These days, we place our faith in small rectangles of fabric to stop the spread of a virus that could destroy our lives. Most of us own not just one face mask, but several ― one for every trip to the store or encounter with someone outside of our circle ― meaning one individual could need a dozen or so masks in their arsenal.
Make-your-own face mask tutorials were ubiquitous online when the pandemic first hit, but they fell on deaf ears for the non-crafters of the world, who’ve instead depended on online face mask retailers. And one of the most popular destinations has been Etsy, the global online marketplace for makers.
Within days of the CDC’s April 3 recommendation that people wear cloth face coverings, Etsy mobilized 20,000 sellers and had 60,000 selling masks by the end of April. In April alone, Etsy sold 12 million face masks, generating $133 million of gross merchandise sales. And as the need to wear coverings continues, Etsy face mask sales have likely increased significantly since those Q1 earnings figures were released.
But who exactly is making these masks? And how much money do they really make? Do these exhausted makers ever get to take a break from churning out masks on their sewing machines? And what made them choose to sell face masks in the first place?
We reached out to five Etsy shop owners to find out. What follows uncovers the truly human side behind these makers (and some transparent financial insights, too).
The Working Mom With Her Family’s Health At Stake
While some Etsy shops sell masks for no particularly reason ― one maker told HuffPost, “I just love cute prints and like to make things with such fabric for pleasure” ― others feel intense pressure to contribute to a cause that hits close to home.
Rickeysha Godfrey is behind the Etsy shop ByKeeksWithLove, which was never the Sebring, Florida, resident’s primary source of income ― she left her first career as a corporate lawyer to become a teacher so she could spend more time with her 6-year-old daughter. The Etsy shop had always been a side project, until the coronavirus hit and things took an unexpected turn.
“I honestly never, ever intended to sell my masks,” Godfrey told HuffPost. “I’m a DIY person, I like to teach other people how to do things. I did a tutorial showing other people how they could make masks. I had worked all year and I needed to take the summer off to recharge. But when I posted my tutorial, everyone just wanted to buy my masks.”
Godfrey initially made masks for family members, many of whom are immunocompromised ― her grandmother wears a pacemaker and has diabetes, her father just started chemotherapy for prostate cancer and her aunt just started chemotherapy for uterine cancer. “They all have big mouths and showed people what I had made, and it grew bigger than I ever, ever imagined it would become. Now selling masks is my primary source of income.”
Godfrey describes her Etsy sales as coming in two waves: The first came during the widespread mask shortage, and the second came amid the Black Lives Matter movement’s push to support Black-owned businesses in early June.
Godfrey approximates that by the end of June, she sold at least 1,200 face masks, a 1,079% increase in sales from the same time last year. “It can be quite lucrative, especially if you’re pricing it correctly,” Godfrey said. “I’m a huge proponent of protecting creators and making sure they get paid a fair wage.”
You have to understand. I’m not just a shop owner, I’m also a Black person living through civil unrest due to Black Lives Matter, I’m dealing with the pandemic, I have two people in my family that are battling cancer, I have a 6-year-old daughter. Rickeysha Godfrey
She does the majority of the work all by herself, from sourcing materials to driving the finished masks to the post office. When asked if her work feels like a nonstop endeavor, Godfrey let out a deep breath and said, “Yes. Yes. I sleep from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., wake up and sew from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m., then leave for my daughter’s tennis practice, then come back at 10 a.m. and sew until 4:45 p.m. Then I’m out to the post office to drop them off. I take a break for dinner and the kids, then start all over again. It’s a lot.”
She had to put her Etsy shop on vacation mode during the first week of July because of the toll it was taking on her mental health.
“I see the orders coming in from New York or Texas and I feel the pressure, because maybe these people can’t leave the house because they don’t have a mask. I feel an added level of stress and pressure to get the order right and get it out on time. It makes me feel good to help, but it takes a toll.”
The Trolls Of Etsy
Dealing with customers is an additional challenge that Godfrey didn’t expect.
“I lead with love and I lead with grace, and I understand that people are stressed and they’re going through a lot, but I’ve dealt with some of the worst, meanest, rudest people that I’ve ever dealt with since I started selling products five years ago.” The USPS was hit with massive delivery delays in the first months of the pandemic, and customers whose masks arrived late threatened Godfrey with lawsuits and promises to “blast me on social media,” she said.
“It caught me off guard, honestly, that these things would hurt my feelings,” she said. “I’m trying to do good and help people, and there are people who are trying to tear me apart.”
It’s pretty crazy. People who don’t believe in BLM are calling us terrorists and saying we support terrorists. Owners of HipFruit
“You have to understand. I’m not just a shop owner, I’m also a Black person living through civil unrest due to Black Lives Matter, I’m dealing with the pandemic, I have two people in my family that are battling cancer, I have a 6-year-old daughter,” she added. “I expected people to give entrepreneurs more grace during this time, but I think I’ve gotten less. People have been less patient.”
Godfrey isn’t the only seller dealing with difficult customers. HipFruit is a small Etsy shop run by a husband-and-wife team out of Lincoln, Nebraska, the latter of whom “sews basically all day” to sell more than 5,000 masks to date, all made with her own two hands.
“We have been quite overwhelmed with order requests to the point that we had to turn off all of our sales promotions so as to slow down the sale velocity for quality assurance,” the shop owners shared with HuffPost.
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But despite their success, the couple has asked not to share their names because of an influx of hate mail they’ve received for selling face masks with Black Lives Matter messaging. “It’s pretty crazy. People who don’t believe in BLM are calling us terrorists and saying we support terrorists,” they shared.
A Vaccine: Great For Humanity, Bad For Business
HipFruit’s owners recognize that the unpredictability of the virus makes it nearly impossible to plan much of their business for the future, but they’ve got a strategy in place.
“After two months of religiously studying about the virus and tracking its status in America and around the world, we have come to terms with the situation and expect that it can only be a thing of the past once a vaccine is approved and made available to the public,” HipFruit’s owners said. “This could maybe take place in about two months if we are lucky. With that in mind, our No. 1 mission for the next two months will be to max out capacity for production and make sure they get to our shoppers ASAP.”
Other sellers also realize their steady flow of sales will likely end with COVID-19.
Rolin Lintag, who runs CuteClique with his wife Apolonia, is a self-described empty nester from Manila, Philippines, and became a U.S. citizen with his wife in 2014. The couple are both trained as engineers, but now Apolonia runs the Etsy shop full-time with Rolin’s help.
Between April and June, CuteClique sold more than 2,000 face masks, but they anticipate sales will come to a halt when a vaccine arrives ― at least temporarily.
“The bulk of the sales will happen throughout this year until an effective vaccine is in place,” Rolin said. But he’s not convinced the vaccine will be a permanent solution. “Until such time the world is assured that a pandemic like this will not happen again, there will be a need for face masks.”
An Unimaginable Stroke Of Fate
Etsy shop owner Bonnie Brosious made face masks for her own survival before she turned it into a business.
BonniBsCutenCrafty had been Brosious’ side gig while working full time at a theme park in Orlando, FL, until she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018. By the time her cancer had gone metastatic to her bones in 2019, she was forced to stay home and rely on her Etsy shop as her primary source of income.
I decided to focus on making masks for others in my condition, not even knowing what was lurking right around the corner. When they talk about ‘when lightning strikes,’ that’s kind of what happened to me. Bonnie Brosious
In late December 2019, she developed pneumonia because of a compromised immune system and needed to wear a mask full time. She developed a prototype for “what has now become a small empire for myself. … I decided to focus on making masks for others in my condition, not even knowing what was lurking right around the corner. When they talk about ‘when lightning strikes,’ that’s kind of what happened to me.”
As of early July, Brosious has sold more than 2,000 face masks on Etsy, at one point in April working 36 days without a single day off. Like other face mask makers, she was up against an onslaught of challenges: material shortages, increasing prices of elastic, major delays in USPS shipping, competition amid a crowded marketplace and keeping up with orders.
The Profitability Breakdown
But Brosious found a way to make a profit, breaking down the math for us with some transparent calculations: “If you look at my shop and see I had 2,062 sales x $14.95 a mask, you could easily figure that I made at minimum $30,800 in three months.” But she also had to consider the following costs during that time:
$6,500 paid to Etsy for listing fees ($0.20 for each listing) and percentage of sales (approximately $0.67 per mask sale), tax and shipping labels
$4,800 to purchase materials
Sharing half of the profit with her business partner
Pre-tax, Brosious ended up clearing $9,750 for three months. “It’s a great living wage but A LOT of work, so you have to ask yourself if being able to be creative and work from the comfort of your own home some days in PJs is worth it. I’d say yes!” she said.
Brosious is currently stable with stage 4 metastatic bone cancer. “This opportunity to be able to work from home with my Etsy shop has added to the ability for me to stay safe and healthy,” she said.
A Gift That You Can’t Cash At The Bank
Liselle Ferdinand works in the restaurant service industry while studying early childhood education in Brooklyn, New York, and runs the Afronautic Etsy shop. When the pandemic hit, she turned to her giant fabric stash and got to work making masks for six to seven hours a day at home on her sewing machine. But she isn’t in this to make money.
“I’m making these and selling them, but I donate all the proceeds,” she said. “I give this back. Every week, I donate to different organizations. If you hit me up during the week and say you need assistance with groceries, I’ll split up the proceeds and [help you out]. This isn’t how I’m feeding myself.”
What’s perhaps even more altruistic about Ferdinand’s business strategy is that she doesn’t announce her charitable intentions on her Etsy shop page ― customers don’t know the proceeds are donated until after they make a purchase.
I feel like this has saved me in many ways. It’s saved my mental health. It’s helping me help other people. And it’s taking my mind off of everything that’s happening right now: the virus, Black Lives Matter, police brutality. Liselle Ferdinand
“I don’t want people to support just because I’m giving back. I want you to get the mask because it’s quality and because you want to support the business.”
Like Godfrey, Ferdinand saw a huge wave of support from the BLM movement.
“Someone featured me on a list of Black-owned Etsy shops, and I saw an instant boost,” Ferdinand said. “At first during the coronavirus I was getting one to two orders a day, some days no orders. But after that feature, there was a day when I had like 14 orders in one day. It sounds like not a big deal, but it’s a totally big deal when you’re going from two masks a day to 30 a day.”
She plans to continue making masks while there’s still a need, even after she depletes her fabric stash and has to spend her own money on more supplies.
“I can’t go out and protest, I can’t go out and do a lot of these social events, but this is something that I can do,” she said. :This is my way of supporting the cause, supporting other people.”
“I feel like this has saved me in many ways,” she added. “It’s saved my mental health. It’s helping me help other people. And it’s taking my mind off of everything that’s happening right now: the virus, Black Lives Matter, police brutality. When I sit down and I’m on the sewing machine, I’m in that zone. I don’t have to think about the riots. I’m not checking out fully, but I’m partially checking out and giving my contribution to the movement.”
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.