For the past 17 years, Solid Stone Fabrics in Martinsville has been making and distributing fabrics for dance outfits, costumes, active apparel, swimwear and other markets.
Now, it will use the experience and equipment it has amassed to join the battle against the coronavirus.
Solid Stone is poised to begin producing masks, acrylic protective shields and gowns for health care workers, according to David L. Stone, president of Solid Stone. Supplies of those items are critically short nationwide, health care officials have said, and that endangers the health of doctors, nurses and others who are working to help people suffering from the virus.
To help relieve the shortage, Solid Stone’s sewing, cutting and fabric operations will be converted into personal protective equipment (PPE) production, Stone said.
Fabric for masks will be cut at the company’s Walker Road site and sewn there, at Mollie’s Originals in Martinsville and a Floyd sewing operation. Stone said the finished masks will be returned to the Walker Road facility and shipped from there to customers nationwide.
Solid Stone can produce the acrylic protective shields because of work it does for Williams Sonoma, a San Francisco, Calif.-based retailer that sells kitchen wares and home furnishings. Stone said Solid Stone has the equipment to cut and bend acrylic and can add a strap to go around the forehead to create the shield and protect a health care worker’s face, he said.
Because fewer companies can make the shields, Stone said he anticipates strong demand for them.
The gown that Solid Stone is producing will be worn over health care workers’ scrubs or other apparel to protect them from germs, fluids and more, he said.
Most of the products will be made of specialty fabrics that had to be located and brought here quickly, Stone said, explaining that the materials are in high demand.
None of the products being made here will be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), according to Stone and Sharon Sleeper, owner of Mollies Originals and a former emergency room nurse. That would necessitate getting a license but that requirement was waived recently in response to the current shortage, said Sleeper, who previously had FDA approval for medical slings produced by Mollies Originals.
That waiver, she said, gave both Solid Stone and Mollies the green light to begin producing the equipment.
However, Stone added, “We are certainly trying to comply with as many (FDA) policies and procedures as we can.”
The masks come with a disclaimer that they are not FDA tested or approved, Sleeper said.
“They are better than two pieces of cotton or a bandana” or other masks that people have suggested, she said. “Right now we’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got.”
Sleeper said the masks have three layers (including polypropylene, which is breathable and has high moisture-wicking abilities, according to online sources), three folds, elastic “ears” and a nose piece. They come around the chin and are the exact length as required by the FDA.
Mollies has eight people sewing masks in Martinsville and Floyd and is seeking two more to work at home, Sleeper said. Equipment has been set up in each seamstress’s home so she can continue to work if she becomes ill, she added.
Each person can sew about 100 masks a day, Sleeper said, adding that she expects that number to increase as they become more proficient. Stone said his company can produce thousands of acrylic face shields each week but he still is compiling estimates on mask and gown output.
The work is keeping Mollies’ employees on the job and the business open, Sleeper said. Both she and Stone said business had slowed as the virus spread.
Solid Stone normally employs 42 to 45 people company-wide, but Stone said he has furloughed about 20-25 percent of the workforce.
“As this builds, I hope we can bring them back to help with this,” he said of the protective gear. “When all is back to normal, hopefully the textile business we had before will pick right up and we can bring everyone in.”
Solid Stone is handling distribution of the gear, and Sleeper said no masks would be sold from her uptown location. Danny Turner, a Martinsville City Council member, was to distribute a few hundred locally on Thursday.
“I have a client in New York who said he will buy all we can make but I said, ‘Sorry, first comes local’” people and filling their needs, Sleeper said.
Stone said he has done little to market the masks, shields and gowns but “we have contacts to consume most of what we can produce now.”
The Virginia Economic Development Partnership is listing the products on a state website for localities and emergency services. As word gets out, “I anticipate the phones will start ringing and things will start happening,” he added.
Both Stone and Sleeper said they would consider making the protective gear after the pandemic subsides.
“We have the equipment and diverse capabilities. It is a good fit for us,” Stone said. Sleeper added that Mollies would have to get an FDA license to do that.
This production also is the latest evolution in the 17-year history of Solid Stone.
“This company has redirected ourselves in a new world three or four times,” said Stone, who began the business in his home’s garage in 2003. It initially bought fabric and resold it to dance and athletic wear companies and later added stocks of fabric, printing, the flag and banner business, cutting and sewing, and expanded swimwear products. About 18 months ago it began creating products on wood, acrylic, metal and canvas for Pottery Barn.
“If you’re going to survive, you have to do things well, cost effectively, be up to speed on technology and constantly looking for opportunities,” Stone said. “You cannot rest on your laurels today. There is no long-term security in any market.”