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Why 100+ Volunteers Made Masks for Local Frontline Workers

By PKED Comms
headshot of Leslie Menagh

On Wednesday, May 20, Madeleine Hurrell, Entrepreneurship Officer at Peterborough & the Kawarthas Economic Development, chatted with Leslie Menagh, Owner of Madderhouse Textile Studios to hear about her unique opportunity to organize volunteers in an impactful community sewing campaign that supports frontline care providers and other community members in need.

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About Leslie Menagh:

After many years experience working in the arts and culture sector, Leslie Menagh opened Madderhouse Textile Studios in downtown Peterborough in 2018. In addition to offering textile-based art workshops to the general public, she coordinates projects with other organizations and artists to bring innovative public engagement opportunities to the region.

The shortage of PPE during the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a unique opportunity to organize volunteers in an impactful community sewing campaign that supports frontline care providers and other community members in need. This has largely been Leslie’s focus during this time, as well as a parallel project that employs a newcomer women’s sewing crew to make screen-printed masks for purchase in Peterborough.

“As an emergency relief recipient, I’ve had the freedom to volunteer my time during the pandemic to support initiatives that strengthen the community in new ways, and indeed, create paid labour for others when they need it most.” – Menagh

PKED: So Leslie, tell us a little about Madderhouse Textile Studios.

Leslie: Madderhouse is, admittedly, a weird little business. I trained at arts school, I have a really interdisciplinary practice but I always resonated with textile processes of various kinds. In particular, when I was at school, I really loved screen printing. I dreamt of creating a screenprinting studio.This studio is purpose built for screen printing, but it also is built for being able to teach other kinds of textile services and design techniques. I hire people on a short-term basis to come in and teach various kinds of skills like felting or different kinds of sewing techniques.

It’s a 550 square foot studio, it has laundry facilities, a dark room and 20 foot by 5 foot table for screen printing large pieces.

Madderhouse sees itself as an arts studio that does a lot of different kinds of things. I also function out of the studio as a freelance consultant. I’ll work with different kinds of artists and businesses on different kinds of art projects.

PKED: Very early on in this COVID-19 pandemic, you saw an opportunity with masks. Can you walk us through those early days and how that came to be?

Lesie: One of the ways that I work under any circumstance is that I respond to the needs or project-based desires with partners. It was a natural fit for me to respond to this new circumstance. It was a really natural fit to come up against a new set of criteria and have to problem solve with it.

I think largely, that’s what artists and entrepreneurs do; they respond to a new set of circumstances and adapt.

I happen to be working the past year and a half with a really incredible group of people through the New Canadians Centre on a number of very project-specific contracts. They’re a group of sewers, we were able to connect over the distance and I was able to arrange with Watson and Lou to come up with a paid opportunity for them to make masks.

Just prior to that, it was very obvious that the Peterborough Regional Health Centre (PRHC) and a lot of others outside of the hospital were going to be in need of those kind of things.

I was able to connect quickly with a big pool of volunteers to put together masks for donation to the PRHC and other frontline healthcare workers. It’s been a fleeting ten weeks and it’s been absolutely incredible.

I’ve been really grateful to be busy and so have all the volunteers and the people who are working, both on the volunteer projects and the paid projects.

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PKED: Tell us how this connection with the volunteers came about

Leslie: The first couple weeks of this pandemic, I was just spinning and wondering, ‘what happens now?’.

I was enjoying this kind of calm. Then I was getting a bit stir-crazy. It was around that time people were starting to make masks to give away by donation. I wondered what my role was going to be; I have lots of work history as an organizer, so it made sense for me to jump in as an organization, rather than trying to just get into production myself.

Someone posted on La Mesita’s Facebook that knew a nurse at PRHC, who was in dire need of some masks and headbands. Somebody tagged me, then they gave me a phone call and it happened just like that overnight.

It helped that I had that relationship with the New Canadians Centre already. It was instant, I made a few phone calls, said, ‘we should work together’ and started organizing it. And within a week, we had over 100 volunteers through Facebook and Instagram. People wanted to jump in as quickly as they could.

PKED: You can now purchase these masks through Watson and Lou. Was that purely through your relationship with the Women’s Sewing Collective and the New Canadians Centre?

Leslie: We were starting to have some ideas about projects we could create together, that might add value to some of the products that they sometimes were wanting to sell. It came about pretty naturally.

We know that there’s a real desire to support the newcomers sewing group in this community. There’s a demographic that will make those purchases and are not resistant to the value added into that price gap

There’s a growing awareness out there with what the newcomers are going through and what they can do. The masks project has been a big success.

PKED: How many masks have you made?

Leslie: They haven’t gone exclusively to PRHC. There are other mask maskers that are stepping up. We’re kind of small potatoes, we have received just over 2,200 masks, caps and headbands.

We have decided to provide masks for other organizations like nursing homes, hospice facilities, midwifery clinics and other community members in need.

We’re trying to do it all.

PKED: Do you see any trends for retail in the post-COVID-19 future?

Leslie: People are saying we’re going to need masks in the future. I think probably what we’re going to see is that you can buy them fairly cheap…at lots of different outlets.

What I’ve seen in the last decade is a real leaning towards things that are handmade and people value things that are locally made. I think we’ll see a real trend with handmade, locally made products. I’m riding that wave as long as I can.

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