At first I didn’t think I wanted to produce a line of masks in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Even though I wrote an essay with a full-throated cry for fair pay for all the seamstresses out there (professional and hobbyists) who pivoted on a dime from their usual sewing and alterations work to mask-making, I still didn’t think that I wanted to do it, for a couple of reasons:
- First, I mainly sew for myself and I’m just very slow about it. Anything I make by hand takes forever and is usually for myself, or for gifts.
- Secondly, so many others were doing it that I didn’t feel there’s was necessarily a need for more.
- Finally, I didn’t want to cut into my precious trove of antique and vintage fabrics which, in so many instances, I felt deserved a bigger canvas than face-sized.
But as the quarantine crisis wore on, and the one mask I had felt over-worn, I started to look more closely at the various different kinds of masks being made.
While I think everyone is doing a bang-up job in trying to meet the demand for masks, I do think it’s fair to say among masks, quality and design can really vary. Some are super basic designs, often with one fabric layer, and others are more sturdily made, with higher-grade fabrics.
When I went to order some new masks I went first to my dear friend Linda Hilton of the Alteration Shop in my Staunton, Virginia community, and got two more. They were so different from the first one I bought from her that I had to know what had changed.
“I was making so many masks that I just kept making little design adjustments to get more to what I thought was better,” she told me.
And better they were — snug, perfectly executed, the filter pocket shifted to the side making the mask more streamlined, the jawline tight, and a pliable nosepiece added to cut down on drooping at the bridge and glasses fogging. I was awed!
I also ordered a super beautiful mask that I LOVE from an online shop, but it has some design flaws compared to Linda’s design. I will wear it after Linda alters it — it’s beaky through the nose front (too much frontal fabric) and the metal nose piece is too heavy, poking through the fabric.
This mask-shopping experience coincided with my scoring a “new to me” lot of absolutely gorgeous yet discontinued high-end designer decorator fabrics in all-natural fibers. These were not pieces I’d bother to sell on my Etsy shop right now because I have a backlog of about 350 vintage fabric samples and fabric yardage waiting to get listed that are higher priority for my business, where I sell rare and stunning vintage fabric pieces (over 20 years old and more). I’m super eager to get more of those pieces listed for you!
Yet, I also know that people need a variety of cloth masks these days. And they want choices.
Many people aren’t satisfied with a basic design for $5., especially when made with shoddy craftsmanship. Add to that that more and more people are growing concerned with what a sewist is being paid, or what her working conditions are when that $5 mask is made, and I felt like I had a reasonable case for adding some masks into the market for a more discerning customer.
(One caveat — many people are making masks for free, or selling them inexpensively because they want to be charitable in this trying time. So JUST because a mask is free or inexpensive doesn’t automatically mean it’s poorly made. Many are beautifully made and the kindhearted donations are something we should all admire. Linda has donated hundreds of masks, and we hope to donate some masks with our line, too.)
Existing Fabrics Are More Sustainable than New
Using this beautiful recent collection of discontinued fabric that I sourced fit nicely with another aspect of my values — sustainability.
Textiles that have already been made, such as these discontinued fabrics — as opposed to newly produced styles or custom printed fabrics from places like Spoonflower — asks nothing new of the industrial economy and doesn’t use up any new crops, energy, water, or other resources. In a world that’s straining at the seams resource-wise, and in an industry like textiles that uses so many resources like water and energy while creating so much waste and pollution, focusing on vintage and discontinued fabrics feels like a very green thing to do.
But I digress.
My point is that I wanted to do something useful with these beautiful fabrics, many in small cuts, instead of adding them to my already very full warehouse area.
So I started talking to Linda about manufacturing my designs. And she was open to it!
Fair Pay and Better Design
After having written that “fair pay for sewists” blog post I mentioned above, it was important to me that Linda and I agree on true fair pay for her services. After all, she has decades of experience in the business, is a master seamstress, owns her own sewing shop, and has a Masters of Sciences in Clothing and Textiles.
Linda had also made so many masks early in the crisis that she had modified the common Olsen Mask pattern in subtle ways that reflected the best fit to the face along with better placement of the pocket to hold a filter. Her experience and exacting standards mattered in producing a higher quality American-made mask. Not only did she deserve a living wage at minimum, she actually deserved more than that for her experience and contribution to the structural design of the mask we’re offering.
For my part, I wanted to design a series of masks in very limited fabric runs, almost each a one-of-a-kind (except a few fabrics where the yardage was greater and the appeal more broad, such as my Revolutionary War fabric from the 1940s, and my vintage seal of the United States Army fabric from the 1970s).
I wanted to have fun designing masks that reflected a reality in the midst of this crisis: That is that if, as we expect, masks are going to be around for a while, some of those masks need to be in line with higher quality clothing and design aesthetics to match special occasions, work settings, the desire to be unique, frequent re-use (thus the filter pocket), and a little bit of fashion.
Masks are not themselves fashion, per se. But let’s face it, shoes are functional too, and protect us, and we expect them to go well with our clothing and to match our style. Coats, umbrellas, boots, scarves, and other accessories also protect us while being fashionable. Masks should, too.
That’s why I have masks with dragons, birds, stripes, florals, Japanese temples and exotic Chinoiseries from top fabric brands like Duralee, Robert Allen, Beacon Hill, and Vervain (among others that are coming).
Price and Quality
I’ve had a few people ask why our masks are more expensive.
As I mentioned, all participants are getting at least a living wage and up. Secondly, these are finer discontinued fabrics, and one-of-a-kind designs, that cannot be mass produced. The fabrics are breathtakingly beautiful or cool or unique or all three at once. Finally, Linda’s craftsmanship is off the charts and our masks are made in the U.S.A.
I’ve been having so much fun hand picking these fabrics and laying out the patterns to maximize an interesting and delightful look in each of these masks for you.
My initial run of masks includes 10 designs, and I focused on men first. This means that many of the masks are perfect as a fun Father’s Day gift. Some of those can double as great July 4th celebration masks.
I’m also doing a run of children’s masks in jungle animals from a late 1960s-early 1970s House & Home Safari print that I’m so excited about, which is coming next week and in time for back-to-school shopping.
And then I’m turning to a slew of luscious prints in linen and cotton with more of a feminine feel, including many that will be perfect for weddings and engagement parties.
It helps, obviously, that I have a partner in Linda. If not for her it would be about six masks made a year for me! But as it is, I can design, she can make, and we can enjoy our small venture together. And we hope you’ll enjoy our beautiful masks and the exclusive, one-of-a-kind feature that the vast majority of them provide. You can buy them on my Etsy shop.
Stay safe and healthy!
— Lady Virginia