The mask at hand

Small businesses address demand for fabric face coverings

Alex Baker is a nurse at Health Sciences Centre who moonlights as a mask-maker. (Supplied photo)

From your friend with a sewing machine to your favourite clothing line, everyone seems to be making masks, including a local nurse and home healthcare brand.

I called local mask-maker Alex Baker right before she left for her shift as a nurse at Health Sciences Centre. Her job served as inspiration for her mask business, as it forced Baker to isolate early in the COVID-19 pandemic with her dog and an old sewing machine her grandma gifted her.

“I pulled (the sewing machine) out during those 14 days of me just stirring in my apartment and retaught myself how to sew,” Baker says.

In September 2020 with COVID case numbers rising, Baker had friends approach her about sewing them masks and, when her dog got sick, instead of picking up extra shifts, she kept selling, she says.

“I got a few more orders, (and) I would see people wearing them on the street, and I was like, ‘that’s so cool! I made that’ ... and now it’s been a year of me making masks,” she says.

“When everything shut down in early 2020, much of our business dried up overnight,” Matthew Kroeker, creative director at Top & Derby, a Winnipegbased company known for compression socks and walking canes, says.

Top & Derby decided to make masks when the demand for fabric face coverings emerged. “We needed to stay busy and find a way to generate some much-needed revenue,” Kroeker says.

Deciding to offer masks was “an exercise in speed and efficiency.” After finding a seamstress to partner with, Top & Derby put their effort into sourcing textiles.

“I had a lot of fun lining up with all the grandmas at the fabric store, ” Kroeker says. “I scoured those shelves every week and managed to find some really beautiful limited-edition cotton prints.”

“Those dark days of 2020 deserved some colour and a little style to brighten things up, so designing a nice little collection of fashion-forward cotton masks seemed like the obvious answer,” Kroeker says.

Top & Derby had adapted to reinvigorate their business but always knew the face masks would be a temporary product offering.

“As people stocked up on masks and restrictions loosened, the demand for our face coverings waned,” Kroeker says.

Baker’s business remained busy until the cold snap last winter. She saw a dip in sales that inspired her to expand her product offerings to include dog bandanas and scrunchies.

“I really enjoy sewing and creating things for other people,” she says, adding that she plans to continue operating her business and is working on a few things she hopes to release this fall.

It’s more than the creative outlet or extra income that draws Baker to maskmaking. She’s been a COVID nurse on and off throughout the entire pandemic.

“I see an importance in masks, and I think it really helps with people’s anxiety, so if I can provide them with that while making a cute product that they actually want to wear, I think it helps,” she says.

Check out Baker’s masks at @masksbyalex on Instagram. Top & Derby can be found online at

Published in Volume 76, Number 1 of The Uniter (September 9, 2021)

Related Reads