Entrepreneurs, community members lend skills, resources to create masks

[Pictured above is: Zawadi Leya, Zizi Matanda and Lisa Knight.]

By Kayla Sosa

West Michigan business owners, skilled workers and community members are coming together to volunteer to help Public Thread create PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) masks for healthcare professionals and front line workers. 

Public Thread is a local upcycling company that makes high quality sewn products from upcycled and scrap materials in the community.

From marketing, operations, sewing, materials and rallying the team, entrepreneurs are lending their skill sets to help Janay Brower, founder of Public Thread, and her team, make this feat possible. 

Janay Brower, founder and owner of Public Thread Co.

“It really has been incredibly collaborative,” Brower said. 

Components for the masks are being supplied by Notions Marketing (fabric), Chaco (fabric), Little Wings Designs (elastic, tape and equipment), Bedford Manufacturing, Gemini Handmade (elastic, tape and equipment) and Nite Ize (foam covered wire) out of Colorado. 

A few weeks ago, when masks were starting to be used more heavily, Brower began to get calls from local healthcare organizations, nonprofits and other businesses that needed orders of masks. 

Working with Lisa Knight from the Grand Rapids Urban League, a system and a team was established for Public Thread to start mass producing fabric masks out of repurposed materials. 

“We just quickly tried to make it so that you could order masks on our website and then we launched over a week ago and really have had consistent orders every single day,” Brower said. “Almost 100 a day.”

Public Thread is filling the gap of people needing to order smaller quantities, like 100 masks, instead of 10,000. 

The fabric masks have three layers: two of cotton and one of interfacing, which serves as a filtration layer. 


“We’re working to keep women employed during this time and use the materials that we can that are around us,” Brower said, who leads an all-women team. 

The small staff works in the studio, with volunteers coming in on different days. In addition, there are about 25 people helping to sew masks at home using kits prepared by Public Thread workers.

While the global pandemic has affected many businesses and even forced some to close their doors, Brower said she has had to pivot the work and product to respond to the community crisis.

“We’re still upcycling, which is great. We’re using materials from around the community, so exactly what we did before. Still working to pay people living wages, exactly the same,” Brower said. “I think the challenge here is that we have to take on a new product that is not something we had made before.”

“I think in a lot of ways Public Thread is sort of built for this type of response, to have a response to a community problem,” Brower said. “In that way, we are well suited for this, because we already sew, we already have fabric and we already have partners in the community.”

Zizi Matanda sews masks at the Public Thread studio. 

Having volunteers from the community come into the studio and help has been a “beautiful connection” between makers and products, Brower said. 

“Our work around upcycling is also about reconnecting people to who makes the products that they use and how they’re treated, and how do we treat the Earth in the process,” Brower said. “The concept of us pivoting to use materials that are already here for a purpose like this, to try and keep people safe and healthy on the frontlines, to me is really a beautiful connection for the individuals who are both volunteering and participating in this process, but also those that are purchasing this, because they’re getting that direct connection to, oh my gosh, we can actually address problems and challenges like this in our community, we don’t have to wait for some large corporation from somewhere else come in and provide these for us.”

The masks are available on Public Thread’s website for $5 each, with varying prices when buying in bulk. 

To get involved, visit publicthread.co. Those that can’t volunteer are encouraged to donate to the cause online


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