Len's Mill Stores create thousands of masks, gowns and caps to help protect people during COVID-19

Len's Mill Store is known as a sort of mecca for sewers, knitters and quilters. Now, the retailer has turned into a manufacturing hub of sorts, with employees creating kits for masks, caps and gowns to help during COVID-19.

When owner Pete Menary didn't know if he could pay employees, he said they still came to work

In the space that a few weeks ago was used to cut fabric for customers looking to make clothing, quilts or other projects for around the home, employees of Len's Mill Stores are now cutting fabric for kits to make masks, caps and gowns. (Pete Menary/Len's Mill Store Facebook page)

When Pete Menary decided he had to lay off 220 employees from 11 Len's Mill Stores in southern Ontario a few days before the province ordered non-essential businesses to close, it was a sad day.

"When we closed all of our doors, our income dropped to zero … [it was] the first time anybody's ever been laid off in our 53 year history," the third-generation president of the company said.

But many of the employees still wanted to help as the threat of COVID-19 rose in the province and their communities, Menary said. They reached out, and along with Menary and other managers, came up with a plan to create and sell kits for face masks, surgery caps and gowns that could be used in hospitals, long-term care homes or by individuals.

"Nobody really knew what we were doing," he said, but they were also eager to do something.

Menary said as they started to make the kits, people asked if they'd be paid.

"I said, 'I don't know … I don't know what's going to happen but we need to do something,' and people said, 'Yup, count me in and we'll figure it out later.'"

In the last week, they've cut enough kits to make more than 20,000 masks and 8,000 gowns. Those kits have been sold at or below cost, Menary said.

That work will ramp up this week as Menary said he's partnering with local manufacturers who are switching gears. He's approached factories that sew interiors for vehicles that will be helping sew the masks, gowns and caps as well as a large-scale rotary cutter who can quickly cut out the patterns for gowns.

He said the stores have enough textiles, but he's been sourcing additional materials such as elastics.

He estimates by the end of this upcoming week, they will have enough fabric cut to make up to 80,000 masks and 15,000 gowns.

Getting kits out 'as fast as we can'

Len's Mill is headquartered in Cambridge, but has locations in Hawkesville, Waterloo, Guelph, Brantford, Port Dover, Barrie, Toronto, London and Hamilton.

Menary said there's been a huge response from both the community and the employees during the pandemic. He said they went from zero online orders a few weeks ago to hundreds a day.

"Our teams are focusing right now just on these kits and getting them out as fast as we can," Menary said. "We still have a lot of work to do with a lot of long-term care facilities, retirement homes, those types of workplaces are requesting a lot of kits from us or finished product from us. Right now, we're just trying to figure out all those pieces."

The masks, he notes, are not N95 masks or for medical workers. Instead, they could be used for personal use or by some workers. He added that demand for them could rise, now that Canada's chief public health officer Theresa Tam has said Canadians can wear non-medical masks to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

The Len's Mill Store in Guelph, along with 10 other Len's Mill locations in southern Ontario, closed a few days before the province ordered non-essential businesses to close on March 23. Pete Menary, the third-generation president of the company, said they've never before had to lay anyone off, but on that day, they told 220 people they didn't have a job. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Return to company's past

Menary said it's an interesting turn for the company to make considering his own grandfather switched his Port Dover facility from manufacturing baby clothing and bedding to retail 53 years ago. Now, they're making the switch back, at least for the moment.

Some of the fabric being used in the masks, caps and gowns is even fabric his father designed with Len's Mill branding but never saw before he died, Menary said.

"I thought it a nice homage to his life efforts in our communities to include his design in masks that are helping so many," Menary said.

It's been very reassuring and comforting to see people come together in times of distress, Menary said. He's not sure what the future will look like, but the company and employees hope to pivot to be able to provide whatever people need. That includes soon being able to fill orders online for specific fabrics or other supplies. 

But first, they need to focus on getting out as many masks, caps and gowns as possible.

"There will be a new normal, but I think the most important thing for everybody to focus on at this time is the well-being of our communities, of our families, of our friends and make sure everything that we're doing during these times helps us come through this issue in the long-run," he said.

"If we focus on each other, and look after each other, then when the dust settles and everything clears, we'll all be better for it."