Craftspeople Are Addressing the Long-Term Need for Stylish and Protective Face Coverings
Innovation isn’t always a gadget. Sometimes, it’s taking what you have and finding purpose in the moment.
Using their skill sets, supply chains and access to experienced seamstresses, Black Houstonians have pivoted from making quilts, backpacks and apparel to producing masks to provide protection during the COVID-19 pandemic.
These women had the materials and talent that others didn’t.
When the pandemic first hit, craft stores across the Houston area posted signs on their doors announcing that they were out of three items: Sewing machines, lightweight fabrics and elastic – all items needed for making face masks.
But artist Michelle Barnes, co-founder and executive director of the Community Artists’ Collective in Third Ward, had plenty of materials and know-how to get started when the nonprofit’s normal operations were curtailed in mid-March.
“It was clear to me that we were going to need masks. I’m a very practical form and function kind of person. I just started making a couple of masks because we had the cloth there. There were only two of us in the office,” she said.
The cotton masks are washable and reusable.
“They are basically from remnants of fabrics we have had on hand at the Collective and in our personal stashes. Quilters and seamstresses always have fabric,” Barnes said. “I just experimented knowing fabrics and knowing that the mask needed to conform to the face. I didn’t take the time to develop a shaped fabric, but I just used flat fabric folded accordion-style with contrasting ties.”
The pleated, rectangular design fits over an N95 mask and has a pocket that can hold a filter. Barnes later found a curved pattern from Japan that she used for a second mask style.
Leslie Abrams, quilting instructor and Jubilee Quilt Circle manager, also has been making masks. Combined, she and Barnes have assembled more than 500 face coverings in their respective homes and studios.
In addition, there’s a spiritual component to work from the hands of these Black women.
“I care so much about people in our community. I want people to be healthy and I want them to have what they need. I want them to value what we are able to do by making things,” Barnes said. “We have been in this country for almost 500 years. We were brought here because we knew how to do things – how to farm, how to build, how to carve. That tradition has not died with our generation.”
To order masks from the Collective, email email@example.com or call 713-523-1616. Pickups at the Collective, 4101 San Jacinto Street, Suite 116, can be scheduled upon request. Visit www.thecollective.org/community for additional information.
The suggested price for each mask is $15 with a recommended mailing fee of $1.50 per mask.
“We don’t want cost to be prohibitive. We want people to have the masks, but we also want them to value what we’re doing. That’s why we have the suggested donation and mail charge,” Barnes said.
The masks provide income while the Collective, which usually conducts classes, is closed.
“We are not able to invite people in on a weekly basis to view the exhibition and consider buying something from the gift shop or from the exhibition. We’ve not been able to conduct our after-school classes at schools and community centers. We usually charge a fee for that,” Barnes said. “During this pandemic, we are not able to operate our programs the way that we usually do. It is very helpful to have this regular infusion of cash. We still have rent to pay and other bills.”
Shannette Prince, founder of Africa On My Back, has spent the last three years selling backpacks and other items produced in West Africa from her Houston-based business.
She fell in love with Ghana after visiting in 2015 and started her company in 2017 while she was working as a charter school fundraiser.
“I knew that all students needed backpacks, so I got started from there,” she said.A portion of all sales is directed to a “Brilliant Black Boy” travel initiative that takes African American males to the Continent. Her last group to go to Ghana returned in mid-March after navigating international travel in the early days of the global pandemic. The reality of COVID-19 also “lit a fire under her,” she said, to do something to empower people in Ghana and provide colorful masks in African prints stateside.
“I knew that face masks were going to become something that everybody was going to need. I knew that if the African-print backpacks showed strength and pride, then the face masks would do the same thing. I contacted my manufacturer in Ghana two weeks after we got back,” Prince said. “We are allowing the artisans that we work with in Ghana, who are small business owners, to thrive. As Africa On My Back thrives, so do their businesses. They’re able to send their kids to school and make sure their families are taken care of.”
AfricanOnMyBack.com has been offering masks since April, which became the company’s highest grossing month to that point, Prince said. Customers across the United States have placed orders.
“It’s very expensive for me to bring over the backpacks because of the weight, but with the face masks, because they’re so light, the shipping isn’t an issue, so I got 1,500 off the top. After those ran out, I was able to activate people in the United States. It’s inexpensive to make them and you can make them faster than garments or backpacks,” she said.
Face coverings for children are $12. Regular masks are $15. Masks with a filter pocket are $18.
“People need multiple masks,” Prince added. “I’ve had people who bought five and turned around and bought six more. If I have to wear a mask, I want to wear something stylish.”
Initially, the local need for masks was a call to action for Onyinyechi Brown, founder of Onyii & Co., which produces African-inspired apparel.
The Nigerian immigrant had been thinking about new revenue streams for the company even before COVID-19.
“One of my girlfriends in the medical field said: ‘We need masks.’ So, I started making masks to give away and that led to me working with volunteers at my church,” said Brown, who is a member of The R.O.C.K. World Outreach International in southeast Houston where Dr. Dana Carson is Senior Pastor and CEO. The church’s “We Care” initiative produces masks free of charge to front line medical personnel and other essential workers. (Visit http://therockwoi.com/we-care/ for more information about the effort.)
“We have sewing machines at the church and we were giving away masks strictly for medical professionals. I had all this fabric from previous seasons I was accumulating. It all came into place,” Brown said. “We were able to make thousands of masks. I made patterns. Some people would cut. Some people would sew. We posted on a website to come get masks and people would come. Then people asked: ‘How do I buy a mask?’”
The fashionista coordinated the church’s outreach effort for a month before she started selling masks on onyiiandco.com in mid-April. She hired a new cutter who delivers prepared fabric to nimble craftswomen who each assemble about 50 masks a day.
“They are talented seamstresses supporting their families in this pandemic,” Brown said. Most of her employees in Houston are Vietnamese and Mexican, while the ones in Nigeria are African. “I want to be able to take care of the women who support my business.”
The average price for an Onyii & Co. garment is about $300 and out of reach for many consumers.
“It’s nice to have people buying masks who say they can’t afford to buy Onyii & Co., but this is something they can afford to do – repeatedly. They don’t just order one. The average sale is almost $200,” she added.
The masks are $15 and come in male, female/teen, kids and toddler sizes. They are 100 percent cotton and washable. Each has a pocket for a filter.
“I’m grateful,” Brown said. “I get a lot of orders every single day.”
For more information click below.
Community Artists’ Collective: https://www.thecollective.org/community
Africa On My Back: https://www.africaonmyback.com
Onyii & Co.: https://onyiiandco.com
The R.O.C.K. World Outreach International “We Care” initiative: http://therockwoi.com/we-care/