Mask makers fuel spike in sales at Winnipeg fabric store

By | September 4, 2020

It’s been an unpredictable toss-up: the COVID-19 pandemic has hit certain industries so hard that some companies have been taken out.

Other businesses — like Winnipeg’s Marshall Fabrics — have seen large boosts in their sales and service demands as a direct result of the coronavirus impact.

Historically, summertime at Marshall Fabrics sees a 30 per cent dip in sales, said retail manager Beth Syrnyk. Manitobans are busy barbecuing, lounging at the lake and traveling, so tieing up the loose ends on sewing projects gets snipped.

But this summer, sales have doubled at Marshall, due to the explosive need for masks and mask-making materials. 

“It’s been crazy since we opened our doors again to the public on May 5,” Syrnyk said. “There’s lineups all day long inside the store and outside the store.”

On a Friday afternoon in August, the store was bustling with customers pushing carts up and down aisles choosing from the vast selection of just about any print possible, solids, and the ever-popular licensed designs. Twelve people were lined up outside waiting to get in.

For Marshall, cotton is the No. 1 mask-making material demanded due to comfort and breathability, Syrnyk said.

“I would say probably 60 to 70 per cent of our customers are doing masks right now. It’s all about the cotton. They’re buying cotton, they’re buying elastic. We just got 42 rolls of elastic in today and we’re selling three already today,” said Syrnyk.

Beth Syrnyk, retail manager of Marshall Fabrics in Winnipeg, shows off one of the stores many options. (Orinthia Babb/CBC)

And fittingly, Marshall was one of the first retailers to mandate mask wearing in their stores. The store manager explained there’s much more communication between staff and customers now, so masks are necessary to insert a layer of safety between people.

Customers are also required to take a cart with them as a social distancing measure and to keep track of store count.

“A lot of the time, we’re doing a lot of the teaching. We’re explaining to them, ‘This is the kind of elastic you use, this is cotton, this is polyester, you can’t use this, you can use that,'” Syrnyk said. 

Historically, summertime at Winnipeg’s Marshall Fabrics sees a 30 per cent dip in sales. But this summer, sales have doubled as customers flock in to buy mask-making materials. 1:43

Young entrepreneur budding through COVID-19 with mask business

Masks have evolved into a fashion statement. People are looking for a wide variety of — well, everything, Syrnyk said. And Marshall strives to stock bolts of whatever they’re looking for.

“We’ve got about 15,000 different prints of cotton in our store. And it depends on who it is,” said Syrnyk. “They’re looking for a lot of licensed prints. Harry Potter — heaven forbid. Anything with Baby Yoda on it. We got a bolt of Baby Yoda at four o’clock in the afternoon, by 9 a.m. the next morning it was gone.”

Thirteen-year-old entrepreneur Zoe Kirshner of Sass ‘n Mask stands with her freshly-cut cotton prints for her mask-making business with her mom, Marly Spivak. (Orinthia Babb/CBC)

With the recommendation of masks by public health officials and masks being mandated for some grade school students, even young entrepreneurs have budded through the pandemic.

Zoe Kirshner, 13, started her mask making business called Sass ‘n Mask this summer. 

“I’ve always wanted to start a business but I never really had an idea. But, I just went to the fabric store one day and wanted to make a pet bandana for my own dog, and that’s kinda how it started,” said Kirshner.

“She’s gotten requests from teachers that are preparing to go back to the classroom and are actually buying masks for their students that they think the kids will like,” said Marly Spivak, Zoe’s mom. 

Fat quarters a money-maker

Many shoppers had fat quarters in their carts — quarter-yard, pre-cut pieces of various cotton prints normally used for quilting measuring 18 inches by 24 inches (roughly 46 centimetres by 61 centimetres).

Notions department staff member Kyla Henry says fat quarters have become the mask-making go-to solution in the store.

Customers form a long lineup outside Marshall Fabrics at 4:30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. (Orinthia Babb/CBC)

“Before COVID, I swear we’ve had boxes and bags full of those quarters.… Since COVID, we’ve found that we’ve been selling, maybe, well over 100 a day,” said Henry. “You can probably get about three masks out of a quarter.”

To keep the fat quarters bin replenished, a staff member now has to shear off regular cuts of quilting fabric all day. To meet the demand for elastic, a notions staff has to chop 25-metre-long sections of elastics throughout the day.

With the return to school and the possibility of a mask mandate on the horizon, masks may be the top item on the fall fashion forecast.

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