Up until recently, the Procle workshop was filled with the sound of sewing machines, as well as Caridad and Zademys’ chattering and laughter. These happy 50-year-old women received customers bringing a design and their own fabric between pushing on the foot control and stitching. Customers would ask these women to make a blouse or ask them to turn a dress that is no longer in style into a more modern garment.
However, customer service has been put on the backburner with the new situation created by Coronavirus.
Caridad Limonta Ewen studied Engineering in Kiev (former USSR), but decided to pick up sewing full-time in 2008, when heart problems meant she had to leave her career in state institutions behind. That year she founded Procle, a family-run sewing business. Caridad believes that people are at the heart of her business: Zademys and other workers, who are friends first and foremost; and taking care of them in these precarious times created by the pandemic is her priority.
This is why the routine of the sewing workshop located in Centro Habana has been turned on its head in recent days, just as the landscape on Cuba’s streets has: faces covered with masks have become a common sight in lines to buy food items and on public buses. In some places, the police have started demanding that everyone wear a mask when outside.
“When we found out about Coronavirus, we understood that we would have to sew masks to protect people,” Caridad tells us.
They began sewing them in February, for sale and as donations.
“Up until now, we have donated masks to the elderly, to neighbors and our Christian brothers and sisters,” she says.
While many people talk about the challenges that lie ahead and how this pandemic might affect the global and national economy, Caridad admits that her greatest concern right now is trying to help contain the virus within the country. Procle decided to temporarily close down its workshop and only open one day a week to deliver orders. In the meantime, the six seamstresses sew masks at home with domestic sewing machines.
The masks made of 100% cotton are sold for 25 Cuban pesos (approximately 1 USD). According to Caridad, this retail price covers production costs and guarantees the seamstresses paycheck.
“I can’t hand them all out for free right now,” she explains, “we are using fabric that we had stored away to make blouses and dresses. They aren’t cheap to produce.”
However, she has already begun to collect used clothes from her contacts, so they can be recycled and turned into masks which will help to reduce the number of people who get infected.
In days to come, Caridad will make a great effort to stay at home, sewing in this more intimate space, putting get-togethers with friends on hold, which she used to organize at the workshop, and forget about visits to other business owners who she regularly works with.
BarbarA’s Power and the need for innovative responses during this crisis
Lawyer, business owner and black people’s rights activist Deyni Terry Abreu had to first overcome the psychological shock that came from seeing news about COVID-19 deaths across the world.
Then, the founder of the sewing project “BarbarA’s Power” analyzed and assessed what the pandemic might mean for the country and her loved ones. It was only then that she decided that she had to do something fast and have an immediate impact on her surroundings.
The first thing they did at the workshop was send all the seamstresses home, give them sewing machines and make sure they had raw materials.
“This has meant spending more money on text messages, calls and Internet access. It’s a challenge, but we thought it was essential,” she says.
They also had to stop sewing clothes with Afro-Cuban designs – which is what her business specializes in – and give priority to sewing masks.
“It’s a completely new situation, but we haven’t panicked,” Deyni explains.
In spite of having been advised by doctors to rest because of a kidney infection, she has taken up sewing masks herself. “My illness isn’t anything compared to the virus, this is a lot more urgent right now,” she says.
The workshop runs on orders, small orders. Every mask is made with three layers of fabric, which calls for lots of raw materials. In the face of this new situation, the home-delivery service they have always offered is now free.
“We have given them away in some instances; however, bearing in mind that this is a situation that will bring great economic losses to the country and the business, we have taken on the responsibility of selling them for the lowest price we can,” she says.
When the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported in the country, Deyni and her team researched retail prices for masks being sold in other provinces. They thought they were too high – 75 Cuban pesos (approximately 3 USD) -, so they decided to sell them a lot cheaper. They have sold masks with simple designs to older people for just 15 Cuban pesos. Other trendier masks, using colored and three layers of fabric, are being sold for 25-30 Cuban pesos. Representatives from state-run businesses have also come to them to buy masks.
As they were unable to find fabric, they have sacrificed sheets that they had kept away and in good condition.
Deyni, Caridad and seamstresses working at Procle and BarbarA’s Power, form part of this group of women who have been sewing masks for neighbors on the block, colleagues, customers or children without parents. Evangelina Nabalon, Yordy Morejon and Larisa Sanchez Ramirez in Havana; Deisy Maria in Camaguey; Mayra Valdes in Pinar del Rio, are just some of the Cuban women who push down on the foot pedal continuously, offering solidarity and contributing towards the national economy during this health crisis.
This article was written as part of the Local Journalism Laboratory project, and is being published with the explicit consent of its organizers.