Local Stitchers Respond To Face Mask Demand

Apr 27, 2020

Four generations of women in Bonnie Wilmer's family make masks: Bonnie, her daughter, two granddaughters and Bonnie's mother.
Credit The Wilmer family

There’s an urgent need for face masks as communities up and down the Valley attempt to flatten the curve of the coronavirus. Plenty of individuals and organizations have responded to the call.  WMRA's Jessie Knadler takes a look at this grass roots effort and how it’s brought a region in crisis together.

White’s Travel Center is a sprawling truck stop on Interstate 81 in Raphine. It’s an essential business, offering truck drivers a place to rest and refuel on their way to delivering critical supplies cross country.  R.T. Fisk is general manager of operations.

R.T. FISK: We’ve got a lot of people to worry about.

They needed face masks. In a hurry. He saw on Facebook that a woman in Fairfield named Bonnie Wilmer had brought together four generations of women in her family to churn out face masks to pretty much anyone who needed them.

FISK:  We asked if she could do 150 for us and she said of course.

A selection of Bonnie Wilmer and family's mask making output.
Credit Bonnie Wilmer

BONNIE WILMER:   We’ve done them for doctor’s offices, we’ve done them for parts of the hospital, for hospice, just individuals, we’ve mailed them out to several states. We’ve now made 5,800.

REPORTER: 5,800 masks.

WILMER: Yes, never thought it would turn out that big but it did.

Wilmer doesn’t charge for this service but asks those who can for a donation she can put toward supplies. The big one: Elastic. It’s really hard to come by right now.

WILMER:  We called everywhere from Charlottesville to Roanoke and couldn’t find elastic.  And we’re waiting on more that will hopefully be here today.

Bill Mikolay owns The Fabric Warehouse in Harrisonburg. He’s also experiencing a tightening supply chain as Americans cross country dust off their sewing machines to make masks.

BILL MIKOLAY:  We’ve almost sold out of our cotton.

Business has been so hectic in the run up to the pandemic that the shop made $68,000 worth of Internet sales within an hour before he finally had to shut it down.

MIKOLAY:  We couldn’t keep up with the orders.

Things have leveled off since then, and now he sells mask materials at cost.

MIKOLAY:  It’s not a profit center for us but it’s a way to keep the community getting what they need.

Accacia Mullen of Make it Sew in Lexington charges $6.50 for a face mask but it’s allowed her to keep her four employees working.

Make it Sew owner Accacia Mullen.
Credit Helen Bisset

ACCACIA MULLEN:  I’ve made about 670 masks right now. I’ve got 150 orders to fill and it looks like about 15 to 25 new orders coming everyday.

The community organization 50 Ways Rockbridge purchased 250 of her masks to give away to those who need them.  The experience has given Mullen hope about the future of American textile manufacturing.

MULLEN:  I think it’s great. It shows this strength among American manufacturers. We’re going to step up and we’re going to make a difference.

Here’s Bonnie Wilmer again.

WILMER:  Even though this is a crisis and a difficult time, we have pulled together and made it endurable for us. We just feel like we’re helping people and if we can help just one person out there, it’s all worth it.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends that you regularly wash your face masks, and also scrub your hands when you take them off.