Seamstress in Queens finds new work creating face masks for community

Beatriz Vargas, 60, is a seamstress in Middle Village who's creating face masks for the community. (Photo courtesy of Sol Nielsen)


Middle Village resident Beatriz Vargas is keeping busy by creating quality face masks in her at-home tailoring shop.

The seamstress took on the new project after she lost her job at a family-run tailor shop located in Jackson Heights in March, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to reach its peak. She worked at the small business for 15 years, which is as long as she’s lived in Queens after immigrating from Bogotá, Colombia.

“While I was at home, I was thinking, ‘Dios mío [my God], what should I do in this quarantine, what do I do about the rent, the bills,’” she said in Spanish.

Then it dawned on her, “Ah, I have a little sewing machine that I stored away for about seven years.”

Vargas, who is 60 years old, had to get used to working with the sewing machine since she preferred working with the industrial equipment at her previous job. After her husband — who still works as a handyman for an apartment building, but only part time — found some furniture that would do the trick, she felt ready.

From there, she found videos about how to make face masks on YouTube. She initially only made them for family, until one of her two daughters, Sol Neilsen, suggested she post about it on Facebook to start selling them to people in the community.

Vargas and Neilsen live together — Vargas is in the basement with her husband, and Neilsen is upstairs with her husband and 18-year-old daughter.

Neilsen figured even a few sales would help bring in some much needed funds for her mother while keeping herself busy. Prior to COVID-19, Neilsen had a pet service businesses in Manhattan, but that’s put on hold indefinitely due to the health crisis. Luckily, her husband is working from home and has been able to take on the bulk of their bills.

“I did not think that it would have so much impact,” Neilsen said, noting they delivered 39 masks last Friday.

Vargas welcomes the rush, saying she prefers to find ways to be productive during this time.

“It keeps my mind busy,” she said. “I don’t want to worry about what some people say — ‘we’re going to die,’ ‘when is this coronavirus going to end,’ ‘when we are going to leave.’ I get up every morning and I have things to do, and no time left to waste. My husband arrives at 1 in the afternoon for lunch on the weekdays. I continue doing my chores, I read, I do many things.”

Indeed, they’ve all settled into a routine.

Photo courtesy of Sol Neilsen


On the weekdays, Vargas works on the masks — assembling, sewing, and ironing each customized piece — from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

She then switches it over to Neilsen, who’s in charge of talking to customers, preparing the packages — complete with a note that reads “Thank you for your purchase, take care” — and guiding her mother’s husband to deliver the masks around the Ridgewood area.

Once they’re done making deliveries around 6 p.m., Neilsen gives her mother a new list of orders for the following day. Vargas then preps for the morning assembly by cutting pieces of fabric into rectangles with the help of her granddaughter.

And the routine begins again the next morning.

Vargas and her family are now on Day 22 of creating their double-sided face masks. They’ve delivered almost 200 in total, each worth $10.

For the fabric, they’ve used some that Vargas had stored as well as others her former employer gave her. They’ve received donations, and even stumbled upon a fabric store in Astoria where they could purchase more. They give customers the option to pick the colors and design for each side when they place an order.

“Most of our orders come from regular customers, who start with two and then they’re asking for 10 more,” Neilsen said.

Neilsen, who’s lived in the country for three years, was mainly worried about keeping her mother safe. While she’s doing her grocery shopping and getting her medicine from the pharmacy, her younger sister, a gardening teacher who resides in Brooklyn, helps by sending money.

But Neilsen said she and Vargas finally received their federal stimulus checks on Saturday after losing faith it’d get to them.

“The check has helped us a lot, there’s no denying it,” Neilsen said. “We pay taxes … so, in a way, at least you see reflected what you pay year to year [in that benefit].”

Vargas and Neilsen are grateful for the support, and hope the pandemic makes us better neighbors and more mindful of our environment.

“God is great and He always has a purpose, and the coronavirus will leave us with enseñanzas [lessons],” Vargas said. “You have to bring out the talents you may have, which at times, because of dedicating yourself to other things or a lack of time or need, aren’t brought out.”

This story first appeared on qns.com.

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