Quality Mask Supply, a partnership of Made In Baltimore members Imperium Shaving, Words with Boards and Jill Andrews Gowns, recently secured grant funding from the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) for the production of high-quality, organic cotton face masks in response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
Imperium Shaving headed into the new year bolstered by momentum from the holiday shopping season, and business was holding steady. But by mid-March, according to owner Dan Janssen, sales of their handcrafted wooden razors had ground to a halt. As the public health and economic toll of the virus grew, consumers turned their attention to survival basics like groceries, medicine and personal protective equipment (PPE).
Hoping Imperium Shaving could help meet the need for PPE, Janssen reached out to local sewn trades extraordinaire Jill Andrews of Jill Andrews Gowns. She had already been in touch with Mike Pararas and Kim Strassner of Words with Boards about producing and distributing high-quality face masks, which are currently required to be worn in public throughout the state. In the days after those early Instagram messages, the three businesses fell into lockstep quickly to create Quality Mask Supply.
“We all had relatively successful businesses, and then, within a matter of days, they were completely gone,” Janssen said. “In that sense, it’s about survival. We don’t have the types of jobs where we can work remotely from home on the computer. Either we’re selling things, or we’re not. If we’re not, we can’t eat.”
Andrews previously worked with Johns Hopkins University to design and create hazmat suits protecting against Ebola, so she had the know-how and resources to tackle COVID-19 head-on. She said that past experiences of each of the businesses in Quality Mask Supply let them come together to innovate more quickly.
“That’s the cool thing about being a creative and a business owner — all three of us are used to imagining what we do from different angles,” she said. “Coming together allowed us to take mistakes we have learned previously and scale up really quickly. It allowed three small businesses to stay open, to carry through.”
Quality Mask Supply’s face masks are designed to fit comfortably for hours. They use organic cotton to avoid bleach, dyes and other chemicals that can irritate the skin. Perhaps most importantly, they are made by about 40 sewers quarantined in their homes around Baltimore, many of whom have no other source of income.
As production ramped up, Quality Mask Supply recruited from Made In Baltimore’s home sewers network, a growing group of home-based sewers using their trade skills to help respond to COVID-19. Andrews said that expanding production through this network helped Quality Mask Supply maximize their economic impact here in Baltimore City. The work is a lifeline for many of the home-based sewers, such as a mother and daughter duo who finish over 500 masks a week.
“Some people are producing because they need to pay a mortgage,” Andrews said. “Some people are producing because they have two small children at home and need to buy diapers. I mean, it’s essential.”
When you order a mask from their online store, production starts at the Words with Boards facility. Words with Boards uses a laser engraver as a first step to create custom cutting boards. Now, the machine slices miles of fabric into precise shapes, and can prepare around 1200 fabric kits in a day. These kits are distributed throughout the network of home-based sewers, and completed masks are collected at Andrews’ design studio for quality inspection. Finally, they return to Words with Boards to be packed and shipped.
Janssen, who manages Quality Mask Supply’s website and online sales in addition to helping throughout the production process, secured the first round of grant funding from the BDC which went to nine local businesses involved in PPE production. He said the funding allowed them to purchase a stock of organic, all-natural cotton to keep up with Quality Mask Supply’s continued growth. In addition, they upped pay for their producers by $0.50 per mask.
Quality Mask Supply will continue to grow, further increasing their impact on Baltimore’s health and local economy. Janssen said they’ve facilitated donations of over 1,000 masks to several local organizations which can’t afford large orders, adding that he hoped they would eventually donate one mask for every mask sold. They may also pursue ideas to broaden their product range such as kits featuring their masks and other locally-made PPE, or different mask styles and prints to let customers match masks to their outfits.
“We’ll be bringing on other colors and other patterns. We’re currently doing that, but as soon as we put them up, they sell out,” said Words with Boards owner Kim Strassner. “This is not going away anytime soon, at least until there’s a vaccine, and then probably even beyond, so we’re thinking of this as a lifestyle brand.”
At the moment, all three businesses are still open to orders. You can find Imperium Shaving’s premium razors here, shop Words with Boards’ custom cutting boards and home furnishings here, and browse designs from Jill Andrews Gowns here.
But as Strassner identified, events such as weddings typically generate a majority of sales for all three businesses. Coming together under Quality Mask Supply was a life preserver for these small business owners and the home-based sewers they depend on. This collaboration is working together to meet the moment, supplying the everyday equipment essential to slow the spread of COVID-19. It’s this creative innovation, dedication and solidarity that makes us proud of Charm City’s business community.
“When you look at what’s going on in our communities, all communities, from manufacturing to small businesses to restaurants, everyone is pulling together and helping each other out,” Janssen said. “We’re tough, resilient people here in Baltimore, and when we need to pull together, we will.”
Thanks for reading! Please visit Quality Mask Supply’s online store here.
We at Made In Baltimore are focused on responding effectively to the needs of our members. As part of that effort, we want to share more amazing stories from our members to our public network of local customers, collaborators and small business super fans! If you’ve got a story tip for us, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!