photo: homemade protective face masks.
About face: When fashion designer Sloane White lost her commissions due to coronavirus, she pivoted to mask-making. Sloane White

To sew masks, build protective gear, and fabricate medical equipment needed for Covid-19, networks of small-scale DIY manufacturers are springing up nationwide.

In her studio in downtown Portland, Oregon, fashion designer Sloane White has been sewing cotton masks nonstop since her commissions dried up and she was laid off by the suit shop where she works.

In Brooklyn, Naomi Mishkin, the designer behind a made-to-order garment line, is hoping for a breakthrough in her quest to source materials to convert her Manhattan production operation into a factory for medical hoods.

And in Baltimore, a maker space called Open Works is coordinating a collaborative community effort to generate the components for face shields by deploying 3D printers across the city.

Two weeks into the campaign to flatten the curve of the coronavirus pandemic, people across the country are ramping up their efforts to manufacture the personal protective equipment that hospital workers desperately need, as well as the precautionary gear that the rest of us ought to be using.

Makers know they can’t turn the tide. They aren’t able to match the level of mobilization envisioned by the Defense Production Act, the Korean War-era law that the Trump administration has used (however falteringly) to order American factories to start churning out ventilators and respirators at scale.

“As one of my coworkers asked: Are we trying to save the farm with the BB gun here?” says Ryan Hoover, faculty in interdisciplinary sculpture and digital fabrication at Maryland Institute College of Art. “We’re trying to fill the gap, but we need manufacturers to step up. We need that. These are great rapid response technologies, but they are not equipped to deal with the scale that we need.”

Yet the demand for medical supplies has so wildly, dramatically outpaced production that the need is everywhere. The global coronavirus pandemic has ruthlessly revealed the vulnerabilities of the modern supply chain, which relies on offshore manufacturing and “just-in-time” delivery, leaving little room for error when demand suddenly surges worldwide. And that demand tracks at all levels of conceivable necessity, from the ventilators that keep desperately ill Covid-19 sufferers alive to the masks that offer some peace of mind and a modicum of protection to grocery-store workers and shoppers.

In this environment, local producers are mobilizing to  answer need where they can find it, doing what they can to turn hyperlocal capacity into distribution networks that serve neighborhoods. For adherents of the maker movement, who have promoted the idea of collaborative DIY manufacturing as a means of community empowerment, the coronavirus crisis represents an opportunity to demonstrate exactly why making stuff can be so powerful. It might not be Dunkirk, exactly, but makers are rising up to play a life-saving role in this global struggle.

***

In February, White brought her couture line to the runway at London Fashion Week. In fact, the Portland fashion designer’s custom gowns and dresses, made from 100% reusable materials, closed out the show — a high point in her career.

By mid-March, though, all her own couture commissions were either put on hold or canceled. And the made-to-measure suit shop where she works, Indochino, closed its doors. Like so many other Americans, White found herself out of a job. But she had a ton of quilters cotton on hand — material she had been saving for her ready-to-wear line of summer dresses. And her sewing machine, a Pfaff Creative 7550, is a real workhorse. As long as she was going to be holed up in her home studio in Portland’s Goose Hollow neighborhood, she decided to put herself to work.

She’s now putting 10 to 14 hours a day in to make sewing masks for anyone who asks. She’s made more than 800 so far. “If I can do something that can help in any way at all, I’ll do it. It feels better than being helpless.”

The cotton masks that White produces — two layers of 100% cotton in four very au courant panels — aren’t the medical-grade N-95 respirators that hospitals need so badly, but now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending cloth face coverings for all, orders are pouring in, through Facebook and word of mouth. White sent one batch of 200 masks to Legacy Meridian Park Hospital, at the request of cafeteria staff who aren’t being outfitted with the proper medical-grade PPE. Another shipment of masks went to a nursing home.

“I just looked online at some photos of the pattern, and then I just figured it out from there,” White says. “As long as I can keep getting fabric there’s no reason to stop.”

Other makers who have joined the campaign to produce medical equipment have access to proper factories. Naomi Mishkin, the designer and founder behind Naomi Nomi — a made-to-order workwear line for women in New York City — is one of a small number of designers that still produce all of their garments in America. In any normal spring, she would spend the last week of March head down in full production mode. Plans to put out work-appropriate bike shorts, a tank top, and a dress with seven pockets were next up for her company. Everything the line produces happens between her Brooklyn studio in Prospect Lefferts Gardens and two facilities on 35th Street in Manhattan’s Garment District. But now Mishkin is pivoting to produce PPE that doctors can use.

“I was watching [New York Governor Andrew] Cuomo’s press conference and texting with the head of one of our factories,” Mishkin says. “I’d been in contact with him hour to hour over the last 10 days. I texted him: ‘We’re making masks, aren’t we now?’”

Production on the many-pocketed dress came to a grinding halt, and Mishkin and her fabrication partners began to plot out how to retool their operation. The factories in the Garment District aren’t capable of producing N95 masks, but they have the capacity for something more industrial than cotton masks. After talking with an anesthesiologist, Mishkin and her partners came up with a plan to manufacture fabric hoods with plastic face shields that can be used by clinics and hospitals.

If Naomi Nomi can figure out the plastic and the fabric (a nonwoven, nonporous material), then her line alone could churn out thousands of medical hoods in short order. Today, Mishkin, like almost every other small business in America, is figuring out how the Paycheck Protection Program works, but she thinks that Naomi Nomi is close to a breakthrough — there’s a textile manufacturer in Long Island that might be able to provide the right fabric.

“Our biggest concern is getting the material. The patterns for gowns, that’s very easy,” Mishkin says. “We’re talking about factories that can turn out three-piece suits. Making a medical gown that’s technically supposed to be disposable is extremely easy from an engineering standpoint.”

***

For fabricators who can produce medical supplies at some level of scale, figuring out the supply chain can be a serious impediment. There’s need for manufacturers who can answer the government’s call for making ventilators, but manufacturers also need a way to suss out the new pandemic wartime logistics.

“It’s one of the things that people haven’t grasped: You need to consider the entire supply chain,” says Mike Galiazzo, president of the Regional Manufacturing Institute of Maryland. “Somebody could be making a mask or even making a ventilator, but if they don’t have the capacity coming through their supply chain, they’re really not useful in fighting coronavirus.”

In Maryland, the Regional Manufacturing Institute is trying to thread this needle with a database called Maryland Made to Save Lives. It allows local companies to declare what kind of manufacturing they can do — injection molding, for example, which is necessary to produce some personal protective equipment — and lets other companies source the supplies they need.

For example, a Baltimore-based company called Marlin Steel Wire signed up on RMI’s directory. The company makes wire baskets and other steel-form products. A medical group contacted Marlin Steel Wire with an urgent request for wire racks to hold test tubes; lab techs need something to hold all those coronavirus tests. The company is now manufacturing autoclave baskets, wash racks, sterilizing baskets, and other products for clinics and hospitals. “A steel company can be an important part of the battle,” Galiazzo says.

The Maryland Made to Save Lives database caught the attention of Hoover, who works in the digital fabrication studio as a faculty member at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He’s one of hundreds of people working in tandem with a Baltimore maker space, Open Works, to manufacture face shields via 3D printers. These makers are building their own networked chain in order to help out local health care workers, an initiative that he hopes to link up with the broader manufacturing mission.

Hoover joined the 3D-printing campaign after Open Works put out a call for face shields on behalf of LifeBridge Health, a health care nonprofit based in Baltimore. “There was an overwhelming response to the call,” Hoover says. “I think it’s one of few cases where we’ve had a similarly exponential response to the virus. One person wrote multiple people, and they wrote multiple people.”

Ryan McKibben, the digital fabrication studios manager at MICA, putting several machines to work printing face shield components. (Ryan McKibben)

More than 250 printers across Baltimore are now using a schematic for face shields designed by Prusa Research, an open-source 3D-printing company based in Prague and an industry leader. MICA’s engineer in residence, Paul Mirel, for example, is using a laser cutter at home to cut face shields. To coordinate this volunteer army, the Open Works makers are deploying an online tool called We the Builders. This site was made to help organize community printing projects, typically artworks, where everyone prints a different part of the whole; the Baltimore makers are using it to assign out and print components of face shields.

“It’s definitely not a perfect system,” Hoover says. “It’s not really how you’d design a system for this, but it’s a system that does most of what you need.”

The Baltimore initiative, led by Open Works director Will Holman, is part of a global push to mobilize 3D printers. Makers and manufacturers around the world are rallying to turn this technology into a massive wave. Just the latest example from my inbox: Camper, a Spanish shoemaker, is using its company’s 3D printers to churn out face shields and (pending medical approval) components for ventilators.

There are countless examples of everyday people stepping up to do their part to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Even knowledge workers. Kyle Wiens, a right-to-repair advocate based in San Luis Obispo, California, is tracking down and publishing service manuals for ventilators, since keeping them running will be as critical as putting them in place. These individual efforts are contributing to the local, regional and national campaigns to arrest the virus.

Parts of the new maker economy are building entirely new networks in order to contribute. There’s a fire underneath old-school manufacturing, too. Galiazzo says that if there’s one bright spot to factories turning on a dime to build new medical supplies, it’s that today’s crisis will help companies adjust to new standards of communication and digitization. “When we get out of this mess, we’re going to see that there’s a real benefit to accelerate our march toward Industry 4.0, which is all about the digital society,” Galiazzo says. “There’s going to be huge shifts in how businesses are organized to do work in the future.”

In the coronavirus era, there’s an advantage to having a regional manufacturing center, especially for cities that have been written off as post-industrial dead zones. If Rust Belt builders can shake off their rust, then they may be critical production centers for the home front. There’s no question that major manufacturers such as Apple and GM can bring tremendous corporate resources to bear. But if the federal government is outbidding states for medical equipment, then the distribution of these resources is at the mercy of the Trump administration. Even as some cities and states worry where they stand in the queue being overseen by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, many workers know that they won’t be getting the equipment they need in time.

Working together or going it alone, makers are giving what they can, despite a lack of clear instructions or assistance from the government. But then, a certain loose adherence to the rules of officialdom has always been part of the movement’s ethos.

“It seems like a very Baltimore thing to me,” Hoover says. “We’re used to the powers-that-be that were supposed to do a job not doing their job.”

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