Coronavirus Update: West Virginia fabric shops get creative in virus effort

By Lexi Browning

WV Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Throughout the Mountain State, many crafters — both newcomers and experts at sewing — have stepped up to help fill gaps in the state and national supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) by making reusable fabric masks for healthcare personnel and other essential workers. 

In the weeks before Governor Jim Justice issued a Stay-at-Home order on March 24, Sue Pifer, owner of the Elkins Sewing Center in Randolph County, said business briefly slowed down. A calm she attributes to customers’ general uncertainty about the virus and its impact in Appalachia. 

Pifer expected to close her doors and operate on a call-ahead, curbside basis for her customer base. That lasted for about three weeks before business boomed. 

“The demand was greater than I could handle by myself,” Pifer said. 

Customers, new and established, started asking for mask-making supplies to sew protective gear family, friends and essential workers such as emergency squads and grocery store staff. 

Sue Pifer, owner of the Elkins Sewing Center in Randolph County, checks on the mask-making supplies, from fabrics to elastics, on a designated rack in the store, especially for individuals who are making masks in bulk. Photo by Anthony Gainer, The Inter-Mountain.

“We’ve had a lot of people who are beginners coming in just wanting to sew and make masks,” Pifer said. 

Some are dusting off their old equipment to help fill the need within their community and in the region.

“A lot of people are getting machines out that they haven’t sewed on in many years due to time constraints. They put them away for whatever reason. They got it out and realized it’s fun and satisfying to make a project and to make a project that will help somebody.”

The number of masks her customers have made with her supplies is “beyond comprehension,” Pifer said, estimating some customers single-handedly made 50 to 500 masks. 

The need for masks has been great and varied.

Hospitals or healthcare vendors, for example, may request donations of one specific sewing style for extra coverage on masks, while other industries may only be interested in simple “face covers,” Pifer said. 

For the first time in its 38-year history, the Elkins Sewing Center isn’t offering hands-on courses, so when customers visit and ask for assistance with making masks, Pifer directs them to various online resources and YouTube tutorials. 

“We’ve taught classes, quilting and garment construction and craft classes from the beginning,” Pifer said. “It was something I felt was very important to have an educational component that helps people enhance their creativity.”

Recently, Pifer has noticed an influx of customers, as they continue to isolate, coming in for supplies for their personal projects around the house.

“Besides coming in and asking for elastic and mask fabric, they’re beginning to revert to other products, which we call ‘UFOs’, or unfinished objects, at home, so they’re utilizing their time well,” Pifer added. 

For now, she’s keeping her mask-making supplies, from fabrics to elastics, on a designated rack in the store, especially for individuals who are making masks in bulk. 

“I’ve donated fabrics from that rack also,” she explained.

Though individuals are isolated from one another, Pifer said she feels the crafting has helped bring the community together. 

“It’s heartwarming that they’re coming together and we’re playing a little part in our corner of what’s been happening,” Pifer said. “We don’t have time to make the masks, but if we can help people create by providing the supplies, we’re happy to do that and we’re happy to see that being done.”

Though the doors have been closed for a little over two months at WV Quilt in Barboursville, owner Michelle Hill has kept busy.

Hill, who has operated the craft store since 1999, said she is at high-risk for contracting coronavirus. As is her sister, Gloria, who has kept Hill company throughout the pandemic. 

“With no income coming in, it’s been rough,” Hill said. “I’m trying to stay positive throughout the whole thing, but there are days where I get so blue that I want to stay in bed and keep the covers over my face. But I’ve got wonderful support, Gloria, my sister, has been with me since all this started.”

Hill said she closed her doors after customers continued to visit without wearing face masks to protect themselves and others. 

“Surprisingly, a lot of people do not do social distancing,” Hill said. “I understand people coming in here who need a mask, but just to come in and shop and not have a mask … that’s when I closed.”

It wasn’t an easy decision for Hill, but it was necessary.

“I had a lot of people who didn’t understand the severity [of the situation. That’s their choice, but my choice is to protect myself and my family and my customers who drop in to say hi to me,” Hill said. 

For Hill, 62, who has been worked full-time since she was 14, said slowing down was an overwhelming adjustment. 

“I couldn’t stay home,” Hill said. “Breaking the cycle of my routine after 45 years of going to work every day was emotionally too much. I had to go somewhere, so I came to the store and locked the door.”

“I’ve been trying to keep myself busy and help others,” Hill said. “They’re going through a whole lot of a worse time than me. I’m trying to keep my neighbors in masks.”

Hill, her associates and her customers have been making masks for the United Way through a grant given to the Lesage Lion’s Club, of which she is a member. 

“We made 1,500 on the first round,” Hill said. “I had to find the volunteers, and I did. We had a lot the first time around, 25 to 30 people.”

The process took about two-and-a-half to three weeks, she said, adding they were able to produce between 100 and 200 masks per day, depending on the amount of phone traffic.

Taking the occasional break was necessary, but she said the team “had a good system going.”

On average, it takes 38 minutes to make each mask, she said. 

Now faced with the decision to reopen on her own terms, Hill said she is at a fork in the road as she debates reopening or retiring. 

“Do I want to retire, sell out and say goodbye?” Hill said. “It’s a passion of mine, and I’ve got a wonderful clientele that I’ve built up with long-arm machines and classes. We were gung-ho when this happened, but I’m not ready to open.” 

The experience has been traumatic, she said. 

“I know financially I’ll survive, but emotionally, I’ll have to think about it,” Hill said. “I worked seven days a week up until two or three years ago. I’m a worker, and this emotionally hit me… It’s an emotional blow that’s indescribable, but I know I’m not alone.”

While she decides what’s best for herself and WV Quilt, she continues serving her community by making an additional 1,500 masks for various organizations in the area, including Branches Domestic Violence Shelter, Harmony House and Prestera Center. 

For now, Hill said she’s seeking volunteers to help with the remaining masks, and donations will be accepted in plastic bags for the organizations to pick up, or to be delivered. Prospective volunteers may contact the shop at 304-544-4383.

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