office, according to a statement from the company, “has identified a serious need for those products within its homeless population.”

At Metolius Mountain Products in Bend, Oregon, Doug Phillips says the company gave all its elastic and bungee cords—two spools—to a quilting group making masks. When Ruffwear, another area business, called Metolius looking for elastic, also for making face shields, Phillips said, “We already gave all of ours away!”

This week a Metolius supplier in China contacted the company offering 2,000 surgical masks, and shipped them over free of charge, to be distributed in the community.

Organic Climbing—a company that normally makes crash pads, chalk bags and apparel—hopes to make 10,000 masks. Photo: Courtesy Josh Helke.

Organic Climbing, a bouldering-products manufacturer in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania, has filed a request to the state to be allowed to operate as an “essential business.” Josh Helke of Organic tells us, “We have a goal to produce 10,000 masks, and are working hard with our team and ‘solar-sewn’ sewing facility to produce these and get them to places in need ASAP.”

At Osprey Packs, in Cortez, Colorado, the former warranties-and-repair team is now sewing masks for area health-care workers and first responders. The masks will go to Southwest Memorial Hospital and the local health department, which supplies home health care and nursing homes in the area. A press release noted that the team expects to produce 100 per day. “The masks, made out of durable fabrics to sustain multiple wash cycles, can be worn over the N95 medical-grade mask. …. Once the needs in and around Cortez are met, Osprey will expand the distribution of masks to additional Colorado healthcare facilities and will continue mask production for as long as needed.”

From warranties-and-repairs to mask-making in Cortez, Colorado. Photo: Courtesy Osprey Packs.

In Washington State, one of the first and hardest-hit states in the country, Eddie Bauer of Seattle has also turned to mass-producing face masks. The manufacturer will donate 20,000 to the state through the Department of Enterprise Services, according to its website. The first shipment of 5,000 N95 masks were made in late March, to be followed by another 15,000 masks in early April.

Damien Huang, president of the company, stated: “We’ve been a part of this community for 100 years, and we take our responsibility to our community seriously.”

Also in Seattle, according to SNEWs, Outdoor Research announced on March 30 that it will convert its factory to be able to manufacture both surgical masks and N95 masks for healthcare workers. Outdoor Research aims to produce an impressive 200,000 masks a day by June.

Initiatives also abound in and for the climbing-gym world. Tension Climbing of Denver donated all revenues from apparel sales to the CDC Foundation, where the donations would be matched by corporate donors. The company is also donating a percentage of proceeds to its local gym.

 

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Eldorado Climbing of Louisville, Colorado, has jumped in as well. “As soon as we started hearing about climbing-gym closures, Eldorado started getting a significant uptick in inquiries about home walls and our climbing panels in particular,” Christina Frain, director of marketing, tells our companion publication Gym Climber. “We wanted to help …. by sharing revenue generated by sales of the climbing panels. People buying panels could identify the gym they wanted to support at checkout. The gym would then get up to 30 percent of that sale. It’s not a lot, but it’s something.”

Butora, of Lander, Wyoming, which makes climbing shoes and other products, has a similar initiative. Thirty-five percent of every shoe sale will go to a gym of the customer’s choice.

Thrive Climbing, a hold supplier in Tempe, Arizona, tells Gym Climber, “We will be creating a new special program, what we call the ‘Essentials Line.’ …  Gyms will be able to outfit a large portion of their climbing walls with high-quality grips for far less than they can right now, and put the savings towards other aspects of their facilities.”

On a slightly different tack, other individuals and companies have made large internal efforts to do the right thing.

Tim Boyle, president and CEO of Columbia Sportswear Company, Portland, Oregon, cut his own pay to $10,000 a year, according to KGW.com, to keep his employees’ paychecks going.

As of mid-March, Recreational Equipment Co-Op, headquartered in Kent, Washington, closed its 162 retail stores. REI’s president, Eric Artz, wrote on its blog: “I believe that is the right thing for our community. In fact, I believe it is our duty.”

All employees from the stores were to be paid. An earlier letter, on March 8, said, “We have modified our paid-time off policies to ensure that our employees—including hourly retail employees—who miss work due to illness or to care for sick family members do not suffer loss of income or other benefits.”

The REI website is open, and the store has waived shipping fees.

Also in mid-March, Patagonia closed not only retail stores but its website. Nike shuttered all its retail stores at that time, as did VF Corp., which includes The North Face and Timberland, with workers to continue to receive pay and benefits.

 

We know there are other community-service and do-the-right-thing efforts out there. We urge you to list them in the comments section.

 


Additional reporting by Delaney Miller.

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