An Ottawa-based startup that makes flexible headgear for Muslim and Sikh athletes has shifted its production into making masks aimed at reducing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thawrih’s SportsMask is made of washable and breathable fabrics – the same material the startup uses to make hijabs and turbans better-suited for sports and physical activities. The company’s production is entirely based out of Ottawa, employing recently landed immigrants such as Syrian refugees to make its clothing.
Thawrih’s new product aims to help shore up the dwindling supply of facemasks in cities across the world, including here in Ottawa. On Thursday, the Queensway Carleton Hospital put out a call asking for donations of gloves, gowns and other personal protective equipment.
Thawrih CEO Sarah Abood says the decision to pivot to facemask production arose out of a personal need.
At the start of the month, Abood and her co-founder Sami Dabliz returned from the SoGal global pitch competition in Silicon Valley. Their return to Ottawa coincided with a rising tide of coronavirus cases worldwide, which left them in self-isolation and wondering about their own protective measures.
When Abood couldn’t find a personal-use facemask, she reached out to one of Thawrih’s seamstresses about using some leftover fabric to make a face covering she could use on personal trips into the neighbourhood after her isolation ended. It was then in conversations with friends and strangers at the grocery store that Abood realized there would be significant interest for a wider release of the product.
Meanwhile, Thawrih saw sales of its legacy products dwindling as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened. That worried Abood when it came to her workers, many of whom could be in a vulnerable position without a paycheque from Thawrih.
“Sales were slowing down because of COVID-19. There wasn't that much work for them at the moment,” Abood said.
Pivoting to facemasks would also solve another problem for Thawrih: What to do with the scraps of clothing left over from the hijab and turban production. Abood says the transition has been “pretty seamless,” as the masks have similar patterns to a line of headbands the company produces.
Though Thawrih’s product isn’t a direct substitute for the standard-issue masks relied on in most hospitals, a study from researchers at the University of Cambridge suggests that, in a pinch, even a homemade mask can offer better protection from viruses than no mask at all.
After just a day of offering facemasks and without any substantial promotion, Abood says Thawrih has fielded dozens of orders for the product.
The company is also in talks with several independent pharmacies about making a line of masks for their employees, and Abood hopes to arrange some bulk orders for hospitals and police services when production scales up. Thawrih has already received requests to design a custom facemask that fits around a hijab, a common issue with the traditional masks.
Abood notes, however, that Thawrih isn’t looking to make a profit off the pandemic. The masks are currently priced to cover their costs and keep the startup’s employees with steady work. The supply line is also carefully sanitized throughout the production process so as not to risk spreading the virus. Abood says she doesn’t want to aggressively scale her high-demand product at the risk of her employees’ or her customers’ health.
“Right now we're just trying to ramp up our production in a way that we're not overloading our newcomers.”