NUTLEY, NJ — Pretty Handy, a makerspace and gift shop in Nutley, has redefined the term sweatshop. No, Pretty Handy is not violating workers’ rights with long hours, low pay and health risks. But the Nutley shop is pouring a lot of heart, pride and, yes, even sweat into assisting the community by making face masks to protect front-line workers and residents from COVID-19.
Shop owners Robert Noone and Joyce Lin, along with their dedicated team, have churned out thousands of face masks, which they donate to front-line workers and “sell” to community members. To purchase a face mask, just visit www.prettyhandy.org/masks and donate $10 to the Nutley Volunteer Emergency and Rescue Squad.
“When COVID-19 first started hitting the East Coast earlier this year, we were working to help the front-line workers obtain personal protective equipment to help protect themselves,” Noone and Lin told the Nutley Journal. “We started by purchasing as many camping ponchos as we could find and combining them with disposable restaurant sleeves — purchased by our friends at Vilardo’s Deli — to MacGyver an alternative to an isolation gown for the front-line workers. Then we had nurses from hospitals requesting handmade masks, due to the shortage of N95s. We then switched gears and broke out our sewing machines to make as many masks as possible to donate to the workers at local hospitals.”
Making each mask has four distinct steps: ironing, steaming and disinfecting; cutting; sewing; and finishing.
“We start out by ironing and steaming the fabric to get the creases out and disinfect the fabric that is donated or purchased,” Noone and Lin said of the first step. Then they move on to cutting. “We have eight different patterns for four different sizes — including 3 to 6 years, 7 to 12 years, adult women and teenagers, and adult men. Luckily, since we are a makerspace, we were able to figure out ways to utilize our equipment — CNC cutter, laser cutter, etc. — to help us cut the patterns, rather than cutting each one by hand. This helps us to save on time and also allows us to produce a consistently sized mask.”
The next step is putting all the assembled pieces together.
“We then hit the sewings machines. We noticed that it was much faster for one person to snip and sort, while the other one just keeps running masks through the sewing machine. We do one step at a time, and about 40 or 50 masks at a time — sort of like our own mini assembly line, with just ourselves,” they said. “For the final steps, we give the masks one last trim for stray threads, and thread and tie on elastic.”
The result is a reliable — and often stylish — face covering that can help its wearer stay safe from coronavirus and prevent transmitting the virus if they already have it.
Although it is a lot of work to make so many masks, Noone and Lin would have it no other way.
“In the beginning, we had a couple local volunteers helping us cut and sew some masks. We would deliver fabric or precut pieces, and they would either cut, or assemble, or both! These all ended up being donated to hospitals or local organizations,” they said. “We also had our friend Meryl stay with us for a few weeks, who helped make a ton while she was here!”
Unfortunately, Meryl Sell did have to go home eventually, leaving Lin and Noone with a lot of work. But they settled in and got it done, taking advantage of all the support the Nutley community sent their way.
“After a bit, it was just us making masks and figuring out how to keep up with orders for the community and raise money for NVERS,” they said. “However, we couldn’t have done this without the community. All the fabric donations, elastic donations and the support has been overwhelming, and we could not be more thankful. And of course, the donations in exchange for masks as well! We also ended up with a few volunteer delivery people. So thankful for them — they saved us so much time!”
While the thought of making just 10 masks might make your hands cramp, Lin and Noone have sewn thousands, though they can’t say for sure exactly how many. When asked how many masks they had made, they responded, “We have absolutely no idea.”
“Counting wasn’t our priority,” they said. “We have made a ton — donated hundreds to local hospitals, at least a hundred to the seniors in Nutley, a handful to local organizations and businesses in need, and well over a thousand to the community in exchange for donations to NVERS.”
And they aren’t keeping track of the money donated to NVERS either — at least not anymore.
“We stopped counting once we hit $10,000 but continue to donate mask sales weekly,” they said.
While COVID-19 has forced a lot of local businesses to pivot or entirely rethink their operations, Pretty Handy has stayed dedicated to being a makerspace. In addition to the couple making thousands of masks, their shop’s website offers a free coloring page to encourage creativity and art at home. The coloring page, drawn by Lin, features a “Welcome to Nutley” sign, the clock found in downtown Nutley and the message “#NutleyStrong.” To download and print out the coloring page, visit www.prettyhandy.org.
“We loved seeing the lovely drawings and rainbows posted in everyone’s windows during deliveries, and wanted to give the kids something fun to do while supporting our town at the same time,” Noone and Lin said.