From Repairing Suitcases to Saving Lives
New Jersey Travel Goods Retailer Puts His Sewing Machine to Good Use
Matt Gardner has been spending his days (and nights) sewing facemasks in the back room of travel goods retailer Jekyll & Hide in Ridgewood, NJ. “My sister and her family live in New York City and about a week and a half ago they moved into my apartment and I moved into the store,” explained Gardner. After his sister’s family fled New York City, Gardner spent the day setting up his living area in the shop. As he was sitting on his makeshift bed Gardner realized “wow, I have an industrial sewing machine about 10 feet from me, and a ton of materials.” He knew people were making masks, and started researching patterns, eventually churning out 34 masks over the next couple of days. “My father bought this old machine used about 35 years ago. It has saved many suitcases and leather goods over the years, never did I think it would possibly save lives,” said Gardner.
Seeking to improve quality and speed Gardner researched mask patterns online, eventually settling on ragmask.com. “The big thing you want with masks is a good seal. The first Ragmask I made had a really good seal, and I have a beard,” said Gardner. “I could see the mask billowing with each breath.” As a bonus, the Ragmask pattern was significantly faster to sew – Gardner was able to churn out 22 his first day. Gardner reached out to the creators of Ragmask.com, Jean Whitehead and Loren Brichter, and was shocked to discover they lived less than a mile from the shop where he was sleeping and sewing. “It was a stunning moment and felt like it was meant to be. I had researched so many different designs,” said Gardner “and the one I picked was right in my neighborhood.”
Gardner began speaking and texting with Brichter and Whitehead many times a day, becoming a partner and design collaborator. As Brichter continued to work on the design “my priority was to simplify things and make construction and assembly faster,” said Gardner. He is also working on a new seamless design. “We’ve been researching different materials and we are looking at using sterilization wraps as our filter, or possibly as the main mask material,” said Gardner. “That material is very thin so we wouldn’t want to punch holes down the center.”
Meanwhile Whitehead worked on coordination and distribution for the trio. “Most of our masks are going to local front-line health care workers,” said Gardner. “I hope my masks are saving lives, but if they are just giving peace of mind that’s enough.” One of the most significant advantages of wearing a mask is that it prevents people from touching their fingers to their nose and mouth – it retrains them. This week a social worker from Bellevue Hospital in New York reached out to Gardner. Staff at the hospital are now required to wear masks, but only given one per week. “We’re going to send them 40 today,” said Gardner. “I said to Loren and Jean – ‘I bet you never imagined that a whole team of doctors and staff at a psych ward in NYC would be wearing your sheets on their faces.’”
Gardner’s day revolves around hours at the sewing machine, punctuated by long walks and speaking with friends and family. “Before the COVID-19 stuff I was a pretty avid news person, but now I’m exclusively listening to music as I sew,” said Gardner. “I often warm up with reggae, then during my peak production hours I cycle through jazz, downtempo, drum and bass, new wave, and classic rock.”
Going forward, Gardner and Brichter will continue to refine their design, testing different filtration materials and branching out to additional projects to take advantage Brichter’s full shop (including 3D printer and CNC machine). While Gardner and Brichter have access to some serious machinery, Gardner emphasizes that no one should be discouraged by a lack of equipment or materials. “Even a double layer of bed sheet is a passable option for most people (high thread count is best),” said Gardner. “The whole point of our project is to develop the fastest, easiest design that you can make with a home sewing machine, scissors, and a few basic materials. You can sew masks yourself, or support someone who is sewing masks by finding materials and coordinating delivery.” The deacones.com site below has a directory of those in need of PPE donations.
Besides Ragmask.com, Gardner recommends a Facebook group called Open Source COVID19 Medical Supplies, where members offer expertise, seek production facilities, and share plans for everything from faceshields to ventilator alternatives. “I’m an introvert living in a closed store, and the irony is I’ve never been more connected. People reach out constantly to check in, and to learn more about what I’m doing.”
Thinking about putting your store or home sewing machine to use? Please email Matt Gardner at firstname.lastname@example.org, and let him know if you are using the Ragmask design and have questions and / or feedback.
More mask production resources: