NEW BEDFORD — When Mark and Lisa Litos were forced to shut down their North End factory, Refried Apparel, due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, they both stopped for a moment and looked at each other.
“We were like, ‘Now what?’” Mark Litos said.
Suddenly, it came to them. They could make masks.
“If we save one life, just one, it’s all worth it,” Litos said. “We’re all in this together. We want it to go away, but whatever we can do in the meantime, we’re going to do.”
In its normal operations, Refried Apparel, located in a Belleville Avenue mill building not far from Joseph Abboud, takes extra inventory from retailers, most notably professional sports teams and college athletic programs, and re-imagines them as fresh garments. Maybe a T-shirt that wasn’t selling becomes a skirt, or a hoodie sweatshirt becomes a bag. Lisa first founded the company in a little shop in Padanaram.
“We’ve come a long way,” Mark said. “We’ve grown the company successfully.”
Already used to re-purposing fabric, Mark and Lisa researched the best way to make masks for first responders. They also saw a need from essential workers, especially public-facing employees. They researched which materials to use and how to retrofit their factory to efficiently make masks.
So far, they’ve made about 5,000. They donated 500 to New Bedford Fire and Police, 302 to the Town of Dartmouth, 160 to St. Anne’s and 20 to Shields MRI. The rest are bound for a hospital in New York.
About a half-dozen of the company’s sewers have been donating their time to make the masks — at first working from home, but now in the company’s facility, which is large enough to maintain proper social distancing — but then a New York company that Refried Apparel partners with, MV Sport/The Game, offered to help pay those employees.
“They wanted (masks) down there, so they made a conscious decision to say ‘Let’s pay them,’” Mark said.
That will allow Refried Apparel to up its production to 2,000 masks a day. They hope to soon be churning out 10,000 a week.
“It’s amazing what the demand is and the need is,” Mark said. “The demand is so great we were running out of material.”
That was the next hurdle. The company put out a request on its website and reached out to some of its licensees. The NBA’s San Antonio Spurs responded and are shipping extra team apparel inventory to New Bedford to be turned into masks, which will then be shipped back and put to work at area hospitals around San Antonio. Soon after, a company in Atlanta sent 10,000 pieces of apparel.
“In the last 24 hours we have enough material to support the whole country,” Mark said on Thursday evening. “It’s great. It’s good stuff.”
On Thursday, New Bedford first responders came and picked up 500 masks.
“Those guys, you want to hug them but you can’t,” Mark said. “They didn’t know how to thank us and we were like ‘Don’t.’ People want to pay and the answer is no. As long as we can keep doing this, we want to do it as much as we can.”
The Litos’ even have their two children, 16-year-old Eric, a junior at Dartmouth High, and 13-year-old Sophia, who is in seventh grade, helping out making masks.
The masks are made from 100% cotton and cotton blends and provide 70-80% particle capture, according to Mark. He said many people are using them as an added layer of protection over their official N95 masks. They’re washable and dryable and feature adjustable straps. According to the CDC, handmade masks made following the guidelines provide a level of protection. While these masks do not provide the same level of protection as surgical masks they are a good substitute due to the surgical mask shortage.
“Our masks cover those (N95) masks so they can get more use out of them,” Mark said.
They’ve also been handing them out on a small scale. Lisa recently went to the Post Office and noticed the man behind the counter didn’t have a mask, so she handed him one. They’ve given out several to grocery store clerks.
“There’s so many people who are out there doing their jobs and we’re trying to take care of them,” Mark said. “If nothing else, these kinds of things inspire other people. We hope they solve the (mask shortage) problem and it goes away, but we’re not going to sit around and wait for that.”
Refried Apparel has set up a GoFundMe page to help offset its costs as it produces masks, and it is always in search of more material. Visit their website, RefriedApparel.com, for more information on how to donate material.