PITTSBURGH — When the COVID-19 pandemic halted plans to finish her spring collection, Kiya Tomlin decided to do something else with her sewing machines.
Tomlin, the wife of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, is a clothing designer in Pittsburgh, and opted to pass the time during the shelter-in-place order by making cloth masks to donate to local hospitals.
But what started as almost a side project is now a full-blown operation with her and her four team members working to churn out at least 500 masks a week from their homes.
“When I started it, I was like, we couldn’t finish our spring collection, so when we’re sitting at home doing nothing, we can sew this until it’s time to go back to work,” Tomlin told ESPN on Friday. “I didn’t realize how fast and big the demand was going to be where now we have to deliver. Masks can be made. We make masks now.”
Tomlin got the idea three weeks ago when someone sent her a Rachel Maddow tweet that highlighted a hospital in Evansville, Indiana, asking people to sew their own masks and donate them to the hospital. The hospital attached a pattern of a CDC-compliant cloth mask to help people learn how to sew them.
When Tomlin saw the tweet, she contacted the Allegheny Health Network and asked whether it would be interested in cloth masks. When the hospital network said it would gladly accept the cloth masks to give to hospital support staff to free up more protective equipment for the doctors and nurses on the front line, Tomlin got to work. She first used the cotton fabric she had and made a run to Walmart to grab a little more. Then, she and her team members ordered bolts from JOANN Fabrics for the next round, including 400 yards of white cotton for the interior layer of the masks.
‘It’s hard to sit here and watch, and people that you know are risking their lives underprepared to take care of people. It’s good to be able to support those people, even though I can’t do what they do.’ – @KiyaTomlin on making masks for hospital workershttps://t.co/HVWRtvSSQy pic.twitter.com/b5kqsuCGjb
— Teresa Varley (@Teresa_Varley) April 3, 2020
JOANN also donated fabric to Tomlin, and she collected another giant bag of donated quilting cotton from a man who had leftovers from his wife and dropped them off at her workshop.
“I didn’t think we would need donations, but we would happily take fabric donations,” Tomlin said.
Initially, Tomlin wanted to make N95 masks, but she quickly realized those had to be specifically manufactured. So she and her team started out making double-walled cotton masks with two pleats and elastic for the ears. Recently, they switched up the design to add a pocket for filters or other protective material like blue shop towels.
“If you don’t have anything anything to put in there, it’s still the basic two-ply cotton mask,” Tomlin said. “I’m not a scientist or have the FDA/CDC testing for shop towels, but I think people are going to start getting creative and we’re going to design a mask that allows them to do that.”
Because they had to wait for the fabric and elastics to arrive, the group made 300 masks the first week. They were on track, though, to hit the 500 mark in the second week.
Tomlin said each mask takes about eight minutes to make on her home sewing machine — equipment that’s a little less efficient than the industrial machines at her workshop. Even so, her goal is to produce 50 masks per day, and she’s even getting help from her daughter when she’s not doing online classes.
“We’re so used to using the industrial machines that it’s a little bit of a transition to go back to using a home machine,” Tomlin said. “When you use an industrial machine, a lot of it is automatic, like the thread clipping or the lifting of the levers with a knee. It’s like a full body experience. As opposed to the home machine where everything is on top of the table.”
While Mike Tomlin works from his home office, the two have a pair of sewing machines set up on the kitchen table and keep the masks stacked on the corner of a counter when they’re not working.
“The kitchen table is my home office,” Kiya Tomlin said. “That is my factory. I cook dinner and get on the machine while I preheat the oven.”
In addition to making drop-off donations for local Pittsburgh hospitals, Tomlin also ships masks to hospitals in Cleveland and New York.
And, with the new government guidance telling all people to wear cloth masks outside, Tomlin plans to start selling packs of masks on her website with the proceeds going to buying more fabric to make the masks.
“To me, I think, ‘Well there’s so many people that sew,’ and then I guess I realized there’s really not so many that sew anymore. I think everybody’s going to make their own, but there’s going to be a large population of people that can’t or don’t want to and would prefer to buy them.”