Lisa Heinz, owner of Southeast Ohio Fiber Works and ACEnet client, supplies local and national need for masks. Her masks are come in three different sizes for kids, adults, and giants (like me); you can choose several different patterns, and even a pocketed version for hydro-towel filters. With a convenient google form, it’s easy to supply yourself or your family with the state recommended masks.

These mask requirements and recommendations are important to economic activity either by customers or employees, for Governor Dewine’s recent order allowing parts of the economy to reopen comes with stipulations for each citizen: “No mask, no work, no service, no exception. Require face coverings for employees and clients/customers at all times.” Confusingly, as all things seem to be in this time, the next day he said, “It’s really been made clear to me that a mandatory mask requirement for people who are shopping, going into a retail business, is offensive to some of our fellow Ohioans,” DeWine said. “I’ve also heard, for some people, this is a difficult thing to do.”

While it remains “strongly recommended” to wear a mask or when shopping, all employees must wear a facial covering: “Face coverings would still be mandated for employees unless wearing a face covering is not advisable by a healthcare professional, goes against industry best practices, or is not permitted by federal or state laws and regulations.” (coronavirus.ohio.gov). Because masks provide some protection from spreading Covid 19, all responsible citizens should wear them; however, it has not been easy to obtain masks for the last several months. This leads us to a problem, which one ACEnet client has rose to meet — There is no obvious way to obtain a mask or facial covering, and Lisa Heinz is making affordable masks for local citizens.

In the following interview, Lisa explains how she got her start, and why she is committed to the health and well-being of Ohio’s citizens.

Why did you begin to sell them?

I hadn’t even started making them when I connected with Athens Mask Makers through Heather Harmon, one of the group’s organizers. She was recruiting people to make masks and asked if I wanted referrals to make donated masks or do I want to be paid for my work. I explained that because I lost my Lyft income when the students left, this would be a perfect replacement. I figured it’s at least something I can do for money for a little while, and I started taking paid orders.  It hasn’t stopped!

How has business been? How many are you producing a week?

It’s been almost two weeks since I started doing this and the business has been constant, and, at times, overwhelming. I received so many orders that first weekend that I quickly realized I had to setup an online form to collect them because emails, Facebook messages, and texts were getting out of hand. Then I bought the domain athensmasks.com and pointed it to the form as an easy way for folks to share the form. As word spread about the order form, the orders kept coming, like someone opened the door on Black Friday. I’m well over 200 masks made in two weeks.

Some of the challenges to a fast-paced start-up included dealing with technology. I had to take three days off from making to set-up and revise the form, establish systems to manage orders, organize a no-contact pickup location at my house, and add a section to my website for more information because Google Forms is very limited in what I can put in descriptions. I’m still working on how to confirm orders so it doesn’t take hours, but when I get orders for 25 masks in one day from just 6 people, it gets a little daunting to pull information from the form and make it coherent. But, I plug away because this work is so important.

I also connected with another fiber artist, an Athens native who just recently moved back here, Barbara Bryn Klare. Known internationally for her fiber work and support of independent fiber artists, she purchased some masks from me and started referring her friends from around the country to make their own purchases. I hadn’t anticipated shipping as part of the mask business, but as a former online retailer, I’m familiar with the process. I also wasn’t prepared for the costs involved in shipping just a few ounces of bulky material, especially now that envelopes as small as 5in x 7in are considered packages by the TSA. I realized pretty quickly that moving sales for shipping outside Athens to my website would end up saving my customers money and preventing me from under-charging for shipping.

I can sew up to 30 masks in a day, now, in addition to the management part of the job, however, I am still catching up from that first wave of orders while managing new orders. Thankfully, orders have slowed a little and I’m about two days away from being caught up. If all I had to do was sew masks without managing customer service, I could make double the masks that I’m doing now.

Do you see this as a long term business? What opportunities are you looking at into the future?

Masks are likely a major part of my business for as long as SARS-COV-2 is a problem. That could be only this year, but it could stretch into the next few years if developing a vaccine becomes problematic. If I can figure out how to integrate local pickup into my website, I will eventually do that because my website is better suited for managing orders than a Google form. But because it costs me just to host my site, I have to increase prices for orders through the website. Once I’ve figured out a way to allow a different pricing for local pickup, that will be the next step.

I see the potential for higher-end statement masks and I’m in the process of developing one for Pride Month. I still resist making other styles of masks because of the material waste involved, however, some makers like to make the Fu style form-fitted masks and others like to wear them. I’m considering setting up a referral system at athensmasks.com for local makers who make different styles of masks for sale, but that’s just in my head, for now. I don’t have time to think beyond what I’m doing currently.

Is there anything else you want to mention about your traditional yarn business, Southeast Ohio Fiber Works?  

Industry organizations and other researchers have found that a variety of fiber crafts, knitting and crochet especially, reduce stress and help crafters with anxiety. The world-wide shutdown has given people an opportunity to pickup a craft they may have cast aside or to learn something new to pass the time. This ability to provide a calming creative outlet is the value I see in my yarn business, however, I do not yet have a local retail store. Because yarn connoisseurs have to touch and feel a yarn before they buy it, it’s been a challenge trying to sell only online.

I had planned to enter the craft show circuit to make yarn sales this year, however, that market for the summer dried up overnight with the arrival of the virus. I am now a member of the Meigs County Farmer’s Market and will be able to sell yarn and possibly masks there once artists are allowed back, sometime mid-May, we hope.

Before the virus came, I had planned a regular pop-up shop at Athens Uncorked. With restaurant closures mandatory, I lost that sales outlet at least temporarily. Once bars and restaurants are open again, I hope to start selling through the pop-up a couple times per month to give Athenians an opportunity to buy independently dyed natural fiber yarns for their projects.

I know you’re passionate about fiber arts, do you have a vision for the future of Southeast Ohio?

I also work to define a regional fibershed called Southeast Ohio Fibershed (an affiliate status with Fibershed.org is in process) with a goal to re-connect southeast Ohio’s wool and fiber ecosystem. Fibershed’s sustainable agriculture approach to identifying and supporting fiber ecosystems fits with my personal values and the regional perspective encouraged by ACEnet and OEFFA. This effort will provide locally sourced yarns for local crafters as I identify grades and breeds of wool available here. The variety I’ve found so far would amaze any fiber purveyor and I can’t wait to share it! Stay tuned for a Southeast Ohio Fiberworks Kickstarter campaign to create a line of locally sourced yarns that will be available as a premium through Kickstarter and for sale through my store.

Blog by Microenterprise Program Trainer, Kyle Verge