How a clothing factory survived COVID-19 by shifting gears, manufacturing PPE

This story was originally published in our sister publication Metromode.

While everyone else was closing up shop in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, one apparel company in Michigan began expanding its crew. The sewing team at GETTEES, a clothing manufacturer in Sterling Heights with a retail storefront in Eastern Market, nearly doubled as the factory retooled to make gowns for hospitals during the height of the crisis. 
 
At the onset of Michigan’s stay-at-home order, on March 19, GETTEES halted all production of their usual apparel and began using their cotton materials to sew disposable face masks. The business donated the mask to local hospitals and then the team began looking into producing medical-grade gowns, sourcing materials, and hiring additional sewers. 
 
“As an American manufacturer with a large cut and sew capacity, we believe we had a responsibility to produce what we could here in the States and aid in the shortage of PPE [Personal Protection Equipment],” says founder Mathew Hunt.
 
More than 6,000 gowns later, and as the impacts of COVID-19 start to ease in Detroit, the team is continuing to produce PPE alongside their apparel product line.
 
Pivoting was a way for the business to be deemed essential, stay open, and continue to employ workers at a time many were being dismissed from other factories. The company manufactured Level 2 isolation gowns, which were sold for $700 per 50-unit case, and between April and June the sewing team swelled from six full-time sewers to 12. By the end of May, at their peak of production, they had 19 sewers.

Hannah Miles, pattern maker and sewer, works on PPE production at GETTEES in Sterling Heights.
 
“We were working with temporary agencies to fill the shortage of sewers at our factory and meet demand while manufacturing, gowns, masks and getting back to our apparel,” says GETTEES creative director Emily Dahuron.
 
“Now, with things mostly back to normal, six of those additional sewers are permanent additions to the team.”
 
Operating under COVID conditions took some logistical maneuvering. Sewing machines and work stations at the factory were moved to be 6 feet apart and employees were required to wear masks, with temperatures taken every morning upon arrival. 
 
“Any employee that preferred to stay home out of concern for COVID was given the option to stay home at any point and remain paid,” says Dahuron. “But all of our sewers chose to work and manufacture PPE.” 

Yelanda Robinson worked on PPE production during COVID-19 at GETTEES in Sterling Heights.
 
For many employees, it is a way to feel useful in an overwhelming situation.
 
“Helping the doctors and patients that need the masks and gowns is a blessing,” says lead sewer Jackie George, who has worked with GETTEES since the company launched in 2014.
 
"Sewing gowns during the pandemic was actually fun, knowing that we were helping out," says sewer Marion Broady.
 
There were some challenges though. As facilities closed, supply chains dried up and there were travel delays for materials. The company met initial delays from knitters and dye houses early during the pandemic. 
 
“Now, things are delayed occasionally still,” says Dahuron. “But because all of our materials are 100% USA-made, we've no issues with supply-chain or shipping restrictions.”

GETTEES is pivoting again now, restarting its usual lines, but keeping the PPE element to its production. 

"COVID put a pause on manufacturing our own products and delayed the release of new designs, which will now come out in the fall, stagnating some growth we otherwise were on track to see," Dahuron admits.

"Now, as we return to a more normal production schedule for us, PPE continues to provide some security in our operations as the economy and the situation is still uncertain." 

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