May 28, 2020 Behind the Scenes
Masks — What We've Learned
By Sara Berks
We want to talk to you about our masks! Making masks has been a whirlwind of a learning experience for us and we wanted to let you in on what the process has looked like. But, first, I want to tell you what our normal product development process is like.
It usually takes us six months to one year to develop a product from concept to launch. That process involves developing a color palette, dying or sourcing threads, sending a sketch to the artisans, visiting the artisans to work on the initial designs, getting a sample made, shipping it to New York if I haven’t seen it in person on a production trip, checking the sample, making a second sample, and sometimes even a third, and then finally approving the sample, photographing the sample, placing a production order, and bringing the product to market.
For masks, we did all that, in two weeks. And, to add to it, this was our first wearable product. (Other than a scarf, which is essentially a rectangle and pretty hard to screw up!)
We didn’t have time to prototype in person, so our artisan partners sent us photos of themselves wearing the masks. We made rough edits and then immediately moved directly into production. We have literally never done that - ever. But, we felt a real sense of urgency to get these masks made for two reasons:
1. We could provide a product that was needed.
While these masks are not CDC-compliant medical masks, our aim was to help free up these medical-grade masks for healthcare workers and others in need. We decided to sell these masks on a buy one - donate one basis to provide even more masks to those in need.
2. We could keep our artisan partners working.
When the COVID-19 crisis first hit, we saw our wholesale sales halt to a stop and we had to close our store. We had just received almost all of our production for our Spring Summer Collection, which meant our artisan partners didn’t have work. Under normal circumstances, we receive an order and almost immediately place another order. Without the stream of orders we were expecting, we couldn’t provide our part of the relationship: consistent work. We saw making masks as an opportunity to keep work flowing to two of our workshop partners in Mexico.
We knew that we had a lot of back stock and production scraps in Oaxaca so instead of weaving more fabric, we started with this waste. For our first batch, we ordered 150 masks. So, we were able to sell 75 and donate 75.
Now, two months later, we’ve made over 3400 masks. That means we’ve sold 1600 and donated 1600. For reference, last year we sold 3700 tea towels, total. This turned out to be a much larger undertaking than we thought it would be! And we’ve run into a few hiccups along the way that we want to be honest about, share with you our learnings, and apologize for our shortcomings:
Our shipping times have increased - a lot.
This has more to do with COVID-19 than anything else. We are only able to have one team member at the warehouse at a time. That means that shipping is a lot slower than usual! We usually aim to get an order out within 2-3 business days, we are now operating closer to 5-10 days. In addition, our normal order capacity is 50-60 orders a day. When we release a shipment of masks for sale, we end up with 200-300! We're a small team, and when shipping would get this busy in the past, we were all hands on deck, but we couldn't do that this time. I also made the mistake of releasing masks before we physically had them, and then they got caught up in an import mishap, and we were even later to get these shipped than we should have been.
Some of our masks were really big.
Whoops! Many of you reached out about this and we’ve helped to rectify the situation. We’re so sorry that these masks weren’t as well-fitting as we hoped. It’s difficult to make a one-size-fits-most product when humans are very different shapes and sizes! But, we also did make one batch that was inexcusably large. We incorporated that feedback into the next round and our masks will now be better fitting.
Some of the mask ties are breaking.
Again, we moved really fast to get these to market! We’ve worked on strengthening the ties for future orders. We have also created a guide to caring for your masks that we hope will help to ensure longer use.
We’ve never had a waitlist before.
We don’t normally make products that go viral or have wild mass appeal (thanks to a pandemic). So, we’ve had to learn to keep up with demand! These products are still made by hand - and we don’t have the capacity to continuously make thousands. We’re doing the best we can and have decided to release smaller batches weekly so there’s a more consistent flow to you, our customers, but also to create a shipping cadence that we can actually keep up with.
That all said, we’re so excited you’re loving your masks - and we’re thankful you’ve been patient with our learning curve. We’re grateful that we’re able to contribute in a way that’s productive and helpful. Moving forward, we will strive to have more frequent *smaller* releases. This will allow us to create a flow of work that's sustainable and also create a cadence that's achievable for our shipping department.
Below outlines where we’ve been able to donate masks so far:
Two Bridges Women’s Shelter (NYC), NY State USPS (NY), The Ali Forney Center (NYC), Albergue Diocesano 'Belén' Migrant Shelter (Chiapas, MX), Scribner’s Lodge, Rolling Grocer (Hudson, NY), The Navajo Nation (Window Rock, AZ), Black Lives Matter Protest (NYC), Columbia County Sanctuary Movement (Hudson, NY), Kites Nest (Hudson, NY), Hudson Youth Department (Hudson, NY), Woodbine (Brooklyn).
We’re still looking for organizations in need as we have more masks to donate! If you have any suggestions, please send them our way.