Michigan clothes maker, auto supplier switch to stitching masks

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

This time when the phone rang, it was not a luxury automobile manufacturer checking on the status of its interiors, or the women’s apparel shop.

It was a hospital, hoping to save lives.

They need masks.

Lori Stoner prepares to sew face straps on hospital masks at Detroit Sewn in Pontiac on Monday. March, 30, 2020.

In a time of pandemic, making medical masks in Metro Detroit trumps the manufacture of upholstery for Lamborghinis and Rolls-Royces or the neat, new notion in pantsuits.

Detroit Sewn in Pontiac and Eissmann Automotive in Port Huron are fighting the coronavirus the best way they know how: Sewing.

“It takes about nine to 10 people to make up a line,” explained Karen Buscemi, the owner of Detroit Sewn, surveying her new operation.

“And then, we’ve got support people who are inspecting, packing, moving materials from one station to the next,” she said. “The support people keep everything else moving.”

The process started at Detroit Sewn last week, and this week 2,000 masks will be delivered, with two sewing lines up and running.

“The masks are going from this location to 22 hospitals around the country,” Buscemi said.

It started with a call two weeks ago from Trinity Health, desperately in need of the cotton masks to protect its workers, who are, in many cases, saving lives.

“We were fortunate that the call happened early, before everything exploded,” Buscemi said. The demand for masks and other protective clothing and equipment has battered supply chains already imperiled by closed businesses and government orders to stay home.

“When it happened, there was some urgency,” she said. “But it was before it got so wild to the point where it’s at today.”

At Detroit Sewn, the quick changes have been considerable.

“We are a full-service cut-and-sew shop,” Buscemi said. “We typically are manufacturing apparel, home goods, pet products and then some other industrial applications.

Seamstresses Monika Marie, 30, front, and Analiese Zaleski, 23, back, sew straps on hospital masks at Detroit Sewn in Pontiac on Monday, March,30, 2020.

“We do patterning. We make samples. We cut. We sew. Basically, anything the client needs we can do here.

“Now, 100%, all we make are hospital masks. We were just able to kick everything into high gear,” she said.

“We were fortunate to have some materials in house that were exactly right for this job, so we could prototype immediately. And, they were able to have their clinicians approve it.”

Then three auto suppliers contacted her to join the effort, she said.

Some parts of the Motor City are going mask city.

One company, Eissmann, is signed up. Another is finalizing the paperwork. And, a third called late last week, and is in the process of joining.

“We have friends and other people in the medical field, and we know that there’s a need,” said Matt Brown, the technical director of Eissmann Automotive.

“I hear it first-hand from people work in the Beaumont systems that they’re short. They’re being issued one mask per day and they have to live with that,” Brown said.

“So we’re trying to see what we can do to help.”

Eissmann is a family-owned German company that supplies the automobile industry, mostly luxury and high-performance brands.

One of its U.S. offices is in Troy, and it built a new plant in Port Huron a few years ago.

Masks will begin coming of the line Tuesday in Port Huron.

“So, we do cut and sew products as a standard part of our business, sewing on door bolsters and armrests and things that are in the automotive interiors,” Brown said.

“Right now, all of our orders are down. We have no work being performed.”

Friends in the auto supplier network told Eissmann about Detroit Sewn, he said.

“We were able to adjust some of our equipment and put a little different line together and start sewing masks,” Brown said Monday.

“So tomorrow, we should be starting our first few masks, and then, within a few days, we should be up to a couple of thousand per day.”

Instead of having all of about 200 workers idled locally, Brown said, about 15 of them will make medical masks.

They will be delivered by Detroit Sewn as part of its supply chain.

Buscemi and Brown said the influx of work during the pandemic is likely to change their companies.

The new tasks and capacities are opening many potential horizons for enterprising endeavors, Buscemi said. At Eissmann, the mask sewing process will now likely remain a small part of the overall auto supply business.

Folks can even sew masks at home, Buscemi said.

“It needs to be 100% cotton,” she said. “It’s a tightly-woven weave. The tighter the better, it makes it hard for the virus to get through.

Lori Stoner prepares to sew face straps on hospital masks at Detroit Sewn in Pontiac, Mich., Monday. March, 30, 2020.

“And cotton! Because the virus does not like cotton. That’s what I’ve been told by people who know,” she said, referring to health care officials she consulted.

“It needs to have pleating in the front, and that allows it to adjust to different-sized faces. And then it needs to have, preferably, a plastic-coated twist tie, like the ones on a loaf of bread,” Buscemi said. “But not a paper twist tie. Those are too weak.

“And that is how it forms around the nose. You sew the tie into the mask, and the wearer bends the tie to hold the nose.

“The mask should not have gaps,” she said. “I’ve seen a number of people posting pictures on social media of masks that they have made and they have giant gaps between the mask and the face, and the virus can get through.

“So 100% cotton, twist tie, pleats, no gaps!”