Inside an airy commercial space next to a donut shop in Brighton, workers swiftly measured yards of white fabric while the buzz of drill saws and cutters pulsed through the room. A lean staff of eight glided around large tables, cutting and folding with familiar agility. There have been pop-up music events and pop-up art shows — this is a pop-up for these times. Welcome to Gowntown, a production line dedicated solely to making protective gowns.
It all started in Somerville at the Artisan’s Asylum, a maker space where anyone can come and create anything from jewelry to circuit boards to furniture — and since March — personal protective equipment, or PPE. Jay Diengott, the production manager, said they’ve produced more than 13,000 gowns to date, a remarkable turnout for a maker organization. But she said a larger space was needed to scale up production, so the Artisan’s Asylum took the unusual step of moving the operation out of Somerville and setting up a production line in Brighton.
“Certainly this is not something that we’ve ever done before. People do very small-scale production runs of products, but we have never produced anything quite on this scale,” Diengott said.
As COVID-19 continues to ravage communities across the nation, shortages of PPE remain dire. While most major hospitals can find and acquire PPE, smaller facilities like nursing homes and dentists' offices are having a much harder time. The non-profit organization GetUsPPE, which provides free supplies to such smaller operations, has seen a drastic increase in requests in recent weeks. In the beginning, the Artisan’s Asylum was making gowns for local hospitals like Boston Medical Center, but it is currently helping to meet demand across the country.
“We’re hearing a lot of needs certainly from Florida, Texas, California and we want to be able to help whoever needs it,” Diengott said.
Diengott started volunteering back in March when she suddenly had a lot of free time. The stay-at-home advisory meant she couldn't give cooking lessons in her clients' homes. She’s a professional chef and goes by the nickname "PQ," for Pastry Queen. It turns out that background was a perfect fit for running Gowntown.
“A huge part of catering or any food service is being able to set up and break down production lines very rapidly under sanitary conditions. We’re setting up the fastest, most efficient production line that we can with the fewest number of touches,” she explained.
That meant making sure the tables were six-feet wide and putting them on wheels to maintain physical distancing as much as possible. It’s one of several innovations that Artisan’s Asylum volunteers have come up with, including a custom-sized hole saw that allows the user to cut a waist opening through 30 gowns at once and a pneumatic “squisher” that Diengott proudly demonstrated.
“It pushes the air out of our packages and then we can heat-seal the bags. And then they go right in the box. And they’re done. They’re ready to go on their way,” she said.
Diengott also improved on the fit of a gown design by adjusting the back so it could fit more people, and the Artisan’s Asylum made it open sourceso other makers and manufacturers can use it.
Although volunteers make up the majority of the scaled-up operation in Brighton, a $77,500 grant from GetUsPPE has allowed the Artisan’s Asylum to make some hires, including Diengott, who’s running Gowntown full-time. The project, which has seven full-time employees and about 80 volunteers, also has hired people recently released from prison through the City of Boston’s Office of Returning Citizens and new immigrants through Somerville’s The Welcome Project. Harvard University is renting them the space at below the market rate, too.
Dorothy Jones-Davis, the maker lead of GetUsPPE, said the Do-It-Yourself mentality of the maker community is a vital part in supplying protective wear across the country and said that Gowntown could serve as a template for other maker organizations.
The Artisan’s Asylum "has been doing a great job of explaining, you know, sort of what does that production line look like? What is the material that's needed and what is the equipment? And the reality is the equipment's not that expensive to get," Jones-Davis said. "It's just sort of a dedication to saying that you're going to do this."
That dedication comes primarily from volunteers of varied backgrounds — from artists to engineers. But Gowntown could always use more. Not to mention, as Diengott put it, it’s a reason to get out of the house.
“We keep joking about how one-third of the volunteers are my friends. We also incentivize people by raffling off memberships to the Artisan’s Asylum. And I think the biggest thing is that a lot of folks have been sitting at home whether they’re working or not, they have really limited interaction with other people,” Diengott said. “I’ve had so many people come in and say, 'Hey, you’re the first person I’ve had a conversation with in three months except for my cat, my roommates, my parents.'"
Writer Samer Khudairi does not have a cat but is one of those volunteers who wanted to apply his free time toward something good. He comes in three days a week to work three-hour shifts. In just two weeks, he went from being trained to training others.
“I’ve learned quite a bit. It’s good to have basic knowledge of power tools. But there’s a lot of different tasks, and they’re all pretty easy to learn. And of course, routine and practice [make] it easier,” Khudairi said.
There’s plenty for everybody to do when the goal is to produce at least 27,000 gowns by the end of September. But Diengott has loftier ambitions.
“Our grant has asked us to produce 27,000 gowns. I’d love to reach 40,000 gowns by September,” she said.