VIRGINIA — Typically this time of year, Paula Novelan would be outfitting excited young ladies in prom dresses and busy with wedding dress fittings, tuxedo rentals and gussying up little flower girls.
She would normally, also, be working on her annual Easter window display at her longtime Virginia business.
Instead, Novelan is — as are Americans everywhere — sheltering in place, most days inside her temporarily shuttered Bridal Loft store, which she opened in 1983.
She spends long hours there, alone with her sewing machine. And, with a new mission.
Since The Bridal Loft became one of the many non-essential businesses across the country forced to close during the COVID-19 pandemic, Novelan has been hard at work sewing protective masks for health care workers on the front lines and others who are vulnerable in the community.
“Never, in my wildest dreams, did I think instead of doing my annual Easter window display with pastel colors, I’d be making an Easter mask,” she wrote on a Bridal Loft Facebook post, accompanied by a photo of a mannequin garbed in a pastel, flower-patterned mask.
Like other small businesses owners, Novelan was already apprehensive about future business before the virus outbreak. “The internet has impacted and closed a lot of businesses thus far,” she said. “This setback will prompt many to follow in that direction.”
But, despite the economic hit to her store, Novelan chose to think of others during this difficult time.
“My decision to make masks was an easy one,” she said. “I have been an avid sewer and crafter for most of my life and have accumulated a squirrel-load of fabric. With my bridal and formalwear business coming to a complete halt, what better way to help my communities than to use my stockpile and produce much-needed masks.”
Novelan said she just happened to have the proper elastic for mask-making on hand after being sent “the wrong kind” for a project for a customer.
And it’s a good thing. With so many similarly dedicated citizens creating homemade masks for those most in need, elastic is becoming increasingly difficult to find, she said.
Novelan began sewing the masks on March 15, one day after making the decision to temporarily close The Bridal Loft.
The COVID-19 outbreak and social distancing guidelines “impacted our spring proms and our substantial investments in our inventory,” she said. “We were gearing up for several weddings in March and April, and even May. Most weddings in the next few months have been either postponed or cancelled.”
Novelan has still found ways to help anxious customers yet planning their special occasions, such as by choosing colors though the window and assisting over the phone or online. But all of the in-person tuxedo and gown measurements have ceased, for now.
The 61-year-old first began making masks for members of her TOPS (Take Pounds Off Sensibly) club, she said.
“A lot of the lovely ladies in my club are senior citizens like myself. I offered each of them a mask for them and their loved ones, then posted mask-making directions and photos on my Bridal Loft Facebook page.”
It grew from there.
“The need is astounding,” said Novelan, whose two daughters are nurses in Hibbing. “It actually frustrates me that so many medical, nursing home, assisted living, and ambulance crews are so short of the necessary supplies to keep them safe.”
She is worried for her own daughters’ safety during the virus pandemic. “They are facing uncertainty,” and will surely be affected “if this escalates to crisis mode” locally.
Mask-making is “a relatively simple project,” Novelan said. She watched several YouTube tutorials and “tweeked a pattern to afford maximum coverage (of the face), comfort and the ability to place a N95 filter in the inside if available.”
The masks, made of cotton fabric, are washable and re-usable.
Novelan said she has been spending 10 to 14 hours per day constructing the masks, which each require about 25 minutes to make. The fabric first needs to be washed and ironed before sewing can begin.
She has so far created several hundred, many of them going to health care workers and staff at rehabilitation and dialysis centers.
And she is not accepting a penny for any of them; instead suggesting people make a donation to their favorite charity.
Novelan is currently working “on a big batch,” using spring-like patterns, for staff and residents at the Essentia Health-Virginia Care Center. “The masks don’t have to be boring,” she said.
One mask, made of a camouflage pattern, which she called “The Iron Ranger,” was on display for a while in The Bridal Loft window, but Novelan later gave that one away, too.
And she plans to make navy blue- and black-colored masks appropriate for area police departments.
To protect herself and others from the spread of COVID-19, Novelan has distributed most of the masks via “curbside pickup” at The Bridal Loft.
“The impact of this virus will continue to be devastating to any specialty business, as well as others affiliated,” Novelan noted. “Predictions of sustainability for a lot of the bridal and formalwear businesses after this virus passes is grim. Most of us cater to a very specific need — bridal, tuxedo and suit rentals and sales, mother of the bride, flower girl, pageant, first communion, shoes and accessories.
“The internet has taken such a big cut over the last five years. A lot of businesses have had to re-adjust their business plans. … Who could have prepared for this?”
But Novelan wants to re-assure customers that she will take care of future weddings as she always has. “I’m wired for this,” she said, adding that she can get bridal parties ready in less than a week, if necessary.
In the meantime, she will continue her mask-making adventure, “designed for love, not profit.”
Novelan asks for just one thing in return.
“Please, pay it forward. When this is over — and we hope and pray you and your loved ones come out of this unscathed — please support your small businesses so we can be around to support you.”