Kim Williams of Buxton has a room in her home filled with rolls of polypropylene fabric she uses to make protective gowns for first responders. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Who knew? I live next door to a clothing manufacturer.

It all started a few weeks ago when Kim Williams, my neighbor here in Buxton, found herself confronted by two dilemmas.

One was her work – or the loss thereof. She’d been splitting her time between a cleaning service and providing massage therapy, two of the many jobs laid low by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Kim put it Tuesday with a rueful smile, “Doing massages from 6 feet away just doesn’t work.”

The other pickle involved Kim’s husband, Steve, an emergency medical technician for Trinity Emergency Medical Service in Lowell, Massachusetts. Like many other first responders, he and his co-workers were in desperate need of protective gowns as they responded to 911 calls throughout Lowell and a dozen other municipalities that contract with the company for rescue coverage.

It got so bad that when Trinity ran out of its own gowns, the Lowell Spinners minor league baseball team donated 4,000 disposable rain ponchos – team logo and all – for the EMTs and paramedics to wear on their rounds.

“I think my wife could make some of those,” Steve told his supervisor.

“Have her make one, and we’ll take a look,” the supervisor replied.

Kim, we should note, knows her way around a sewing machine. The next day, she grabbed a piece of landscaping fabric, banged out a simple, pullover gown and gave it to Steve to show to his higher-ups. She made the arms extra long and included thumb holes on the sleeves, making it easy to pull rubber gloves up over the gown.

“I was thinking maybe they want 250 or something like that,” Kim recalled. “Well, they asked for 5,000.”

And with that, a small business was born.

Kim Williams demonstrates how her loom operates with her 12-year-old son, Tucker. The loom is used to quickly measure out fabric used to make protective gowns. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

It’s become, even in these dark days, a shining example of the innovation, determination and, above all, cooperation that so often have set Maine apart during times of crisis.

Even better, it’s providing a much-needed source of income not only for Kim but for a growing cadre of seamstresses who are now busy at their homes turning mountains of white polypropylene fabric into lifesaving equipment.

The Williams’ spacious, early-19th-century home looks more these days like a makeshift textile plant.

The living room is piled high with 24 rolls of polypropylene, double the size of the last order, that arrived Monday via tractor-trailer.

The dining room now houses a large “loom” – designed by 14-year-old son Tanner – that quickly unfurls the rolls of polypropylene into the exact length needed for each gown.

And the kitchen table? That’s now the cutting board, where Kim turns 40 layers of fabric at a time into the three pieces – two arms and the torso – that constitute each gown.

“When we first started, I had just my sewing scissors, and it was killing my hands,” she said. “But then I found an electric rotary cutter. It’s a beautiful machine – my new baby.”

But that’s just front end of the operation.

Painfully aware that she could never produce 5,000 gowns herself, Kim took to her church group page on Facebook looking for seamstresses who might be willing to assist – and get paid in the process.

“I now have 13, she said. “They’re from Hollis, Buxton, Saco, Scarborough, Greater Portland …”

Kim Williams uses a rotary cutter to cut fabric. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

They’re all women. Most had lost their jobs or seen their income plummet since Maine went into stay-at-home mode April 2. Some mothers sew at night after the kids have gone to bed, while a couple of retirees see the gowns as a welcome way to get through these long, lonely days.

It’s hardly a road to riches. Trinity pays just under $7 for each gown. From that, Kim pays about $200 per roll for the polypropylene, smaller amounts for thread and needles, and $2.50 per gown to her seamstresses, whom she trains via short video text messages. (Five straight seams and you’re done.)

Still, for those looking to pay the bills, it’s decent pay. Eight gowns an hour brings in $20.

The logistics are simple: The seamstresses show up at the door, where they deliver their completed work and Kim gives them a check and a new box of pre-cut pieces. Kim then carefully folds and packs the finished garments and hands them off to Steve, the one-man shipping and delivery department.

“It’s been a lifesaver for us,” Jon Kelley, director of operations and communications for Trinity, said in a telephone interview.

The rescue service, which annually handles 60,000 emergency calls and 20,000 ambulance transfers, currently goes through three gowns per call, Kelley said. Although he began ordering gowns and other personal protective equipment as early as mid-January, he said, few of those orders have materialized.

“It’s great that this production is local,” Kelley said. “We’re very thankful for all of our friends up in Maine making these to keep us safe.”

Kerry Goulder of Scarborough is one of the seamstresses. For the past 10 years, she’s designed and sold sewing patterns through her label Kid Giddy. Now, she’s churning out 10 to 12 gowns per hour “if I’m not watching Netflix at the same time.” (Her 15-year-old daughter, Elliot, can do it even faster.)

“I think it’s amazing what (the Williamses) have been doing and what they’ve been able to accomplish,” said Goulder, who was sewing and donating masks before Kim came along. “And it’s been really great being a part of that.”

Kim Williams shows the protective gowns she makes in her home. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

How far this goes will depend on Kim’s ability to attract new customers and recruit more seamstresses. If you’re one or the other, you can reach her at [email protected]

It won’t be easy. The Williamses already heard from the polypropylene distributor in Minnesota that the price for its product is going up 28 percent. Apparently Kim isn’t the only one using the longtime construction material as a defensive weapon against the novel coronavirus.

Still, it’s helping to replace that lost income. And more importantly, it’s helping to keep some 250 first responders safe in an area hit hard by COVID-19 – at 2,313 confirmed cases to date, the city of Lowell alone far eclipses the 1,515 confirmed cases in the entire state of Maine.

“I want (Steve) to have something to cover himself,” Kim said. “And I’m sure there are other people who want their spouses or partners to have something to cover them too.”

A while back, as she handed off a load of finished gowns to her husband, Kim wondered if her fledgling operation could truly make a difference. Later, Steve told her that when he arrived at Trinity’s headquarters that day with 700 new gowns, a fellow worker was headed out the door with the last of the previous supply.

“They were extremely happy,” Kim said.

In the manufacturing world, they’d call that “just-in-time production.”

In today’s world, let’s call it lives saved.


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