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BEST OF THE BOW: Canmore Mask Makers a labour of love

"When we are out shopping, I see the people wearing our masks and it gives me a little bit of pride," said Lorraine Lefort, part of the mother-daughter duo of the Canmore Mask Makers team

CANMORE – It all started with some scrap fabric at the kitchen table.

Launching an "accidental business" back in March, Canmore Mask Maker mother-daughter duo Lorraine Lefort and Samantha Welsh started crafting the facial fabrics as a way to fill a need in the community.

"Well my mom started sewing masks for family and then extended family and then friends of friends and then friends of friends of friends," Welsh said with a laugh. "Then we started getting some requests, so I started helping her out and it went from there."

Sewing together scrap fabric they had kicking around the house, Welsh and Lefort had no idea what they were getting into seven months ago.

"We had this attitude of, 'Oh we are just going to do one more week' or 'Let's just do a few more masks then it might be over,' " Welsh said.

The duo laughed.

"It was, 'OK, let's buy more fabric and let's see what happens this week,' " Lefort said.

"Then something would happen either quite devastating in the news or quite positive in the news and either way, we'd think 'OK let's just do one more week,' " Welsh said.

The first presumptive case of COVID-19 was discovered in Alberta on March 5 with the province declaring a state of public health emergency almost two weeks later on March 17. Public health guidelines, such as mandatory isolation for those showing symptoms and social distancing were put in place to flatten the curve and reduce the risk of overwhelming rural and urban hospitals and health centres.

By the end of the month, provincial officials ordered a non-essential business shut down, shuttering restaurants and retail outlets. Alberta began to slowly reopen again in May as stage one of the provincial relaunch strategy allowed the reopening of some businesses and services with public health guidelines in place. On June 12, the province entered stage two, which allowed the further reopening of businesses with continued protections in place and relaxing some public gathering restrictions.

"I think Canmore is a group of very smart and intelligent people that listen to science and it was helpful to have their support. They got on the bandwagon very quickly and we were able to get them the masks that they needed," Welsh said.

During the early days, Lefort said the team was crafting the fabric face coverings for any Bow Valley residents in need.

"First, I decided to use everything that was in our whole fabric stash and that wasn't enough so I took some money of my own and went out and bought some fabric ...  we used Facebook as our vehicle and offered the masks for free and accepted donations and people were tremendously supportive – it was overwhelming," Lefort said.

"We haven't stopped much since March," Welsh said.

"We've taken a weekend here and a couple of days there, but we've been sewing day in and day out." 

The daughter part of the mask-making duo originally lost her full-time job at the beginning of the pandemic, as part of the 400 temporary layoffs at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

Using her unexpected free time, Welsh said she knew she wanted to support the community.

Meanwhile, Lefort had been enjoying retirement, after owning her own quilt and sewing store in Ontario for 13 years, before becoming an unexpected independent business owner again.

"There have been just generations of sewing," Lefort said, as she explained how she learned the skill from her mother, who learned it from her mother.

And she passed down the creativity to her daughter.

"I sewed my first quilt when I was eight," Welsh said.

"I just didn't realize how valuable sewing was as a skill set [but] now I realize we wouldn’t have been able to make all these masks if I wasn't able to sew."

While the mask makers do not know the total count of how many patterns they have produced, with Welsh back to work she estimates they sew about 150 masks a weekend.

Over the course of seven months, Lefort and Welsh have also been able to donate to health care workers, teachers, people in isolation, the Bow Valley Food Alliance, the Alberta Children’s Hospital, seniors centres, local farmers markets and anyone else in need.

"I forget where we've donated because we've had so many requests," Lefort said with a laugh.

Lately, the duo has been sewing masks for the local schools for any child who is in need of a mask or forgets to bring it to school. They also partnered with Banff Pride to sell masks with its logo as a fundraiser.

"When we are out shopping, I see the people wearing our masks and it gives me a little bit of pride ... the masks are also made with love," Lefort said.

Named community champions by the Town of Canmore in April, the mask makers said they couldn't have done it without support.

"We shop and support local, so it's not just me and my mom you would be supporting," Welsh said.

Supporting local themselves, Welsh said most of the supplies, with the exception of also supporting a fabric shop in Invermere, have been purchased locally – whether it was the thread, elastics or fabrics at the Sugar Pine Company in Canmore, or folding tables at local retail stores to set up their make-shift station, or a new sewing machine from the local Canadian Tire when Welsh wore hers out.

The community has also stepped up and donated money and supplies throughout the pandemic.

"Once a disposable mask is dirty or on the ground, it is easier to leave it there, ­but if you invest financially and emotionally in a mask you really love – you are more likely to take care of it and then it doesn't become a single-use item," Welsh said.

Looking at the little makeshift sewing room in the top floor of the condo, bins full of mask and chairs back-to-back, the mother and daughter laugh together as they go through the different patterns offered, such as Canmore Plaid and Pumpkin Spice Lattes, while also talking about what's next.

"From a sitting area to a sewing room, it's definitely an accidental business," Welsh said with a laugh.

"We have to get through these two stacks then who knows what's next," Lefort said with a smile.

To purchase a Canmore Mask Maker mask, go to canmoremaskmakers.com or visit Communitea Cafe and Alberta's Own Marketplace in Canmore, or the Sideshow Gallery in Banff.



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Jenna Dulewich

About the Author: Jenna Dulewich

Jenna Dulewich is a national and provincial award-winning multi-media journalist. Joining the Rocky Mountain Outlook in 2019, she covers Stoney Nakoda, MD of Bighorn, Canmore and court.
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