Marcus Hawley spent the last week of March developing a mask prototype, but he never imagined it would actually see the light of day.
Hawley is the founder and creative director of Durham-based custom apparel and accessory brand Natty Neckware, but he has also been conducting infectious disease research for the past eight years. Having kept close tabs on the COVID-19 outbreaks in China and Italy throughout the winter, where he saw face masks become popular — even mandatory — for people outside of the U.S., Hawley increasingly found himself wondering whether Americans should be following suit.
“To myself, I’m thinking ‘Americans really don’t want masks,’” Hawley said. “I figured I’d just keep it to myself, and then [I would] have some masks for the family if they asked. And then all of the sudden, it’s like people just started asking for them. I’m telling you, it was so odd.”
Before the pandemic broke out, Natty Neckware was a more limited operation, focusing on custom apparel like branded products for small businesses or bespoke ties and pocket squares for formal events. When Hawley’s friends and family, particularly those who were considered essential employees and had to continue working during the height of the outbreak, began looking for masks, he figured he could help them out by making some.
“We’re in the apparel industry, so it’s not like we didn’t have fabric. The only thing that we had to do was come up with a pattern that we liked, and we had already done that like a week and a half before it became something big,” Hawley said. “And then that’s when the CDC suggested that everybody should be wearing a mask. I would say within an hour of me [putting masks on our website], we already had three or four orders. Literally — I put it up, went walking, did yoga and came back and looked at the website, thinking, ‘Nobody’s buying this.’ But then I saw the...orders and I was like, ‘Wait a minute.’”
The transition to mask-making followed a similar trajectory for Leslie Shaip, the owner of literary-themed accessory shop BookBiffle. After seeing CDC recommendations for mask wearing early on in the spring, Shaip decided to use her sewing expertise to make masks for herself and her friends and family. After receiving “more interest than expected,” she decided to post them on her Etsy shop.
“It's really neat to see people wearing the masks that I made, and I've had lots of compliments that they fit really well, which is rewarding for me,” Shaip wrote in an email.
In addition to operating BookBiffle, Shaip has spent over 15 years working in the service industry, which was hard-hit by the pandemic. Her work remained stable amid shutdowns, so when she found herself with small profits from the masks, she chose to give back. Over the past few months, Shaip has used her profits to donate to food banks, service industry and artist relief funds, bail and mutual aid funds, Black Lives Matter and Food Not Bombs in addition to tipping “random” Triangle bartenders and servers who found themselves out of work. She has also donated masks directly to essential workers and protestors.
“I really like making something useful. I hate the reason behind it, but it's rewarding to be able to do something tangible to protect people,” Shaip wrote. ”I can't pay salaries for those out of work. I can't give anyone a job, or end racism, but I can make cheap masks...It takes all kinds of folx to make things better, and we each use the skills that we have to contribute in the ways we are able.”
For Raleigh resident Sarah Plonk, whose pun-based greeting card and gift business SKP ink bears the motto “Bad Jokes by Good People,” shifting to mask-making was a welcome way of keeping customers’ spirits high in spite of the global crisis.
“Having a job [where the] main purpose is to make others smile has always been so fun, but during this year especially it means a lot to have a business that brings a smile to our customers’ faces — even when they are hidden underneath our masks,” Plonk wrote in an email.
Plonk’s foray into mask-making started much like Hawley’s and Shaip’s. She began by making custom masks for herself and her loved ones, but quickly found them gaining traction and decided to add them to the SKP ink inventory.
“Knowing people want to walk around with our silly puns and little characters on their face is a big compliment. Our cards and gifts [are] more personal items that might be seen by a couple of a customer's friends, but masks will be seen by loved ones and strangers alike,” Plonk wrote. “It has pushed me as an artist in ways I never would've gotten into on my own.”
Hawley echoed this sentiment, saying he has grown in both business-savviness and community-mindedness since the pandemic started. Right now, he is seeking more community organizations for Natty Neckware to work with, as well as prototyping new and improved mask designs.
“I always say I want to make something that’s really, really dope, whatever it is at the time. Right now, that’s masks,” Hawley said. “I don’t think masks are going to go anywhere. I think that it’ll taper off and we won’t have as many restrictions...but I do think that masks are here to stay.”