Judy Matos and Rachel Sellitto
Rachel Sellitto and Judy Matos

Iconic Canadian company collaborates with MGH to produce masks and gowns

In 1980, the need for a durable sailing hat became the birth of the iconic Tilley hat. Now, four decades later, the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) has meant the birth of Tilley's latest project: producing face masks and isolation gowns.

In just a few short weeks, Tilley Endurable’s production facility has pivoted from producing high-quality headwear and apparel to creating vital tools in the fight against COVID-19.  

As Andrew Prendergast, Tilley president & chief executive officer explains, the company’s desire to support healthcare workers was immediate. The technical side took a bit longer.

“We knew we had a sewing resource that was valuable at this time, but we didn’t necessarily have the know how to help with personal protective equipment,” he says.

That’s where Michael Garron Hospital came in.

From prototype to final product 

closeup of mask and isolation gown

Through a personal connection, Rachel Sellitto, Tilley director of operations was introduced to Dr. Jeff Powis, medical director, infection prevention and control at MGH. Together they began designing a mask intended for non-patient facing hospital staff, allowing short-in-supply ear loop masks to be preserved for medical staff.  

“Our hat factory manager, Judy Matos, started the process in her basement, looking at existing patterns and creating masks on her sewing machine,” says Rachel. “Then we worked with Jeff over the course of three weeks to tweak details like material type, mesh versus fabric lining, the shape of the mask.”

It was a collaboration that involved many iterations until the final design was developed.

“When we got to the final version, I asked the hospital’s executive team to wear them and provide me with their feedback,” says Jeff. “That’s how we got to the final design that we were happy with.”

A sustainable resource, a commitment to quality

The hospital anticipated disruptions in the supply chain, so finding a local – and sustainable – partner to find innovative solutions was very important. With its production facilities located right in the community and a commitment to quality in design, Tilley was a clear favourite. 

“We both had the same motivation,” says Jeff, “and we connected on our shared vision to keep healthcare workers, and our community, safe.”

As Andrew explains, Tilley's focus is on materials and quality.

“Many of our hats and apparel items are guaranteed for life, so our approach is to overbuild and use the best materials out there. Our goal was to bring that same approach we take to making an indestructible hat, into the mask and gown world.”

Collaborating in gown design

While masks get a lot of attention, isolation gowns are also important in protecting front-line staff.

“Using a disposable product would put us in a position of liability,” Jeff says. “In other words, if we’re throwing something away after a single use, we’ll never have enough for us to get us though this pandemic.”

MGH collaborated closely with Scott Wakeman, vice president at Ecotex—a company that provides MGH and other hospitals with scrubs, gowns, linens and laundering services—on the more technical specifications of the gowns

“Scott was really the third leg of our stool,” says Sarah Chow, MGH vice president, corporate support & chief financial officer. “and he provided input on things like testing the material to meet standards and washing the gown over and over to test how it would hold up after numerous wash cycles.”

Protecting our most important resource: healthcare workers

The first batches of Tilley masks are already being used by non-patient facing staff at MGH.

“Our healthcare workers are our most important resource at MGH, including those who are non-patient facing, so it’s critical for me to make sure that everyone has the maximum capacity to be safe,” says Jeff. “If someone has a Tilley mask on, it’s going to reduce the chance that they put the virus into the environment – and reduce the chance that a co-worker might get sick.”

The shift to making masks and gowns hasn’t just kept many Tilley employees employed, it’s also given them a renewed sense of pride. 

“We have a group of employees, our sewers, who walk with their heads high and their shoulders back, incredibly proud of the work they’re doing,” says Andrew. “They’re always happy to protect people from the sun with the hats they make, but making masks and gowns that protect someone from either getting infected or infecting someone else really provides purpose and incentive for everyone to come in to work everyday.”