By LEE J. KAHRS
BRANDON/RIPTON – Sometimes a skillset can be adapted to a whole new reality.
That’s the case for Nora Swan of Ripton. Swan is half of the duo behind Swan & Stone Millinery in Brandon, makers of custom handmade hats.
In these surreal COVID-19 pandemic days, custom hats are not exactly a priority for people as the coronavirus spreads through the world and the nation. Hats are less of priority for Swan as well. She has taken her sewing skills and applied them to making fabric face masks. Like the virus itself, the endeavor evolved very quickly, Swan said.
“I was talking to a friend of mine last weekend and she was grumbling because her employer said she didn’t have to wear a face mask,” she said. “She was annoyed because she knew it was because there weren’t a lot to go around.”
Swan went to the internet and Googled making fabric face masks. She didn’t find much.
“I was just thinking that somebody’s going to need masks soon, as things started ramping up,” she said. “But nobody was thinking about it in any organized way.”
She called the Department of Health.
“I said I was thinking that people are going to need masks,” she said. “Nobody even knew who I could talk to in order to make the suggestion. It wasn’t on anybody’s radar, so I tried to figure out what to do.”
That was Tuesday, March 17. Two days later, Swan went back to Google and saw a surge in information sharing online.
“When I looked at Google again, it’s been crazy,” she said. “It’s really a human zeitgeist in action. In a week, It went from ‘Are you a backwater nut job?’ to ‘We need this.’”
Swan said a community of makers, hackers, tinkerers, homesteaders, preppers and social innovators have formed a Do It Yourself community online to share information and knowledge as the pandemic grows.
“They’re doing an open source exchange on Facebook,” she said. “It looks like the all these people are stockpiling knowledge and capacity and sharing it. It’s like this is what social media is for.”
Swan reached out to Porter Medical Center in Middlebury and was told they did not currently need the masks, but to make 25 and they’d see if a need developed. However, Brandon Medical Center is short of masks and interested, she said, as is Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and Southwestern Medical Center in Bennington
Fortunately, Swan had ordered all the supplies she needed to start the project before the pandemic really hit hard in Vermont. Another order of elastic is currently delayed as supplies were bought up.
Swan is also offering a free tutorial to folks who want to make their own fitted masks, which are larger and conform to the face better than traditional surgeon’s masks. They can also fit over the medical masks used in hospitals for another layer of protection
She’s made about 20 masks so far, but has 14 volunteers in the area making the masks as well, and there are about 100 masks ready to distribute. They are being donated to local essential service workers who want them.
She is also working with an herbalist and alternative medicine friend on making a mask with a pocket in it for a filter. But instead of a filter, the pocket would hold a botanically fortified antiviral solution, perhaps on a cotton ball. The masks stop the virus droplets from entering a person’s mouth and nose, but they don’t kill the microbes, Swan said.
If the idea takes off, it might generate a little income for the hat maker, who said the millinery business is dead right now.
“I haven’t sold a hat in days and all the shows we do have been cancelled,” she said. “Business has basically fallen off a cliff,” adding that she and Stone were planning to expand the business when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
But Swan said it does feel good to do something to help the cause.
“I wanted to be helpful with the skillset I have, so it was something I could offer as a way to tide my small business over, maybe bring in a enough to keep going.”
That goes for most of humanity, she said.
“I think wanting to help is a huge, huge psychological motivator,” she said. “It’s such a human response, for me or anyone else. It keeps you busy but it also makes you feel connected to the world. It’s self-soothing and makes us feel we’re rising to the occasion, since we can’t go out and care for people physically.”
Swan said those interested in helping to make the masks or anyone who is in need of masks should email her at email@example.com. They can also reach her through Swan & Stone’s Instagram and Facebook pages. Also, folks can sign up to be on the email list at www.swanand stone.com.
How long Swan continues making facemasks depends on how long the pandemic lasts and the need exists.
“We’ll just keep doing it as long as it’s clear someone wants them,” she said. “I’m just going to keep going until I can’t find a place for them anymore.”
And that will be a day to celebrate.