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Massive Pierce County assembly line aims to sew 40,000 masks for coronavirus response

Krista Linden, founder of Step By Step and Farm 12, handles fabric that will eventually be assembled into kits for handmade medical masks. Linden was asked by county officials to turn her event hall into an operations hub for the assembly line.
Parker Miles Blohm
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KNKX
Krista Linden, founder of Step By Step and Farm 12, handles fabric that will eventually be assembled into kits for handmade medical masks. Linden was asked by county officials to turn her event hall into an operations hub for the assembly line.

Krista Linden had a grand vision when she opened her restaurant and event space in Puyallup just a few short months ago. But she never imagined a global pandemic — and hundreds of yards of fabric — would swiftly become part of that vision. 

Farm 12 Restaurant & Events doesn’t just offer locally sourced food on the grounds of a historic bulb farm. It’s created jobs for the at-risk mothers Linden has helped for 23 years, through her nonprofit Step By Step. 

“It’s been a huge project,” Linden said of the multimillion-dollar venue, beloved by locals because it honors the sweeping daffodil fields that used to blanket the former farmland. “We have created about 100 jobs, of which about 30 percent are held by women who were clients of Step By Step or would qualify for Step By Step services.”

Those services include pregnancy support and education, nutrition and mental health services, and housing assistance for women living in the margins and their babies.  

Linden hopes Step By Step moms will eventually represent 80 percent of the employees at Farm 12. 

But for now, progress toward that goal is paused.

“We’ve just got lots of irons in the fire, and really have been hit by this virus,” Linden said. “But, like the last 23 years (of Step By Step), you’ve got to be flexible and figure out how to adjust. We will get through this, but it has definitely, definitely been hard.”

Krista Linden stands inside the event hall at Farm 12, which has been transformed into a hub for a massive volunteer effort to sew tens of thousands of medical masks for distribution to health care workers and first responders on the front lines of the CO
Credit Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX
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KNKX
Krista Linden stands inside the event hall at Farm 12, which has been transformed into a hub for a massive volunteer effort to sew tens of thousands of medical masks for distribution to health care workers and first responders on the front lines of the COVID-19 response.

When the Puget Sound region became the epicenter of the nation’s novel coronavirus outbreak, Farm 12 followed many other restaurants across the region and started offering curbside meal service. Linden says Step By Step also started delivering free meals to clients who were hit hardest by the economic shutdown, which is aimed at curbing the spread of the disease caused by the virus, COVID-19.  

Roughly 1,200 families in Pierce, King, Snohomish and Kitsap counties who rely on Step By Step are particularly vulnerable to the ripple effects of the outbreak. Linden says many of them struggle financially under normal circumstances.    

So, Linden has her hands full making sure her clients feel supported and her community doesn’t go hungry. And Pierce County Councilman Dave Morell knows that. 

But Morell also knows something else about the triathlete and mother of seven: she’s got a heart for her community and gets things done.

It’s why he asked her if she could offer up her event hall for a public-private partnership — helping coordinate a massive assembly line to sew and distribute tens of thousands of handmade medical masks for health care workers and first responders on the front lines of the coronavirus response. 

“I trained her when she was preparing for her first Ironman,” Morell said. “I’ve watched her take on a challenge like an endurance race, and make it work even with a schedule that she keeps and the responsibilities she has. I knew she could pull it off.” 

That’s how Farm 12 to-go bags started leaving the restaurant with more than just food inside. These days, they’re filled with spools of thread, patterns for the masks, and 2-3 yards of fabric — enough to make 12-18 masks. 

Shelley Roberts, right, and sister, Donna Hutchens, sort through fabric that will be used to sew medical masks. Volunteer seamstresses are using pre-packaged kits to help meet the goal of 40,000 to 50,000 handmade masks, that will be distributed with
Credit Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX
/
KNKX
Shelley Roberts, right, and her sister, Donna Hutchens, sort through fabric that will eventually be used to sew medical masks. Volunteer seamstresses are using pre-packaged kits to help meet the goal of 40,000 to 50,000 handmade masks, that will be distributed with the help of Pierce County's emergency operations center.

Volunteers assemble the kits at the Farm 12 event hall, deliver them to seamstresses who return them to the venue to be professionally cleaned. Then, the masks are distributed with help from the county’s emergency operations center.  

“We call it the Rosie the Sewer program,” Morell said, referencing the World War II cultural icon Rosie the Riveter.

All of the material is purchased using emergency management funds from Pierce County, an effort spearheaded by Catherine Rudolph in the county executive’s office. 

“We’re a big small town,” Rudolph said of Pierce County. “If you talk to people for any length of time, and it doesn’t matter where in the county you are, you have friends in common or relatives in common. There’s a lot of interconnection here.”

Rudolph said the goal is to make between 40,000 and 50,000 masks. She stressed the priority is protecting people who are tasked with treating patients infected with the virus. 

“We want our medical professionals to be adequately supplied,” she said. 

Rudolph noted that the county hopes the federal government will reimburse the funds spent on efforts like this one. But it’s not guaranteed: “We may or may not be reimbursed, but this is worth it to us.” 

The state Department of Health recently issued guidance on distribution of traditional supplies, such as medical masks. On March 21, the agency received a shipment of personal protective equipment from the federal stockpile. The shipment included 133,760 masks. It also included 26,459 gowns.

“Maybe we’ll move on to sewing medical gowns next,” Rudolph said. 

In a briefing Thursday, officials with the state emergency operations center stressed that the national stockpile is only one piece of the equation. Agencies are turning over every stone in an effort to fill equipment orders, said Linda Kent, director of public affairs for the state Department of Enterprise Services.

“We’re looking far beyond the usual places,” Kent said. “The need changes day by day as more positive cases are confirmed.”

As of Thursday afternoon, Kent said state officials are actively working to distribute 500 ventilators, 1,200 gowns, 500,000 N95 masks and 130,000 surgical masks.

But officials said the orders they are filling, primarily for people with the highest risk of exposure, are mostly partial orders. And once they’ve secured a commitment to receive more equipment, it can take anywhere from days to weeks for the shipments to arrive. 

Rudolph says she isn’t surprised that the Pierce County partnership, which includes volunteers at New Horizon Church in Fife, came together in a matter of 72 hours.

“I expected this to happen,” she said. “(Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier) refers to it as the Pierce County Way. We stand together and tend to treat each other as family.”

So far, Linden has more than 300 volunteers waiting their turn to sew; she’s deploying them 25 at a time. She says she has more volunteers than she has materials to give them. This week, she drove as far as Camano Island to retrieve fabric: rayon for the inside of the masks, cotton for the outside. 

“If we increase that material, we can put the all-call out further, and get as many seamstresses going as possible,” Linden said. 

Volunteers are distributing kits to seamstresses around the county, in hopes of producing between 40,000 and 50,000 masks made of cotton and rayon.
Credit Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX
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KNKX
Volunteers are distributing kits to seamstresses around the county, in hopes of producing between 40,000 and 50,000 masks made of cotton and rayon.

By Wednesday — five days after Linden first received the call from the county — volunteers had enough material to sew and were well underway toward finishing roughly 5,000 masks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines for optimizing the dwindling supply of masks, noting that use of homemade ones should be a last resort. But hospitals around the region are already reporting dire shortages of medical equipment, and some nurses and doctors are being told to clean and reuse their N95, professional-grade masks.

Linden acknowledges these handmade masks, made with mix-matched fabric from craft stores around the region, aren’t the perfect solution. “None of this is really ideal,” she said. “But it’s better than nothing.” 

Still, Linden is encouraged by the swift action from people in the community she’s grown accustomed to helping.  

“As hard as times like this are, they definitely bring out the good in people,” Linden said, fighting back tears. “I just hope that those who are medical professionals, who are working tirelessly — every mask they put on that’s handmade — I hope in the midst of all of this that they see the outpouring of support and appreciation for what they’re doing.”

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Kari Plog is an award-winning reporter covering the South Sound, including Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties. Before transitioning to public radio in 2018, Kari worked as a print journalist at The News Tribune in Tacoma.