The COVID-19 pandemic torpedoed Sew605’s busy season, but face masks have kept it afloat.

Owner Catina Kost was just about to dig into a spring and summer season that nets 70% of her yearly business through prom and wedding dress alterations. The COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping through the United States and she needed to find an alternative source of revenue or her Mitchell-based business would go under.

During the early stages of the pandemic, Kost was stuck at home due to her foster daughter’s ear infection and she began to pour over her books, which were devoid of fittings. Then the wheels began turning.

Medical personal protective equipment were at a premium nationwide at the time and face masks were infrequently available to the public. Kost began to research the best mask designs and fabrics and it launched a brand new endeavor.

To date, Sew605 has manufactured 2,500 masks, with most of the business coming from Mitchell and the surrounding area. But it has also reinvigorated an online presence that had been dormant and Kost has shipped orders to 21 states, keeping Sew605 alive.

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“We would have probably closed early on if it wasn’t for masks,” Kost said. “We lost so much due to proms and weddings this spring that builds up our coffers to get through the slow season. If it weren’t for masks, I would have had to close and find a different job.”

Typically, Sew605 alters 70 prom dresses each spring, but that number dwindled to seven, with all coming before the pandemic. Two wedding dresses are usually altered per week, but the spring and summer netted a total of 15 as many brides saw delays in dresses being shipped from overseas.

So, to recoup the lost money, Kost began to not only research how to make masks, but how to create the most effective masks. She stumbled upon the Coalition Mask Network, which had been researching and producing masks for health care workers.

The masks created and replicated by Kost are adjustable enough to be worn over medical-grade masks and keeps them usable for more than one day. The draw strings can be worn further back to alleviate pressure around the ears and the base around the mask is wider to avoid sucking in the mask when breathing.

A variety of masks made at Sew605 in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)
A variety of masks made at Sew605 in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Perhaps the most crucial aspect of the mask is the non-woven polypropylene fabric, the same material used in the filter of medical-grade masks. The filter is sewn in and can be thrown into the washing machine without losing form.

Kost only purchases fabric in-person, because she wants to feel it and make sure the quality is high before using it.

“Good fabric is hard to find for a mask worth wearing,” Kost said. “If you want to wear a mask and actually protect people and not just because you’re wearing a mask to keep people happy, then you want something with a high thread-count and a filter. It’s hard to get those cottons and spend an arm and a leg to get them.”

Maximizing profit margins

Kost and her staff of three contract seamstresses and one fabric cutter can produce a mask in 25-30 minutes, and while most of the masks created vary in size and age group, customers can bring in their own fabrics and request a custom fitting.

The versatility landed Sew605 a deal with the United States Department of Defense to create masks for military bands through a referral from a friend. These masks were designed to be worn during traveling, but Kost has also made masks for roughly 35 Ethan School District band members that can be worn while playing an instrument.

“Our band teacher (Molly Manchester) basically said, ‘I’d like to support anybody local that we can,’” Ethan Superintendent Tim Hawkins said. “She came across Sew605 and that’s the route she decided to go. We’ve been really happy with the product. They were very inexpensive and they were very quick to get those to us.”

Masks are made at Sew605 in Mitchell for adults and children in a variety of sizes and deisgns. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Masks are made at Sew605 in Mitchell for adults and children in a variety of sizes and deisgns. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Fabric cutters were working eight to 10 hours per day, while the demand and concerns about virus spread caused Sew605 to cut store hours in half to two hours per day to focus on manufacturing. Kost also uses ultraviolet light disinfection in the store each night to eliminate potential germs on masks in the store.

Limited hours have not diminished sales, while production has gone up for the store, while some of Kost’s friends are set to begin selling masks in their stores. Masks created by Sew605 will be available at Nic’s Greenhouse in Parkston, as well as the newly-open Studio Aria Custom Framing in Mitchell.

“I wanted to help her out because business had been down and to support mask-wearing,” Studio Aria owner Melissa Schwalm said. “I’m a strong believer (in masks) as COVID numbers keep going up.

More meaningful than money

Mask sales have helped keep Sew605 in business, but there is something in play much more meaningful than money to Kost and her family.

Kost’s mother, who helps at the store, lost her spleen 10 years ago, which has created a diminished immune system. Her father also has lung damage due to an undiagnosed allergy, her son has asthma and her sister lives full-time on an oxygen tank.

Meanwhile, Kost has difficulty finding other jobs due to her own health issues with chemical sensitivities. She reacts negatively to some everyday chemicals and fragrances that result in six to eight sinus infections by the fall and an average of three trips to the emergency room each summer to treat migraines.

Kost has donated masks to a variety of donations and has declined to raise the price of masks from $8.95 with hopes of encouraging people to not just purchase a mask, but one made with high quality.

“I haven’t been sick at all this year and my doctors attribute that to wearing a mask,” Kost said. “They’ve been after me for years to wear them in public and I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to be patient zero walking around the grocery store with a mask, but the perfumes, deodorants and lotions people put on their bodies affect me. Now that I do, my health is so much better.”