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‘I went to YouTube for guidance… look how far it got me’: Day in the life of a mask producer

“[…] I did not know how to make a facemask, as we had no reason to use it before. So I went to YouTube for guidance on how to construct one.

“I tried it for one person; she wanted more. Other people saw it, and they wanted. And before you know it, everybody wanted….”

Life in a pandemic has not been all bad for the lucky few who managed to make the new normal work in their favour. Today, Wired868 features Cherise, an entrepreneur from west Trinidad who started a facemask business:

Photo: Sewing (by Jose Pedro Ortiz on Unsplash)

Why did you start producing facemasks?

I have been sewing for just over 10 years. I have friends who I sew for and when wearing masks became mandatory, one or two came to me and said: “Seeing that you sew, can you make me a mask?”

How did you learn to make facemasks?

I did not know how to make a facemask, as we had no reason to use it before. So I went to YouTube for guidance on how to construct one. I tried it for one person; she wanted more. Other people saw it, and they wanted. And before you know it, everybody wanted.

When it became mandatory that everybody had to have a mask, persons came to me and from there people wanted their masks customised particularly for them. So it became more of a fashion statement.

Do you design the embroidery by hand or machine?

I do both. When I first started, it was strictly by hand. And then I invested in machines eventually because it was becoming demanding. Everyone wanted a custom mask and they took too long to produce.

How did you learn embroidery?

I learned how to do embroidery in primary school while attending a summer camp. I like to craft, so it’s something that never left my mind.

What is the most outrageous design request you’ve had?

The most outrageous thing for me was a pigeon. I did not have the machine at the time, so I had to do it by hand. The pigeon had four different shades of brown and white, and I had to cut these tiny pigeons out piece by piece in different fabrics. I had to then join, stitch and fuse them together. Then I had to topstitch them with my hand. It took me two days to do one. It took me some time, but it was amazing. When I was finished, I was like: “I made this?!”

Photo: Custom facemask

How does it feel to find a niche in the market during the pandemic?

I feel privileged, actually. It is an awesome feeling, especially when so many persons are experiencing the opposite. Right at home, I see close relatives who have lost their jobs and they can’t even get another job because it’s hard to get a job now.

And to see that I am the opposite, I actually got my business booming with the masks and I was even able to move on to other things like print, embroidery on jerseys because I decided not to limit myself to only producing masks. I used that as an opportunity and built from it.

What most frustrates you about life in the Covid-19 pandemic?

Uncertainty. That is what is very frustrating. You don’t know what to expect because you are always thinking, what if I get Covid? In fact, if I get a little scratchy throat, first thing I tell myself is: what if I have Covid? So for me, it’s that level of paranoia.

Do you have concerns over possible exposure to virus?

Of course, I have concerns. I work at a place where there are always people coming in and out. It’s a very busy, high traffic area, so I am always concerned about contracting the virus in work. Then there is, of course, the grocery, the bank, once you get out there you are sceptical.

I am always wondering what If I touch something? What if someone passes too close to me? If someone sneeze or cough, you get scared. It does not even have to be Covid. So it’s not that comfortable, we can’t live life as we usually do it’s a whole life change.

Photo: A family wears masks on a visit to the Penal market for fresh fruits and vegetables on 23 April 2020.
(Copyright Ghansham Mohammed/GhanShyam Photography/Wired868)

How do you balance your professional life and your side hustle?

I am the executive secretary to the general manager, which is the most hectic office in the organisation, so it’s tough. When I started my business, I was in another position that was not as fast-paced. I was able to work on my orders when I came home in the evening. Now that I am in the GM’s office, it’s a change of pace. I am really drained when I get home.

Now I only have the weekends to sew when before I would sew every day. It’s really tough to balance. And that’s just job number one and number two; I still have my personal life. So it’s really hard. Because people look forward to these masks, I think about these people more than anything else. That really inspires me to push.

Your designs are very intricate; how long does it take to complete a mask?

A basic mask without any embroidery can take 20 minutes. When you have to digitise a mask, it can take hours. And of course, when you put that together with the mask it takes another 20 minutes.

Explain the process of digitising.

To digitise is the image that you create on the computer software. You have to draw it. Say for instance somebody sends me a picture of a fruit basket, I will upload that picture to the software, and I have to basically trace over that image. That can take hours. After drawing the image, you have to colour it and you set it in the machine and then you take that image to the embroidery machine to stitch.

How do you determine how much to charge for a mask?

A regular mask would cost $35. If the customer wants writing or just a name, it’s $50. Once I have to digitise, depending on how difficult it is or how long it takes, it can range from $60 and up. The average price is $80 dollars. I try not to cross one hundred. If the design is really complex, I will let the customer know that it will be expensive and let them decide if to proceed.

Photo: Custom facemask

How does social media advertising work for you?

To be honest, most of my orders are not through social media, but through referrals or return customers. It is very rare that I am contacted by a customer via Instagram. Most of them are from persons who would have seen a customer with the mask in public.

What advice would you give to someone who has an idea to start a business during these uncertain times?

I think this is the perfect time, actually. As it is uncertain with jobs, why not take up any opportunity that you can get? Take a chance and the only way you will know is if you try. You have to be bold and try. I could have said, ‘Nah I’m not doing this’, but I said, ‘yeah, I’m doing this!’, and look and how far it got me. I was able to save a lot and do a lot because of other things because nowadays one job can’t cut it. And it opened my eyes to a bunch of other opportunities. So just go for it. Be brave bold and just go out there!

About Avanelle Boyce

Avanelle Boyce
Avanelle Boyce is an intern at Wired868 who is currently pursuing her BA in Mass Communications at COSTAATT. She enjoys photography, writing, blogging and any activity that involves tapping into her creative side.

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