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New York City sewing co-op begins mask production, looking for places to donate

Photo via Facebook/Tembo NYC LLC

BY GRANT LANCASTER

A New-York-based sewing co-op that made sustainable cloth tote bags has turned its production to medical masks, donating a mask for every one sold during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Barely a month ago, Tembo made reusable tote bags in partnership with the Artisan Sewing Cooperative, a Queens-based group of 20 immigrant women who sew in their homes to help provide for their families, said Tembo founder Deborah Chusid.

The pandemic made Chusid realize that her business was uniquely adapted for the crisis – she already had the fabric and her workers already worked from home, she said. Within the last week, the co-op has started producing medical face masks, making a pledge to donate one mask to organizations in need for every one sold.

The masks use some of the same African-inspired fabric that Chusid’s bags used, adapted to a medical mask, complete with pleats and a pocket for an air filter, she said.

“I had the fabric, I just started chopping it up,” Chusid said.

The co-op has the ability to make 1,000 masks every week, and has sold more than 300 as of Friday morning, with another order for more than 200 in the works, Chusid said. They plan to donate at least 100 masks each week, but hope for more.

Previously, working for the co-op allowed women who could not work outside the house a source of additional income, but with many of their husbands unemployed, many have become their house’s main source of income, and have even enlisted their husbands measuring and cutting fabric for the masks, Chusid said.

Chusid is pleased that the switch to mask production still follows her core goal of taking something single-use and unattractive, whether it be shopping bags or medical masks, and making it reusable and attractive, she said.

The co-op is looking for more groups that need mask donations, and are accepting suggestions from customers on where to send masks that will do the most good, Chusid said.

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