Denver artists, entrepreneurs making face masks during coronavirus



A child models one of ModThirteen’s face masks, which sell for $14 apiece. (Provided by ModThirteen)

Tiffany Shively Demos couldn’t sleep Sunday night. But instead of draining her smartphone battery from the diminishing comfort of her bed, she got up and worked until 4 a.m. Monday on a project that has lately consumed huge swaths of the art, fashion and crafting worlds.

“I wanted to create something other than the basic face-mask pattern,” said Shively Demos, a lawyer who also makes personalized Christmas stockings, lanyards and buttons under the name ModThirteen. “This whole thing is so hard and scary, and any little thing I can do to personalize it or bring joy to people, especially children, helps.”

Shively Demos is one of dozens of area creatives who have been lured in recent days to making masks for the coronavirus pandemic. It’s partly out of a desire to help, and partly because demand for her other products — she’s sold 17,000 lanyards, Christmas stockings and other items on the arts-and-crafts site Etsy since 2006 — has plummeted.

“I have an industrial embroidery machine, so I can put words or names on them, but we can also do fun things like butterflies, flowers and princesses,” said the 49-year-old Erie resident, who priced her masks at $14 apiece and is committed to making one to donate for every three she sells.

Known for its hip, entrepreneurial approach to beer, food, gifts and other crafty pursuits, the Front Range’s creative community has quickly united around the cause, using social media and DIY retail sites to organize, share ideas and distribute items to those most in need.

Many sellers, such as Kase Collective founder Wynne Kroger, are using their creativity to personalize the masks and therefore encourage people to view them as fashion items. The hope is that a professionally made mask will last longer and work better than the hastily made T-shirt versions (although even those are better than nothing, the CDC has said).

Like most of the people rushing to meet this challenge, Kroger is also donating her CDC-guided products to frontline hospital workers.

“We really pride ourselves on our design,” said Kroger, 31, whose Aurora-based brands include the baby and toddler-focused Kritter Haus. “A lot of kids, especially kids with disabilities, don’t want to wear masks that are close to their faces. Having these lighthearted, whimsical, comfortable designs gives them more incentive.”

Kroger’s choice of patterns — many of which she designs and prints in-house — and colors help set her brushed, double-knit polyester masks (which retail for $14 apiece) above most homemade ones, while also supporting her business and the people she employs.

Following Gov. Jared Polis’ efforts to encourage Colorado’s 5.7 million residents to wear masks on Friday — he even donned an exemplary mask, something President Donald Trump has refused to do — companies and makers marveled at the extraordinary spike in consumer demand over the weekend.

Metro area makers who have turned to face masks are seeing supply and volunteer shortages, they say. (Provided by ModThirteen)

Add to that a looming material shortage and the ongoing medical crisis, and it’s clear that this is far more than a casual, crowd-sourced craft project.

Some online retailers are grappling with more than 1,000 orders per day for multiple yards of fabric, many local makers said. With large chunks of that often sourced from China, wait times and prices have increased, and several have been forced to abandon fabric shops for Walmart orders.

Kroger, for example, isn’t sure whether four of her orders from Joann Fabrics will be met following that company’s abrupt closure to the public last week.

“We started on March 14 and were doing about 100 orders per week,” she said. “Within the first 12 hours of (Polis’ press conference) on Friday, we had 200 orders. And now it’s about 350 … everything from individuals to companies ordering them for their employees.”

Daustin Harvey, co-owner of the Denver-based dressmaker Anton Larosa, has seen orders flood in since Friday for their $5 masks from not only Colorado but also Texas, Michigan and New York.

“We’ve had to replenish our supplies because it caught us off guard,” Harvey, 26, said of the jump in demand. “We’ve made about 250 so far but have had to move things over to our Facebook group, because the 15 or so volunteers who contacted us have quickly run out of materials.”

Facebook groups such as the Fashion Association’s Denver Mask Makers and Sew It for COVID have also sprung up to organize and route supplies where they’re needed most, Harvey said.

(Provided by ModThirteen)

On the DIY side, Denver-based Bluprint, formerly known as Craftsy, has expanded from selling subscriptions to video tutorials for arts, crafts and cooking. Bluprint is taking part in the recently formed Colorado Mask Project by rounding up patterns and tutorials that people can use to create their own, according to a spokeswoman (see more at coloradomaskproject.com/how-to-help), while offering a no-sewing-needed video class at bit.ly/3aZBh8x.

“So many people in the artistic community have been willing to jump in and add their range of creative skills,” said Delanie Holton-Fessler, founder of the Colorado Mask Project. “Steven Frost, who’s this amazing fiber artist out of Boulder, made a great DIY video we shared on our Facebook group. That’s one of hundreds of postings we’ve seen every day from people who are trying to both normalize this as much as possible and make into something fun at a time when that’s in short supply.”

Mile High City artist Laura Shill, along with Frankie Toan and Nicole Banowetz, have adopted blueprints from the grassroots group Denver Mask Task Force to make masks for people in Denver experiencing homelessness, Westword reported last week.

“I feel like every time I’m not making a mask, somebody I care about could be getting sick,” Shill said last week.

As costume shops around the country join the fight to crank out masks, costumers at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts — which suffered its own painful cutbacks last week — have already shipped hundreds of masks to the local medical community, with more to come.

“It is exciting to see that everyone is using their resources to help,” said Brittany Gutierrez, DCPA communications associate, last week.

She noted that 233 masks have been delivered via Athena Project Arts to the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children.

“The next project is to create more respirator mask covers made from surgical material,” she said.

These projects, which began as a way to keep costume department staffers busy at home, are now being completed on a voluntary basis, a DCPA spokeswoman said Monday.

It’s not just in Denver. Colorado State University students also have begun making masks as part of a school program, led by costume shop manager Elise Kulovany. Aurora’s Mile High Workshop, which offers transitional employment and training for people with criminal, homelessness and addiction issues, also has moved into mask-making even as its brick-and-mortar shop is closed.

“Because our team is so disbursed we are only able to manufacture about 300 per week, but we hope to grow that as it becomes more safe for people to return to the shop,” said Andy Magel, founder of the nonprofit Mile High Workshop. “We’ve already donated some and plan on donating to other nonprofits that are on the front lines serving our community. … We’ve been very fortunate to receive donation dollars that have helped cover initial purchases of materials and keep our staff employed while we figure this all out.”

The organized push is important, since most home-sewers don’t have access to leftover costume material, or the three boxes of N95 respirators DCPA had stored in its paint shop — let alone the surgical material DCPA recently purchased with funds from an anonymous donor.

That’s why masks sourced from local artists, designers and sewing professionals with pipelines to national materials represent a good way to support small businesses, and creativity, makers say.

“Our goal is to make it fashion, because we’re probably going to have a culture of wearing masks for awhile,” said Colorado Mask Project founder Holton-Fessler, who also runs Denver’s Craftsman & Apprentice maker shop. “Finding ways to express yourself and make it part of your wardrobe is important for everyone right now.”

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