Detroit apparel manufacturers, nonprofits, and businesses partner to create centralized solution

This is a developing story. As a result, some of the information or advice in this article may be out-of-date. Come back later this week for the latest updates.

As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 climbs in Michigan, with Detroit emerging as a national hot spot for coronavirus, hospitals around the state continue to brace for a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). In response, a coalition of Detroit-based apparel manufacturers, businesses, and nonprofits has formed in an effort to produce surgical masks and gowns locally while simplifying the distribution process for medical facilities.

Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center (ISAIC), a sewn goods manufacturing and training nonprofit based in Detroit, in collaboration with the City of Detroit, the Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s Pure Michigan Business Connect, Carhartt, Rock Family of Companies, and Empowerment Plan, is working to mobilize local apparel manufacturers to produce standardized PPE and automate the mass production of surgical masks, making millions of pleated medical-grade masks and thousands of sewn surgical masks and isolation gowns available to hospitals through a centralized source.

The initiative is the latest effort among local Detroit apparel makers to step in and help address the shortage. Last month, companies like Detroit Sewn, Commonwealth Sewing, and Deviate started making masks.

“As a nonprofit, we are not looking to profit on this crisis,” says Jen Guarino, CEO of ISAIC. “We’re looking to protect people in their health, in their employment and in their businesses. Being able to activate some of these manufacturing facilities really helps them – because some of their businesses are really getting hurt. So, this is a way of keeping their businesses vibrant. It's a way to keep people employed, and at the same time protecting people that are working on the front lines.”

In consultation with area hospitals, ISAIC has created mask and gown kits with standardized specifications that will be distributed to local apparel manufacturers for production. Once the PPE is produced, ISAIC will simplify the distribution process by administering orders, controlling inventory, and disbursing the items to hospitals and other medical facilities.

ShinolaYork Project, and Detroit Denim have confirmed they will be partners in the effort. 

Jarett Schlaff, CEO and co-founder of Pingree Detroit, says his company also looks forward to being part of the collaboration. Schlaff recently partnered with Detroit Sewn to produce masks, in addition to manufacturing face shields for an area hospital.

Empowerment Plan, a Detroit nonprofit that employs previously homeless people to produce coats that transform into sleeping bags for those in need, has reconfigured their facility as a temporary headquarters for the initiative.

“We’ve worked with the ISAIC team over the past year implementing their training and apprenticeship program with our sewers, so they know our facility and employees well. Together, we’ll be able to efficiently activate this initiative,” said Veronika Scott, CEO of Empowerment Plan.

ISAIC is in the process of building out its own factory, located on the third floor of Carhartt’s Midtown flagship store, which is expected to be completed later this month. The factory space was donated in-kind by Carhartt.

“Carhartt has been a proud supporter of ISAIC and their commitment to bringing apparel manufacturing to our community for two years,” says Gretchen R. Valade, Carhartt’s Detroit development manager. “Their work is even more important today as the need for personal protective equipment like masks and gowns is critical to those working on the frontlines.”

ISAIC has also partnered with the Rock Family of Companies to obtain additional resources.

The Quicken Loans Community Fund has purchased advanced manufacturing equipment required to produce surgical-grade PPE at the ISAIC factory. A new line machine purchased by the fund will enable the automated mass production of more than 1 million surgical masks per month. The company estimates the system will be delivered and operational within two months.

“Thousands of essential employees from hospital team members to nonprofit workers are leaving their homes to help us stay safe in ours. We are proud to be able to engage with ISAIC and Carhartt to build a creative way to keep our heroes as safe as possible. This machine will be the first of its kind in the region and showcases how Detroit is leading in the fight against coronavirus,” says Laura Grannemann, who heads the Quicken Loans Community Fund.

Because most PPE is currently produced offshore, Guarino says the new line machine, which has sonic welding capabilities enabling it to produce hospital masks and gowns that are safe to wear in a surgical environment, has the potential to create new manufacturing opportunities for the region.

The corporate group is also offering immediate and extended use of their team members and technological infrastructure to provide support with supply chain, scaling, equipment procurement, and other needs.

“As Detroit’s largest employer, we recognize our critical role in serving the members of our community,” Jay Farner, CEO of Rocket Mortgage and Quicken Loans, said in a release “This is a time for the public and private sectors to come together for a common goal, and we encourage the entire business community to use everything at their disposal to support our essential frontline workers who are working tirelessly to reduce the spread of coronavirus.”

In addition to the need for special equipment, Guarino says another setback in producing medical PPE has been the reduced availability of a special material called spunbond meltblown spunbond (SMS), which is necessary to produce PPE safe enough to wear in surgical settings.

Guarino says, “We cannot give enough credit to the army of home sewers and small companies who have done an amazing job of getting the cotton masks out as a stopgap until we were able to source the highest-grade materials and mobilize this collaborative of manufacturers.”

Although Guarino says sourcing the special material was “like a nightmare scavenger hunt,” ISAIC’s network and partners were able to successfully source polypropylene spunbond and meltblown materials, which offer higher protection from viral particles in the PPE that will be produced.

ISAIC has scheduled production to begin on Monday, April 6 and expects its six partner factories to be in full production by the end of the month.



Read more articles by Erin Marie Miller.

Erin Marie Miller is a freelance writer and photographer based in Metro Detroit whose work focuses on people and small business. Inspired by the genre of New Journalism, she is passionate about connecting people to their communities through meaningful storytelling.

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