The Art of Mask Making

Olivia Griffin.

How Louisville artists are making masks to support one another, our community and the world 

By Liz Bingham
Photos by Andrea Hutchinson
Clayton & Crume photo provided

Ever since mid-March, when businesses were forced to close due to COVID-19, local artists with the ability to sew all across Louisville hit pause on their typical crafts and started making masks. We had the opportunity to interview nine of these artists and mask makers to learn about how they’re making them, why they’re making them, who they’re making them for, what they think the future holds and what it’s like to be an artist, entrepreneur and small business owner during this time. 

One such individual that we interviewed who encompasses all of these traits — as she is a trained seamstress, costume designer, fashion designer, hat designer and small business owner — is The Mysterious Rack and Limbo owner, Olivia Griffin. Originally from San Francisco, Olivia brought her trade to Louisville six years ago. We interviewed her on the Thursday before the traditional Derby date, May 2, a day she said would typically be her busiest day of the year. Her hat shop, The Mysterious Rack, is located downtown on South Fourth Street, where her usual out-of-town Derby visitors rush is something she can rely on every year, but this year was different. Additionally, Griffin owns the local tiki bar, The Limbo, also located downtown, which she says was her first concern when the closings due to the pandemic began. “I was trying to figure out how to turn it into takeout, meanwhile, everyone I knew was emailing me pleas for cloth face masks way early on. I knew it was time to shift my focus away from the bar and back to how I can help,” said Griffin. 

Pulling from every piece of usable fabric, ribbons and materials she already had in her workspace, she started making masks to help her friend, Alex Ludwig, who is the Costume Department Manager for the Louisville Ballet, who was hired to make masks for the TARC bus drivers. “As soon as I posted that I was making masks on social media, individuals started requesting them who were ahead of the curve and thought, ‘Okay, this is going to be serious and we’re going to need this protection,’” said Griffin. Rainbow Blossom also reached out requesting masks, so she quickly got to work on producing more for them, “Meanwhile, the whole time I was changing the entire design and trying to make it better in any way that I could. I basically built an entirely new product line in five weeks that we’re shipping out all over the country.” 

To keep up with demand, Griffin was able to hire five other individuals to help her make the masks, some of which were workers who lost their jobs due to COVID-19, and continued to develop her design to suit the needs of her buyers and those she was donating them to. This includes a waterproof mask made specifically for medical professionals that can be wiped down between each patient visit. “I think this is going to be very helpful for those nurses who don’t need an N95 mask but do need something that can be sanitized when needed,” Griffin said. “I’m seeing so many surgical masks now that aren’t well fitted to the face and are not even as well fitted as my cloth masks are. We’ve taken a lot of people’s input into consideration when adjusting the design. Most of the nurses don’t like the ear elastics, so we make ours to go around the whole head. We also take into consideration head sizes, so we have different sizes available on our website.”

She then decided she wanted to focus her production on making masks solely for nursing homes in need. “I decided early on that I wanted my donations to focus in on one area of need, instead of making them for everyone. So we picked local nursing homes first in Louisville and then expanded to Kentucky as a whole.” She estimated that they provide 25-50 masks to nursing homes a day. “Some of them need maybe 150 or more masks at a time, but instead of waiting until we have 150 to give, it’s better to give them whatever we have at the end of the day so the elderly population can be protected sooner.”

When asked about whether or not the pandemic has changed the way she thinks about her artistic work going forward, Griffin commented, “If you’re not reevaluating your whole life and business right now, you’re going to be behind. There’s no question. We can only predict how this will affect everything, but we can make some accurate predictions.”

Looking ahead to how businesses will function once the pandemic is behind us, Griffin expects life the way we knew it to operate drastically differently than the way things were before. “We’ve already seen brick and mortar do a nose dive and this is pretty much the nail in the coffin unless you’re really creating something bespoke or have a really unique experience that a customer can’t get off Amazon. Sadly, I think we’re going to see a lot of brick and mortar and neighborhoods shut down. Maybe they’ll move online successfully and maybe they won’t.”

Griffin will personally have to change and reevaluate her main product which has been making hats predominantly for out of town guests who stay at the hotels downtown located close to her store. “If people aren’t going to be traveling as much as they were, and if there are going to be restrictions on gatherings until we have a vaccine, conventions and festivals will be out of the picture. All the business I used to see I’m not going to see.” 

To adjust to our changing times and to prepare for a future currently unknown, Griffin plans to do two things. “One, I’m going to have to figure out what locals want that they can’t get on Amazon or from another larger producer. I have to think about what people are going to be wanting to wear. It’s not the best thing for everyone’s mental health to be in pajamas and sweatpants seven days a week.”

Griffin continues, “People are going to be able to work from home a lot more often, which I think is cool and a positive thing, but when you put on a fresh outfit, makeup and jewelry, or whatever your routine is, it cheers you up and makes you feel good about yourself. What is fashion going to look like for these people who are mostly staying at home to work and live their lives? Is there a hybrid of fashion between comfortable clothing that is also interesting and unique? I’m excited to come up with some new stuff that is more bespoke, more one-of-a-kind. I’ve also been thinking about creating items of clothing that hold or contain people’s memories in them because of all the hardships and losses people have been experiencing. Like a modern-day quilt that’s fashionable.” 

Olivia Griffin.

When asked what she thinks the future holds, Griffin said, “I also plan to keep making face masks because I think in general people will become more comfortable wearing them on the day to day, even once there’s a vaccine. I mean look at China and other Asian countries. It’s just normal for people to wear them for pollution and the common flu that we already get. Especially people with immunocompromised systems and elderly people will be used to wearing masks. I don’t think they’ll be going away for a very long time, because we could see COVID-19 mutate into something else and need another vaccine. I’m projecting masks to last at least a year or two, if not more.”

Regarding the status of her tiki bar, The Limbo, Griffin describes a process of attempting to integrate the masks with her current bar offerings. “I’ve been putting together bundles that I’m pre-selling and then delivering. It’s less of a whim and more like ‘I want this bundle for tomorrow night.’ It includes things like our homemade empanadas and coconut chocolate chip cookies, a quart or gallon of cocktails and a face mask. I’m trying to smash my businesses together more than ever before.”

Another local artist and fascinator designer, Tiffany Woodard, had a similar initial trajectory to entering the mask making arena. Like Griffin, Woodard, who also typically relies on the Derby season to be her busiest time of year, began creating masks from her home studio for both TARC workers and Rainbow Blossom. Prior to COVID-19, in addition to planning and spending nearly 10 months of the year gathering materials and preparing for the demand of fascinator buyers come the Derby season, Woodard also works in the Amazon photo studio located in Jeffersonville, IN. “When the pandemic hit and it was evident that the Derby wasn’t going to happen, I brought everything to a halt. For the first week, I was still able to go to work in the photo studio at Amazon, but by the second week, it just didn’t feel safe anymore. So I stayed home and was just trying to figure out what to do with my time.”

Tiffany Woodard.

Soon after, like Griffin, the Costume Department Manager for the Louisville Ballet, Alex Ludwig, reached out requesting help to make 700 masks for TARC workers. Luckily, Woodard has numerous friends who know how to sew, so she was able to “rally the troops.” She made 65 before running out of elastic from supplies provided by the Louisville Ballet. “Once we ran out of supplies, all these people were texting me asking if I was making masks, and at the time, I was only making them for the TARC bus drivers and not for everyone.” Because the need was there, Woodard altered the design and began taking requests. “When I posted on social media that I was making masks, it blew up. I couldn’t answer the inquiries fast enough. I got 90 orders in just the first day that I posted it!” 

Because Woodard is also a trained seamstress in addition to her fascinator making skills, like Griffin, she had her own supply of fabric that she was holding onto and had been collecting over the years that she was happy to finally have a use for. “It’s actually been really therapeutic because when you have something that takes up space that you can’t bring yourself to get rid of but don’t actually have a purpose for, it’s somewhat daunting. Being able to process through it, use it and have it be something that’s actually beneficial, useful and a way to provide income, has felt really great.” 

We also discussed the types of fabrics used and why cotton is preferable. Woodard says, “You can use synthetics, but they’re not as breathable.” Woodard mentioned that reusing old clothing items has been popular and is a great way to recycle things being unused, like old men’s dress shirts or hospital scrubs. “The problem with this is that, everything happened so fast, that there is not much research behind any of it. So people will say, ‘How long can I use my filter?’ And I say, ‘I don’t have an answer because there’s no research behind any of this and I’m not a scientist.’ At first they were saying 100% cotton, and now I’m seeing more studies that are saying if you use a blend with chiffon, then the chiffon can actually filter out germs better. But I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I just try to be extremely transparent.” 

Texas A&M released a video from their science department that discusses the use and efficacy of air filters in the masks, which is where Woodard got her idea to do so. “I went and found the highest quality air filter I could find and it says it filters out viruses, but I’m also very realistic with people. I tell them that the main purpose of a mask is, if you’re asymptomatic, you’re not spreading it. I really can’t speak to how well this can protect you from the virus because it’s not an N95 mask. The only thing I feel like I can do is be really honest with people, but I do know a lot of people feel more secure with a filter.” 

When asked if she feels that the pandemic has changed the way she thinks and feels about her artistic work, Woodard responded, “It’s this really interesting and challenging juxtaposition between what I did, which was create these beautiful, fun, decorative headpieces for an extremely lavish event that’s really fun, but also, it’s just fun. It’s just fun and beautiful and people spend a ton of money. To go from something where you crowd 130,000 people in one spot that are decked from head to toe and spending all kinds of money to something that is just so bare-bones, essential and is helping people feel safe, has been really challenging for me to determine what it all means. Is it all meaningless? What truly is important?”

Woodard continued, “I think that once you step back and everything is forced into perspective by something like this, you reevaluate things and ask yourself, once this is all over and once we’re able to go back to any sense of normalcy, I really need to figure out the things that I truly value and only give importance to those things.”

When asked if she plans to continue making fascinators, Woodford responded, “I’m going to keep doing it as long as people keep buying them. The Derby is going to happen no matter what, I just hope that people approach it in a more thoughtful way.”

Edward Taylor.

Edward Taylor, who was working at the Louisville Ballet as a seamstress for only a month before the pandemic, told us, “At first I wasn’t really sure what was going on because you hear all these opinions from people who think it’s not real or it won’t affect us, but then it affects us. Then everything starts shutting down really fast and everyone starts getting laid off.” Taylor, who said he’s used to working odd jobs as he only graduated from the Kentucky College of Art & Design in 2017 and is still a new designer on the scene, needed to figure out what was next. He started making masks because he wanted to see his grandmother and she wanted to see him, but he wanted to do it in a safe way. “So I made us both masks and we met up in an empty parking lot and went for a walk while maintaining a six-foot distance. We were both in isolation for so long, we thought we might be safe, but wanted to make sure we were adhering to what’s going on.” Taylor continued, “This whole experience and pandemic is scary. My grandmother raised me, so it’s scary every day to think that she could die if she gets this. But on the positive end, it has given me a source of income.”

Taylor also commented on how making masks has given him the opportunity to showcase his abilities in a way unlike ever before. He says, “I like the idea of people getting my masks and getting to see my craftsmanship. This could mean that in the future they reach out to me asking if I can make other things too. I’m a designer in Louisville, but I’m still starting out.” 

Regarding what it’s like to be one of many making masks in Louisville during this time, Taylor said, “One thing I love about this is, it’s not a competition, making masks. I think a lot of the time when you’re a designer or an artist, you’re always looking at who else is making what you’re making and how you can do it better. I love seeing all these different masks other artists are making and I’ve even bought masks from other artists just to support them. Everyone needs masks and there’s room for everyone to make masks. This has been a time to come together and really support each other.” 

Local swimwear designer Laura DeRome of Cannonball Swimwear, also works out of her home, like Woodard. To adjust to the world’s current “new normal,” DeRome started making what she calls the “trikini,” which includes her handmade, one-of-a-kind bikinis and a mask to match. She describes this new creation as, “I want to say it’s funny, it’s positive, but at the same time, it’s sad and terrifying. For me, my emotions run the gamut of feeling a loss for our world, and at the same time, I want to celebrate and be a positive influence for the people around me.” However, she says the masks made to match the bikinis aren’t the most practical since they’re made of spandex and aren’t very breathable. However, she is also making masks out of 100% cotton for those who are in need of a more functional mask. Before distributing her masks, thanks to an idea from her husband Chris DeRome, after washing the newly made masks, using gloves, they place the masks in the microwave to kill any remaining germs and then place them in a plastic ziplock bag.

Laura DeRome.

So far, DeRome has donated to first responders, The Pete Foundation, a local suicide prevention organization and also anyone locally who has reached out in need. “We’re just getting it out there to our neighborhood because it’s important, it’s a need. Also, a lot of people right now in this climate, they don’t want to buy things that are made by strangers or made in China or made outside of their community. People want to support their neighborhood and their friends because there’s not a lot of ways right now that we can connect. But we can do things for each other like this. We can give back to our community and spend our money locally. It’s kind of the only thing we can do.”

We also asked DeRome if she thinks the closure of pools this summer season will affect her swimwear business and received an unexpected response. “It’s so crazy because this is going to be my busiest year ever. Everybody is so interested in swimsuits right now. I’m pretty sure I just did my best April ever. People want something exciting in their lives and, because they can’t get to the pool, they need some way to connect to the idea of summer. Everybody wants a swimsuit right now because they’re going to wear it in their backyard or walking around their house.” 

DeRome also noticed a change in the types of swimsuits people are requesting. “The colors that people want are drastically different this year than they’ve ever been. Most people usually want colors that reflect their personality and what they normally wear, like navy blue, gray, neutrals, tans and blush pink. But lately, everybody wants fluorescent and crazy and wild.” DeRome describes how she’s shifted her whole thought process for creating her swimwear to serve the current needs of her customers due to the pandemic. “This year, I’ve had to be a lot more sensitive to what people are asking for, asking of me and asking of themselves. Most years in the past, I would have a vision of what my line would be and I would execute that vision and ask people to jump on board with what I wanted to see. But this year, I’m really listening to what people want and need, and I think people really need a hand in creativity right now.” DeRome continued, “You may not have control over much, but you can design your own yoga swimsuit top! Mentally, people want some way to connect to their community, to be positive and happy, and that’s exactly what these swimsuits really are.”

When asked about the future commonality of masks, DeRome commented, “As Americans, culturally, we’re such individuals and we’re so much about self-expression, I just can’t see people wanting to go around not being able to see one another’s faces.” DeRome continued, “I think in China, culturally things are different because they don’t have the same sense of individuality that we as Americans do. I just don’t see Americans rocking face masks after there’s a vaccine. I think we’re all going to go back to our big grins we as Americans are accustomed to. That’s something I miss, I miss people’s smiles. I want to be able to smile at people in the grocery store.”

Elizabeth Dumesnil, Brent Drew-Wolak, Colleen Clines, Maggie Clines and Ashleigh Bakken.

Co-owner of the nonprofit Anchal Project, Maggie Clines, is another Louisville individual who pivoted her craft to making masks in mass quantities. “Because 60% of our income is based on wholesale, and a lot of boutiques are struggling right now and not placing orders, that side of the business has come to a pretty dramatic halt,” said Clines. Luckily, thanks to already having an up and running website where customers can purchase their hand-stitched, one-of-a-kind, eco-friendly items, the transition from selling in brick and mortar to solely online wasn’t much of a challenge. “We shifted focus pretty quickly to all of our energy going to our website. We’re really lucky because the infrastructure is there and we have the capacity to move a lot of product through our online store. So that was an easy transition for us.” After launching a pre-order on their website on April 8, they have already sold over 1,500 masks.

However, the creation of Anchal products is a unique situation since they’re made by female artisans in India who are survivors of human trafficking, domestic violence and a variety of difficult life situations. With the onset of COVID-19 sweeping across the world, this posed a whole new challenge of how to maintain production. “The difficult part is that, at the beginning of April, India started a 21-day lockdown and it extended. With India on lockdown, we’re not quite sure what the future holds, when they’re going to lift the lockdown and when our artisans can return to the studio. Most of our women work from home, so that part is really flexible. But because they can’t get to the studio, they can’t get new work. We’ve committed to keeping them paid through these few months and we’re hoping to be able to support them in different ways if this continues for a longer period than we expect.” A team of six in Louisville is currently producing masks locally from their fulfillment center to keep up with demand. Clines says, “We were super lucky too because we received a shipment from India right before the lockdown, so we had a lot of product that had just arrived.”

Amanda Dare, owner of the brick and mortar boutique The New Blak, a brand whose mission is to empower women through conscious fashion, employs all local seamstresses with a studio in their storefront currently located in Louisville’s Butchertown neighborhood. When she had to close her store due to the pandemic and to protect the health of her employees, or her “girl gang” as she calls them, as well as her customers, it hit her business drastically. Dare said, “I would say 80% or more of our revenue came from our storefront being open, so that’s a very big change.” She also frequently hosted numerous events and classes in her store, like collection launch parties and a Galentine’s Day party. “I had 10 events before May that I had to cancel in those six weeks. So the amount of loss of revenue has been extreme.” She even had a five-year anniversary party on March 6 right before the closures happened. “It definitely was a high, high to kind of a low, low.”

Amanda Dare.

Shortly after having to close her doors to the public, Dare began making several hundred masks a week from her in-store studio to help keep her business open and sold them online and to several local businesses who were in need. Dare has also been donating approximately 25 a week of a special design of mask she calls the “Hero Headband.” “It is a bamboo headband with buttons on the side so our medical professionals, or heroes, can wear their masks longer and alleviate the pain of having the elastic around their ears for 12 hours at a time.”

Dare has also noticed a shift in how the general public perceives and values the art and skill of sewing and commented, “The fact that I’ve been able to really contribute to society, and that people are finally getting excited about and giving dignity and respect back to people who have sewing skills, is exciting to me because that’s something I try to push really hard within my own business. I’m really excited that I can contribute to our society in a new way by making masks.”

Dare has not sought out income support from the government or otherwise thus far and said, “These masks are literally the reason why I’m going to be able to stay open. It’s kind of a double-edged sword, it’s not really something I’d like to be doing right now, but I have a lot of gratitude towards the idea that I haven’t had to take a loan because I’m able to contribute to society in this way.”

Another Downtown Louisville brick and mortar store that has developed its own unique product to meet the need for masks is leather goods maker Clayton & Crume. We had the opportunity to speak with Co-Founder and Maker Tyler Drury about how they are helping with the shortage of PPE. They began by making face masks, and quickly realized they couldn’t produce them quickly enough. Because they already had the machines in place, with their own money, they instead purchased enough materials to make 1,000 medical face shields and they were all claimed within the first 48 hours after production. Shortly after, the governor’s office reached out, asking if they could produce 500,000 more and Drury says, “Four days after we laid everybody off, we hired the whole team back and began operating to make this critical PPE.” They are now making approximately 30,000 face shields per day and have hired 180 people in Louisville in two weeks.

Clay Simpson and Tyler Drury.

When we asked Drury if he thinks the pandemic has changed the way they will operate once things start to go back to normal, Drury said, “Our hope is that when the pandemic is over, that we will never have to make another face shield again. But if there is the demand and the need to continue providing PPE, we know we have the skills, talent and team to do so. But I think we’re all excited to get back to making leather goods and to see life resume as normal.”

Drury continued, “I think the craziest thing has been, it’s one thing to see the news and what’s going on and wondering what life might be like in New York or San Francisco, or somewhere that’s been really hard hit. After we shared what we were doing, we started getting desperation pleas from people all across the country — nurses and hospitals — who didn’t have the proper PPE. It felt good to feel like we were being part of the solution creating something that people didn’t have that they needed if they were on the frontline as a medical provider. So it’s been great to feel like we’re contributing in that way and to know that we’re supplying our state with something necessary to keep people here in Kentucky safe.”

Leather goods maker and small textile business owner Austin Koester of Louisville based company Koester, also provided insight on what it was like for him to shift from making his signature handmade to order canvas and leather bags and home goods to making masks. Koester said, “When this all hit, nobody is ordering canvas tote bags during a stay in place order or ordering a duffle bag for a weekend at home.” Upon learning about the need for PPE, Koester decided that making masks was the next right step for him and his business at that time. “We talked with numerous people about what’s necessary, what is actually going to be effective and what’s safe. That was my main concern. I don’t want to be giving somebody a mask that isn’t going to do them any good, or potentially cause them harm, by feeling like they’re invincible and can go out and do whatever as long as they have their little mask on.”

Austin Koester.

Prior to COVID-19, Koester says he was, “Ramping up to have one of the highest quarters of sales. Then I had wholesale order after wholesale order cancel. It went from pumping out bags constantly to absolutely nothing, and like, what am I going to do now?” Most of Koester’s bags are shipped to retailers in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco and a few shops locally. “All of that pretty much came to a halt, so I had some time to sit down and figure out what I was going to do next.”

We asked Koester if he expects his business to go back to normal after quarantine is over and he responded, “My whole perspective is, if this does calm down, everybody is going to want to take a vacation, they’re going to want to go out, they’re going to want to travel, they’re going to want to do stuff and that might boost some sales. But it could also go the opposite where everybody wants to lay low and doesn’t want to get too crazy too fast, so who knows.” Regarding this time of isolation in general, Koester said, “This is insane. I never in a million years would’ve thought something like this would happen, where the whole world shuts down.”

We also spoke to local painter, art studio owner and art teacher Susan Howe about what it’s been like to source inspiration as an artist during this time and how she’s coping. “Keeping up with the demand for these masks has been impossible as well as keeping up with the commissions that I have. I love to paint, but I think it’s really hard to stay focused on my art when my life is so chaotic all around me. So my paintings are taking more time for me to find that flow that I’m usually able to find.”

Susan Howe.

Howe continued, “What I miss the most is that nirvana I used to have that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get again. People will tell you, I had the best job in the world. I was the wealthiest person in happiness. I’m not a crier, people know, I don’t cry at sad movies or commercials, but I cry over our lives right now and I hope that we all get to have that. I hope I get to hug my grandson again and I have a new grandson coming and I can’t imagine not being able to be close to him. I miss my life. But masks are the one little thing I can do to help and we all need to help each other in any way we can right now.” V