Who made my mask?

It’s Fashion Revolution Day, ensuring that we never forget the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse of 2013. In this “Coronavirus edition” of #fashionrevolutionday, we ask “Who made my mask?”.

The annual recurrence on April 24 is led by the non-profit of the same name that “campaigns for a clean, safe, fair, transparent and accountable fashion industry.” Citizens are encouraged to ask brands and retailers a question that centres on accountability: “Who made my clothes?”.

In this “Coronavirus edition” of #fashionrevolutionday, we address two very current problems by asking “Who made my mask?”. With the world on lockdown and thinking about how to address a “phase II” of careful coexistence with the virus, face masks are recommended for the general population. Two issues, similar to those of fast fashion, arise.

The first is about materials and disposal. Millions of single-use, surgical type face masks made of non-woven fabrics are being distributed, used, and thrown away – often as litter on our city’s streets – and this is going to cause a landfill problem.

The second is the ethical side of production: who is making these masks? In what conditions? With the garment business in severe crisis and governments encouraging conversion to meet the demand for masks, many factories are calling back workers. Where sub-minimum-wage pay and poor working conditions were a sad norm before the crisis, one that has caused disasters like Rana Plaza, now this situation is almost a guarantee of potentially fatal infection (see this article in the LA Times about sweatshops in LA during coronavirus).

Noémie Devime partnered with Hall Couture to make masks for firemen

TCBL is a community of people and businesses involved in the T&C industry who are working together to re-think the production and consumption of textiles; it began as a 4-year European-funded project and is now in the process of officially becoming a Foundation to continue this exploration. Many of our labs and associates have converted to making masks, and do so in the most sustainable of conditions.

The first step for everyone was ensuring safe working conditions. In Paris’s 12th arrondissement, the shared fashion workspace of Hall Couture is abuzz with the sound of sewing machines as almost all their production has been converted towards masks. Alice Gras says that they “respect government rules [about distance] and some people sew from home.”

For Anton Wundrak Mantovanini of Dna Merch, a sewing centre and textile collection sorting centre with 30 employees in Berlin, Germany and Čakovec, Croatia, this meant making decisions together: “As a worker cooperative we take our decisions together. We made sure that there's enough distance between workers, e.g. we arranged that there's a minimum of 2 meters between the sewing machines.”

Sartoria Sociale, a social cooperative from Palermo, Italy that runs a tailoring laboratory and vintage shop with six employees, was only able to convert 40% of its production to mask making because of the size of their production facility. In this way, however, they are “are guaranteeing worker safety, as per Italian law, with personal protective equipment, safe distance between workers, sanitization, and consistently maintaining high health and safety standards at the workplace,” says Rosalba Romano. (We already wrote about their masks here on TCBL.)

Dna Merch workers model their masks

Dna Merch workers model their masks

What kinds of masks are TCBL members making? Most are focusing on washable cotton masks for the general public, with a focus on the hyperlocal. In most places, this type of mask doesn’t require any particular certification. Sartoria Sociale sells their masks online and delivers them to homes in the Palermo area since their retail area is closed. Finding it impossible to compete on price, as they are a social business that supports a disadvantaged community, Rosalba says that they are “working to connect, at the national level, with other social businesses in the tailoring sector to deal with public local entities,” hoping to offer production services at a price that takes into consideration their social commitment.

Dna Merch has a higher production ability – up to 2000 per day – and began working for extant local and international clients of their ethical t-shirt and hoodies company. “Currently, we offer our masks in Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX® quality but we also have some organic fabrics in stock. We also can get GOTS-certified fabric from a partner in Greece,” says Anton, specifying that the latter will require a three-week lead time. Their 100% cotton masks are available for public purchase online in two models (see website in German).

Back in Paris, Hall Couture, the co-working space and some of its residents have helped Noémie Devime produce DGA-certified 6000 masks for firemen, as a response to a call by French textile group Éminence; they are normally specialized in lingerie but also has a high-tech division that makes tactical clothing for the armed forces. The masks are re-useable up to 25 times and has a filtration level similar to that of a surgical mask. Once this job is finished, Alice says that their next goal will be to “sew masks for the craftmen network of le Viaduc des Arts,” their neighbours, a community of artisans.

Innovation is the name of the game for designer Stefano Giovacchini and the Lucca-based design studio Oroburro, who have “hacked” the traditional shape of the mask and are working with an innovative material that could be a game changer. Arya is inspired by origami and made out of fully biodegradable cotton and wood pulp; the mask’s contemporary shape has nose and chin protectors and adapts to different sized heads through a series of ear slats, diminishing discomfort from elastics. “The material [from which Arya is made] was initially a filter for labs and food production, and we already have certifications indicating that it is non toxic and hypoallergenic,” explains Stefano, “while we’re waiting on lab tests to evaluate its ability to filter bacteria. Meanwhile, it's production has allowed a company of nine employees to get back to work.” Arya can be ordered online by the public for €7.20 for a pack of 12.

Through good design, testing and collaboration, we at TCBL hope to lead smart, sustainable decisions in mask-making by helping connect innovators and makers, and by facilitating the open exchange of ideas and best practises. Together we can find the best way to move forward, safely and sustainably.

If you’re making masks, do take a look at our TCBL Mask project page, and feel free to comment here or send us an email if you’re interested in contributing knowledge or manufacturing at any level.