At the start of the pandemic, like many other businesses, East Fork closed its factory, warehouse, office and stores. As we eventually got back to business while keeping everyone safe, the form our social distancing took meant splitting the factory operations into two shifts, temperature checks for everyone as they arrive at work, followed by a series of questions about possible Covid exposure, a maximum occupancy for the building that resulted in long-term work-from-home status for many who had worked in the office, and of course it meant wearing masks the entire time one is at work.
If you have worn a mask for more than a few hours, you know you need the right one—or ones—considering that you might want to swap out a dry mask if yours gets damp from breathing through it or from, you know, being in a factory that isn’t air-conditioned and is always warm from yesterday’s kiln firing, like ours is. All masks must do the critical work of protecting the wearer and everyone else. They must fit well and not fog up your glasses. But also key to this whole operation is comfort. If the straps start digging into your ears or that sensitive spot where your ears meet your head, you’ll be miserable.
Lots of people have learned this first-hand and maybe you are one of them. When Talea Gormican came back to her job—she was then on the glaze team but has since joined the quality control department—she found that, after a few hours, the ear loops started to dig into the tops of her ears, which by the end of her shift had started to hurt. Then there’s the related peeve: ear loops slipping off, which was the issue that Talea’s life partner, Erika, had when she wore a mask with ear loops. In the early days of mask-wearing, as you may remember, there weren’t a whole lot of them to go around. Some stores weren’t yet selling masks and others sold out as soon as stock arrived. The idea, then, was to work with the masks on hand, to somehow make them more comfortable.
Ingenuity to the Rescue
Enter Erika’s friend, Elise, who works in the New York fashion industry. They were “train buddies” for many years while commuting to Manhattan from Long Island and have kept in touch in the years since Erika and Talea moved to Asheville. Elise didn’t just solve Talea's and Erika’s mask woes: together, the women would create an East Fork fashion trend that Lisa Flamion, Quality Control Lead, attests has “honestly altered the mask-wearing complex at East Fork.”
It all started when Erika called Elise in June of 2020. Among the things they talked about that day was how regular masks kept slipping off her ears. “I thought that if the mask loops could somehow be made to go over the head and tie, it would solve my problems with ear slippage,” Erika said. She texted Elise a picture of how she had used rubber bands to connect the ear loops so that they would be held in place at the back of her head. “That’s how we became Elise’s guinea pigs for making masks.”
Elise started experimenting with how she could make masks that were much more comfortable, and she sent a few of her prototypes to Erika and Talea. She used baby soft elastic that went around the head, and also added more fabric to the top of the mask where it touches the bridge of the nose, to make sure it would lie flat and taut over the face. That meant no fogging up eyeglasses (or, in Talea’s case, the safety glasses required to be worn by anyone who works on the factory floor), a constant problem with other basic masks.
Around this time, Elise started to buy fabric in cute, whimsical patterns to make masks for all sorts of people who were going back to their in-person jobs, like folks who were staffers at veterinary and dentists’ offices. She sought out fabrics with happy teeth, rainbow dogs and cats, and anything to make the masks a little fun. But she didn’t stop there; she used a different fabric on each side, making the masks reversible: wear one side facing out, wash the mask, and maybe show off the other side the next time.
From New York to Asheville
Talea was so impressed with the care Elise put into designing her new masks and with how comfortable they were to wear that she and Erika each wound up ordering several more. She also wanted her East Fork colleagues to have access to them. “If I had that problem with my ears hurting, I’m sure lots of my peeps did, too,” Talea said.
Elise agreed and she enlisted the help of her sister, Christine. Over the last six or seven months, more than 100 of the masks have made their way from Long Island to Asheville. On any given day, many people who work at both East Fork locations are wearing “a Talea mask,” and some of them have purchased a few for their families, too. Elise started making masks sized to fit kids’ faces because she had made some for her daughter, and people who saw them asked if she could make them.
Elise and Christine made a decision early on to charge only enough to cover the cost of the materials and shipping, and they don’t sell their masks online, preferring to sell to people they know and who can get them to others who really need the comfort they provide for the long haul. Talea waits until she has several orders before asking Erika to text Elise with the total, plus a few extra in case there are other East Fork folks who hear about them and ask if she has any more. Sometimes they tell her they want a certain pattern that they’ve seen on someone else. She noted that, if the mask makers no longer have the fabric, “no one ever minds. They’re just happy to have these comfortable masks. For instance, when Edward [Peak, shift supervisor] started wearing a mask made by Elise, he said, ‘I can’t believe how much I was suffering with my old masks.’”
More Than Masks
Lisa sees something else going on here, too. “I’ve noticed a lot of positive energy coming from each encounter or discussion about ‘the masks from Talea.’ It's established some sort of camaraderie among the teams and also created a hassle-free, streamlined way for all employees to obtain a safe mask, when we know that's not as equally easy for everyone. Throughout this time, we have all been kept safe and comfortable (and stylin') through Talea's kind, provider's heart. We've been able to support the artist while they've simultaneously supported us, though they're not making a profit off of them, either,” she wrote in an email message.
As for Elise and Christine, they sent this message: “It feels good to be able to provide fun comfortable masks to make wearing them a little bit less of a burden. And it’s a way us sisters can connect and do something together while we are apart.”