Vapor Apparel, TS Designs revamp business models to close PPE gap

Posted May 7, 2020

 

By John McCurry

 

U.S. textile companies continue to revamp their business models to serve the needs of the coronavirus era.

 

New supply chains are forming now as companies ramp up to supply the demand for face masks and other protective gear for non-medical personnel. The pace quickened for this movement when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advised that use of simple cloth coverings to slow the spread of the virus could be used as a volunteer public health measure.

 

Two companies in the Carolinas – Vapor Apparel and TS Designs – are among those now either supplying fabric or masks for this burgeoning market.

 

Vapor Apparel, a Charleston, S.C.-area supplier of fabric and shirts to performance apparel brands, has been supplying fabric to multiple companies throughout the U.S. to make masks. Chris Bernat, Vapor’s chief revenue officer and partner, said the company has been in the neck gaiter market for long time. These are product often seen on skiers or fishermen.

 

“These types of products are more about suppression than protection,” Bernat said. “We are starting to see large corporations and institutions requiring people to cover their mouth and nose with some type of fabric material to reduce the spread of COVID-19. This is something we are going to dedicate more time to during the ‘Pre-Immunization Economy’ that the country is entering. We are ready to work with large companies or organizations in the state and the region for their people.”

 

Bernat said he believes companies with outdoor employees will increasingly be interested in purchasing gaiters. Vapor has been in the gaiter business for more than a decade. In the past, people were more focused on price than quality and Vapor didn’t sell too many.

 

“Now, people want a higher quality product in this category, because it matters more,” Bernat said, adding that a core part of Vapor’s “normal” business is working with outdoor companies of all types with sun protection shirts and hoodies.

 

Vapor also has a new line of hydrophobic fabrics that Bernat said are ideal for gowns, covers and protective apparel. Vapor is also beginning to supply cloth masks that will be fully customizable and also allow for a replaceable carbon filter pouch.

 

“This will help mom and pop print shops in lots of small towns and big cities start new conversations with their customers when things get opened back up,” he said. “We are talking to print shops in dozens of states every week and each one of them has a different situation.”

 

TS Designs, with Trotter’s Sewing, turns tees into PPE

 

Burlington, North Carolina-based TS Designs, a 40-year-old company specializing in wholesale screen printing, garment dyeing and manufacturing of U.S.-made T-shirts, is one of the latest textile firms to shift production to face masks.

 

Eric Henry, president of TS Designs, said his company was on the sidelines in the early weeks of the pandemic. He wanted to offer support, but his firm had no sewing capabilities. As the situation progressed, it became apparent that face masks would be needed for the foreseeable future.

 

So, TS Designs began working in early April with Lori Trotter, co-owner of Trotters Sewing Company, an Asheboro, N.C., cut-and-sew now producing masks for TS Designs. The timing was right because TS Designs was on partial shutdown because all of its T-shirt orders were either being cancelled or put on hold.

 

“We started pulling together the tons of irregular tee shirts we have accumulated over the years, which we sell in our break area during tours,” Henry said. “So we asked ourselves, how can we sell those? We put together some grab bags of shirts for the crafting community, and Lori bought some grab bags and made some masks. That was right when they started talking about the usefulness of cotton masks, and things started showing up online about making them from T-shirts.”

 

Henry said that Trotter began with a great design using the garment-dyed T-shirts made of ring-spun cotton. The lesson, in these challenging times, he said, is being nimble enough to pivot quickly. During the first week, TS Designs sold more than $5,000 worth of masks.

 

“Now we are looking at developing custom masks,” Henry said. “We can start with white fabric and we can print on it, for businesses and colleges that want to have logos. Right now we just have an assortment of colors and you can’t specify. But I understand that people might want something standardized. Now, because everything else has come to a standstill, this is our biggest selling product and I have more orders than I can get out the door. It’s amazing how quickly things can change.”

 

TS Designs is selling the masks retail on its website via a simple shopping cart. Henry said he has received interest in wholesale orders, which they are just starting to fulfill.

 

Henry described the masks as being washable, durable and fitting well.

 

“It’s well designed, double layered, and goes around the head, not the ears,” he said. “Based on conversations, we learned that wearing it around the ears can become irritating if worn for a long period of time. Lori made some great tweaks in the design. It’s been well though out. There is a place to put in a filter if you want.”

 

Henry said he will probably bring in sewing equipment soon as orders grow as a supplement to the work Trotters Sewing is doing. TS Designs is currently operating with four of its normal 15 employees, and sewing would allow Henry to recall some from being furloughed.

 

Activity at TS Design is somewhat frenzied these days as Henry calculated how to expand his new production and bring the rest of his staff back to work.

 

“We may look into making other products with our T-shirts,” he said. “I don’t know yet what that might be, but we are looking at our T-shirts as raw material and how to repurpose that. Instead of just recycling, we could up-cycle. My days are like juggling water; you never know what is going to happen.”

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A neck gaiter produced by Vapor Apparel