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Fashion and Textiles Pivot to Produce Medical-Grade Face Masks

America is reinvigorating its domestic textile supply chain in the name of beating back the pandemic, and getting help from the fashion crowd, too.

A coalition of U.S. textile mills and apparel manufacturers, responding to the urgent call from the White House for mission-critical medical supplies, has come together to quickly assemble a supply chain and fast-track the production of medical face masks to help hospitals, health care workers and citizens battling the spread of the COVID-19 disease.

The outbreak of the new coronavirus, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, drained the global supply of face masks in January and February as the world’s second-largest economy and biggest face-mask producer scaled its own capacity to 12 times its typical manufacturing volume to combat the spread, according to the New York Times. At the height of China’s epidemic, factories there that usually produce garments and footwear pivoted their operations to make health-critical textiles.

Now that scenario is playing out across the American textile manufacturing sector, just as the pandemic is set to kick into high gear across the U.S.

“This week it’s going to get bad,” U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams said on NBC’s “Today” show early Monday, referencing an outbreak whose confirmed cases have mushroomed in recent days as more people get tested. More than 32,000 confirmed cases have sprouted up across the country, and New York, which now has 5 percent of cases worldwide, has become the new epicenter. “We really need to come together as a nation.”

The industry is heeding that call.

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Parkdale Inc., a large yarn spinner based in Gastonia, N.C., helped to spearhead the effort to build the textile coalition with Hanesbrands, Fruit of the Loom and six other companies to set up a manufacturing supply chain and quickly ramp up face-mask production.

President Trump lauded the action over the weekend, although he only cited Hanes, and said the textile sector’s effort was one reason he enacted but had not yet deployed usage of the National Defense Production Act. However, the act might need to be deployed in certain situations across the supply chain, Peter Navarro, assistant to the president and director of the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, said Sunday.

Navarro said he worked with the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO) and National Association of Manufacturers to establish the coalition and expedite the production of the masks, the first of which have been approved by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

American Giant, Los Angeles Apparel, AST Sportswear, Sanmar, America Knits, Beverly Knits and Riegel Linen are also members of the coalition working to respond to the growing national health emergency. The companies expect to begin production on Monday and make the first deliveries by mid-week.

The companies are dedicating their assets, resources and manufacturing capacities to create a high output of face masks. Once fully ramped up in four to five weeks, the companies expect to produce up to 10 million face masks per week in the U.S. and Central America.

H&M Group is quickly arranging for its supply chain to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) for hospitals and health care workers, the fast-fashion giant said Sunday.

The Swedish fashion firm will utilize its supply chain capacity, including its widespread purchasing operations and logistics capabilities, to start delivering as soon as possible. The company’s supply chain teams around the world are now collectively supporting these initial efforts to aid countries and communities worldwide.

After CEO Helena Helmersson contacted European Union leaders to understand the needs and to offer the company’s expertise, H&M immediately began preparing production of PPE for healthcare providers.

“The coronavirus is dramatically affecting each and every one of us, and H&M Group is, like many other organizations, trying our best to help in this extraordinary situation,” Anna Gedda, head of Sustainability H&M Group, said in a statement. “We see this…as a first step in our efforts to support in any way we can. We are all in this together and have to approach this as collectively as possible.”

On Sunday morning, the Americas Apparel Producers Network activated an online bulletin board it is calling the “Sourcing Center” and has had “an overwhelming response from the U.S. and the Americas,” according to Mike Todaro, managing director for the Virginia-based group.

“We’re opening our broadcasts and services to those who need and those who can,” Todaro said. “I’m a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel and am pulling on my experience by creating a ‘war room’ of active proven leaders within our network.”

Designers in the high-fashion sphere are lending their know-how and talents as well. Project Runway alum Christian Siriano tweeted at New York Governor Andrew Cuomo Friday offering to lend his experienced network to the urgent medical-textiles cause.

“Just tweeted to @nygovcuomo, If we need masks my team can make them! I have sewers and pattern makers ready to help working from home we just need all the information on how to help,” according to a post on the designer’s Instagram account.

By Sunday, Siriano had “reassigned” his 10 seamstresses to begin producing face masks, the New York Times reported. “We are working hard on this and more to come soon,” Siriano posted on Instagram, referencing the Times’ article. “We want to be safe and make sure all the legal requirements are met. Thanks everyone for all the support!”

And Los Angeles Apparel, the vertical manufacturer helmed by Dov Charney, is stepping into the fray as well. In an “urgent message to government agencies” posted on its Instagram account on March 16, the company wrote, “Our experienced workforce and management team of over 450 people are ready and able to produce masks or medical products for any government agency.”

The garment manufacturer has begun producing medical textiles “to assist in combating this crisis,” and is hoping to reach an output of 300,000 masks and 50,000 hospital gowns per week, the Times reported.