Local Solution for a National Problem

A collaboration between businesses, nonprofits, and donors provides face masks

In April, the CDC recommended Americans wear face coverings in public. In some areas, stores won’t let you inside unless you wear a mask. The existing shortage of masks thus became a bigger problem. 

One reason it’s difficult to find medical-grade face masks is because most are manufactured outside the U.S. A textile association in the South is hoping to fix that problem through a collaboration of businesses, nonprofits, and donors. In the process they are keeping thousands of Americans employed.

For the past decade, the Carolina Textile District has been helping imperilled textile manufacturers streamline their supply chains. Now, it’s helping them acquire the material needed to make large numbers of face masks. No single local factory could have purchased the 63,000 square feet of fabric purchased by the Textile District. The Textile District also had the fabric cut to the right shapes. A group of 60 regional businesses then completed the manufacturing.

The collaboration quickly produced tens of thousands of washable masks with an antimicrobial finish. Cooperative Home Care Associates, a Bronx firm that sends medical workers to residences, placed an early order for 1,000 face masks, as well as 500 face shields and 500 disposable gowns. The consortium also sells children’s masks, covers that extend the use of medical-grade N-95 masks, and shelter tents. The group hopes to soon push out 30,000 masks per week. 

Dan St. Louis, director of the nonprofit Manufacturing Solutions Center at a local community college, which helped organize this effort, hopes that the shift to more domestic production of medical goods will become permanent. When it comes to health, he suggest, “You’ve got to be able to defend yourself.” The textile manufacturers he and another nonprofit, The Industrial Commons, helped link together in this collaboration are all sited within 75 square miles, in a part of North Carolina where about half of the textile industry is centered. 

Molly Hemstreet, co-director of The Industrial Commons, the other business-development nonprofit that helped coordinate this work, says that it was philanthropic gifts that allowed the group to “secure the supply chain” early in the project. Donors included the Kendeda Fund of Atlanta, the Beyster Foundation for Enterprise Development, and more than 100 individuals.