Day 6

20,000 masks and more than $20K to charity: A year in the life of a Maritime mask maker

Sherrie and Dale Kearney's Maritime Tartan Company was known for making tartan clothing and totes before the pandemic. A year ago they switched to making face masks, and estimate they've made about 20,000 since.

Sherrie Kearney's Maritime Tartan Company pivoted from clothing to masks last March

Sherrie Kearney, who co-owns the Maritime Tartan Company with her husband, Dale, pivoted from making clothing to making masks a year ago. (Submitted by Sherrie Kearney)

Last March, as it became increasingly obvious that Canada wouldn't be spared from the COVID-19 pandemic, Sherrie Kearney decided that instead of continuing to make scarves, blankets and other tartan items for her business, she'd switch to making face masks.

"The past year has been very, very, very busy," Kearney, owner of the Maritime Tartan Company in Halifax, told Day 6. 

Kearney and her husband Dale, estimate that she has made about 20,000 non-medical masks since then. They've donated thousands of dollars to charity from the proceeds of selling those masks, and Sherrie has been nominated for an Order of Nova Scotia. In the fall, her masks will be part of an exhibit on COVID masks at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

It's a stunning amount of work considering Sherrie is the sole sewer for the company. 

"Sherrie does all the sewing and cutting and I do all the paperwork, packaging, mailing, computer stuff for her," said Dale.

Dale Kearney models a mask with a mix of tartans. On the company's Facebook, Sherrie writes he couldn't make up his mind on what tartan he wanted, so she made him this mask. (Submitted by Sherrie Kearney)

"And answering the phones because I'm too busy," said Sherrie. 

"I think since this all started, we've had maybe what, 20 days off since March?" asked Dale.

"Yeah, probably," Sherrie replied. 

At the start of the pandemic, Dale says they were only able to keep taking orders on their website for about an hour when they opened, and during that time, he says, they'd get 800 or 900 orders.

"Then we'd have to shut down and say, we're going to have to stop taking orders for at least a week. It would just get so busy the phone would ring off the hook. If I posted that we were opening at nine o'clock in the morning ... at eight o'clock it would start ringing and wouldn't stop," said Dale.

A selection of masks made by the Maritime Tartan Company. (Submitted by Sherrie Kearney)

Giving back to the community

The never-ending rings from the phone also signalled how much the community needed the masks, and how the couple could use the proceeds from their sales to help charitable groups. 

"We knew we would sell a lot of them and we knew we'd raise a lot of money. And that's why we decided to help out different organizations, because we knew once COVID was getting bad, everything would be shut down," said Dale.

The couple estimate they have donated more than $23,000 to charities in Nova Scotia, out of a portion of the proceeds of mask sales so far. 

"We donated about $6,500 to legions, we've donated to food banks, soup kitchens, shelters, youth groups," said Dale. "We bought food for 25 families for Christmas dinners, we've donated five full tanks of oil to different families, just stuff like that."

Mask style evolves 

When the pandemic first started, Sherrie was making pleated masks, similar to hospital surgical masks, out of two layers of fabric.

But then based on public health recommendations, they switched to making fitted masks with three layers of fabric, two external layers of cotton and a middle synthetic filter layer.

"It was a big difference because the other ones we could just whip right off, right quick, but the fitted ones take a little more time to make for Sherrie," said Dale. 

Sherrie Kearney, with a pile of masks. (Submitted by Sherrie Kearney)

Sherrie has been able to nail down a system to allow her to make about 250 masks a week.

"Day one is tracing out all the patterns on the fabric and cutting them, and then day two is sewing the backs of fabrics and the fronts of the fabrics together," she said.

"Day three is sewing the front and the back together with elastic. So it's a technique and you've got to get it down right and get it down quick," she said. 

"And the best part is we get it all done within 10 business days," said Dale.

Masks in a museum

Chronicling the pandemic through masks

2 years ago
Duration 5:24
The face mask has become ubiquitous during the COVID-19 pandemic and curators at the Royal Ontario Museum are creating an exhibit that chronicles this period of time through a collection of masks.

Sherrie's masks from early in the pandemic will be preserved in an exhibit that looks at the artistic, economic and personal symbolism of COVID facemasks at the Royal Ontario Museum.

"I'm very honoured to have them there," said Sherrie. "I never dreamed that they would ever be in a museum."

She says that the ROM has two of the first pleated masks she made.

"One is Nova Scotia tartan and the other is Canadian maple tartan, which they wanted because they have the first garment ever made from that tartan," she said. 

Written by Andrea Bellemare. Produced by Laurie Allan. 

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