A Brea T-shirt factory was humming Tuesday morning as 150 workers labored at sewing machines or boxed up finished product for shipping.

But AST Sportswear wasn’t making T-shirts, its usual ware. Instead, its workers were making face masks for health professionals dealing with the novel coronavirus.

Company chief operating officer Abdul Rashid said he ordered his Brea factory to shift production from T-shirts to masks after seeing desperate appeals for protective equipment on the news last week.

“I said, ‘Well, I’ve got a factory. I have a lot of capacity. Let’s make some masks,’ ” Rashid recalled.

Within days, the cavernous Imperial Boulevard factory had shipped 10,000 multi-layered, cloth face masks to hospitals, nursing homes and retirement centers in Southern California, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, Tennessee and Texas.

Elsewhere, stitchers and quilters from Long Beach to Murrieta were busy at sewing machines or in cobbled together assembly lines this week making cloth masks and vinyl face shields for health care workers running short of medical supplies.

Like the Cajun Navy boat owners who volunteered to rescue Louisiana hurricane victims, sewing brigades throughout Southern California are taking needle and thread, double stick tape and staplers and practicing what their grandmothers would have done in the old days: Creating protective masks on their own.

“There’s a shortage of face shields and masks globally. … And yes, we are facing it locally,” said Jill Brubaker, 48, a Mission Hospital nurse leading a group of volunteers who turned out nearly 5,000 face shields in a vacant lab in Mission Viejo in the past week. “Everybody has the same goal. To protect providers so they can care for the patients.”

A call to action

Social media is filled with tweets and posts issuing a call for donated money, materials and time to help protect medical workers.

“Do we know of any seamstresses, quinceañera dressmakers, Tias que saben coser (aunts who can sew)?” Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, D-Los Angeles, tweeted Monday. “I’ll buy cloth & materials. We need to give to clinics, hospitals, first responders who are short of supplies.”

Others have launched collection drives for spare medical-grade N95 respirators and other protective equipment to donate to hospitals, where doctors and nurses are being forced to reuse or wash their masks. These range from collections at Fullerton’s St. Jude Medical Center and the Orange County Emergency Operations Center to national websites like DonatePPE.org, GetUsPPE.org and Mask Crusaders.

Similar efforts are occurring across the nation and around the world. A team of students, staff and alumni at Tufts University, near Boston, jumped in to repair 6,000 old N95 masks with brittle straps donated to the Tufts Medical Center, according to the university.

“Our team has retrofitted 621 masks and are waiting for more materials to arrive to fix the rest,” engineering instructor Brandon Stafford said.

Gap Inc., parent company of The Gap, Old Navy, The Banana Republic and other clothing brands, tweeted Tuesday it is trying to link California hospitals with protective equipment providers while exploring the possibility of using excess manufacturing capacity to “make masks, gowns and scrubs for healthcare workers on the front lines.”

Even distillers have gotten into the act, making hand sanitizers instead of gin. Blinking Owl Distillery in Santa Ana and Surf City Still Works in Huntington Beach both have been enlisted to use their knowledge and equipment to make hand sanitizer.

Meanwhile, fabric and sewing sites around the globe like JoAnn.com, FreeSewing.org and Instructables.com posted mask-making videos, patterns and instructions.

“There are patterns all over the internet,” said Denise Voss, president of the Inland Empire chapter of the American Sewing Guild, which has at least 50 sewers making masks for hospitals in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Better than nothing

Some mask makers said they drew inspiration from Centers for Disease Control guidelines issued March 17 saying healthcare personnel might use homemade masks like bandannas and scarfs “as a last resort.”

But how effective are they? Can a cotton face mask keep a nurse or doctor from getting COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus?

Makers concede their products aren’t medical-grade and don’t provide as much protection as the snug, face-gripping N95 respirators.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, even surgical masks don’t provide complete protection from germs and other contaminants because they’re too loose and don’t filter very small, airborne particles transmitted by coughs or sneezes.

As for cloth masks, “their capability to protect healthcare professionals is unknown,” said CDC spokeswoman Arleen Porcell. Best to use them, Porcell said, with a face shield that covers the entire face.

An obstetrician-gynecologist interviewed by the Chicago Tribune put it this way: “Common sense would dictate that it’s probably better than nothing.”

A hot commodity

What is known is medical professionals are eager to get homemade masks.

Students from the UC Berkeley School of Public Health published an online list of 141 U.S. hospitals accepting donated homemade masks, including 40 in California.

“Kaiser has been so inundated with community members making handmade masks that they have established a central hub to handle donations across their system in California,” said Alexa Magyari, a Berkeley doctoral student working on the project.

Rashid, the AST Sportswear COO, said Kaiser nurses turned up at his factory Saturday and Sunday mornings requesting masks to use at their facilities.

At the company‘s 115,000-square-foot factory in Brea, workers spent two days stacking machines used to make its Bayside T-shirt on the second floor to make way for 100 new sewing machines needed to make masks.

By Tuesday, masked workers sat in rows 6 feet apart under a large American flag, sewing the all-cotton face masks together.

“I’ve shipped out masks to medical facilities, nursing homes, retirement centers, acute centers, all on my own dime,” Rashid said.

The company’s website has a link for hospitals that need donated masks and a link for people to donate money to pay for their production. Rashid estimates they cost about $3 to $5 apiece.

Brubaker, the Mission Hospital nurse, was aghast when she saw videos showing people making face shields for hospital personnel because of the shortage.

Her brother and sister suggested they set up a website — ProtectOurProviders.org — to solicit donations and start manufacturing their own face shields, which protect the eyes and face from fluids.

Within days, she rounded up volunteers, cleaned out a vacant lab in a building her parents own and set up a vinyl mask assembly line. The crew turns out 700 to 800 shields a day, all going to Brubaker’s hospital in Mission Viejo.

“Donations started to come in like crazy,” Brubaker said.

Rallying together

Because of the outbreak, Upcycle it Now co-founder Christina Johnson was forced to shut down her purse- and pack-making business in Long Beach, and her mother and aunt were forced to close their Long Beach alterations shop, Fit & Style.

Her mother suggested they start making masks for people who are unable to shelter in place, like grocery clerks, reducing demand for hospital supplies. But nurses have been requesting them, too.

Johnson’s company raised at least $15,000 through a GoFundMe site, making it possible to bring two employees back to work to help make masks. By Tuesday, Johnson was busy finishing 60 masks promised to a nurse that day. She redesigned the masks to create a pouch where nurses can slip in an extra filter.

“We didn’t want to charge anyone,” said Johnson, the chugging of a Juki Automatic sewing machine in the background. “This isn’t the time for that. This is the time to rally together and help each other out.”

A quilting class in Anaheim stitched 144 cloth masks for nurses at West Anaheim Medical Center after seeing a tutorial on Facebook teaching quilters how to make protective masks.

“One of my students called me and said, ‘I saw this on Facebook. What do you think?’ ” instructor Janet Salcido, 66, said. “I called my son, who is an ER nurse. … I said, ‘Could you use these?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely.’ “

Voss said her sewing guild got involved after she emailed an offer to make masks to the Riverside University Health System.

“They said they were very short, and they wanted as many as we could make,”  Voss said. “They’re so desperate, they’re going to come and pick them up.”

Using a pleated pattern she got from the CDC website, Voss already completed more than 100 masks. She distributed 1,000 yards of fabric to her members, enough to sew 2,500 more. She’s hoping complete 800 to 900 a week.

“Sewers always step up,” Voss said. “That’s what we do.”

— SCNG staff photographer Mindy Schauer and staff writer Roxana Kopetman contributed to this report.

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