Former designer for Lee Jeans pivots to stylish masks

For better or worse, it looks like face masks are going to be a necessary part of our lives for some time.

We know that the novel coronavirus can spread between people interacting in close proximity. Weeks ago, the CDC set forth a recommendation that people wear non-medical cloth face coverings in public settings, especially grocery stores and pharmacies. As medical masks and manufactured masks are in short supply, there’s been a surge of independent apparel companies and designers who are working to provide alternatives.

Among that population is Chelsea Lensing, an LA-based designer who, until August, was located in Kansas City. After six years working as the lead women’s denim designer at Lee Jeans and producing her own denim line, Lensing relocated to LA to launch her eponymous proprietary line of hemp and organic cotton textiles.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, Lensing’s main focus was creating hemp apparel and home goods as part of her mission to create a healthier environmental space within the textile industry. But with so many people in need of masks, Lensing says, she felt that she could use her sewing skills to help those who needed it most.

“At first, I started making reusable cotton masks for healthcare workers only,” Lensing says, “but earlier this month, the mayor in LA announced that masks would be required for all in public, and I decided to start making them and selling them on my website.”

Lensing admitted that, at first, charging for her masks “didn’t feel right” given the circumstances. When she began manufacturing them for healthcare workers, they were being donated.

“I would love to be donating them to everyone who needs one, but I’m a one-woman show, and it’s a time-consuming project,” she says. “Each week, I’m putting a select amount online for sale, and that’s to make sure that I still have enough time to make and donate masks to healthcare workers.”

Lensing makes approximately eighty masks a week, donating half to healthcare workers – she’s partnered with LA-based organizations for distribution – and offering the remaining masks for sale at $15 each.

There are a few design points that set Lensing’s masks apart. The pattern she uses was developed by a nurse and features three pleats plus a dart at the nose and chin, which helps it to sit closely on the face. Without the darting, there’s more room for hazardous particles to get through. Lensing’s masks are made from one-hundred-percent cotton fabric, which is the preferred material – fewer particles can enter through the tightly woven cotton. Further, Lensing doesn’t use any elastic, which extends the masks’ longevity.

“The pattern that I’m using is great because it fits all different head sizes, and the pleats in it make it so that a healthcare professional could wear it over an N95 mask if they needed to,” Lensing says. “I don’t want these masks to be throwaway masks. They’re made to be thrown in the washer and dryer and used over and over again — and they’re comfortable for a mask, which is important, because I think masks are going to be part of our everyday lives for a very long time.”

In LA and beyond, Lensing says, there has been no shortage of demand for masks, especially from healthcare employees.

“The health care professionals I work with are terrified because they are running out of masks,” she says. “I’ve had several different health care professionals reach out to me via social media and my website, and I have broadcast that any professional that reaches out to me and needs a mask I can drop it off in LA or mail them one.”

Eventually, Lensing plans to offer masks made out of organic cotton, but she’s unwilling to stop production to wait for a fabric shipment to come in. Given Lensing’s dedication to environmentally friendly textiles, organic cotton is her preferred material – but right now, she says, she’s just focusing on getting masks out as quickly as possible. Like many independent designers, she’s had to reconfigure her business to meet the bizarre new economic landscape.

“I’ve been very fortunate and have received donations to fund a lot of the fabric that I’m buying for my donations to health care workers, but I’m not making a profit right now,” Lensing says. “That’s something that I’ll have to strategize as future events unfold, but any money I’m making from the masks I sell is still going into supplying masks for healthcare workers. It’s important to me that I do this for my community and the people that are risking their lives every day.”

Purchase a reusable cloth face mask from Chelsea Lensing on her website. If you are a healthcare professional in need of a mask or would like to donate to support the production of the masks, go here.

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