When the pandemic hit the UK in March, Dorothée d’Argentré quickly realised the environmental problem of disposable face masks. That’s why she launched a free, eco-friendly, washable alternative called Fulham Face Masks. In less than three months, the team has sewn more than 1,300 masks and has raised £7,000 for charities. She talks to H&F Circles about her small but efficient operation.
Dorothée shows off one of her masks
How did the idea of sewing masks for others come about?
During the lockdown, my husband had no choice but to go to his office by bus every day. I felt bad for him and thought that it would be a nice touch to make him a pretty cotton mask. It would save him from wearing the disposable ones which are more uncomfortable. I then realised that sewing masks could be my way of helping the vulnerable residents in my neighbourhood. I knew there were many people in urgent need of protection and who didn’t have the time or the financial means to invest in good quality cotton masks. Plus, seeing thousands and thousands of people in the street wearing synthetic masks made me realise the horrific impact these disposable items are causing to the environment.
Are you an expert sewer?
I wouldn’t call myself an expert, but I’ve learnt quickly! Two years ago, I bought a Singer machine because we are all quite short in my family and I had to shorten all our trousers. For the masks, I spent a bit of time watching tutorials and experimenting with different designs until I found a technique I was satisfied with.
You have an impressively varied collection of prints. Where do you get them from?
We used to live in Cameroon and when I was there I couldn’t help but stuffing my suitcase with rolls and rolls of “wax” print. It’s a traditional fabric very common in West Africa, 100% cotton, with colourful batik-inspired printing. It is great for face masks because it is quite strong yet comfortable, and easy to breathe in. We have now sourced other fabrics to diversify our range even further. Our masks have three layers (including a removable filter), and they are washable and reusable.
Some of the masks on display
How did you kick-start the operations?
It was Easter break when I was ready to get started, and my three teenage kids were getting seriously bored at home. It hasn’t been hard to enroll them actually: they genuinely wanted to help. They have assisted with the rather ungratifying task of fixing the elastics. And they have offered to take care of all the deliveries on their bikes … which has given them a very welcome excuse to leave the house if I’m honest! So, for a while, it was essentially the four of us working, using the fabric I had brought from Cameroon. I then put a message on the Nextdoor app to inform my neighbours that I was offering some masks for free. A few friends and neighbours have offered to help sewing, some have donated fabrics, and this is how Fulham Face Masks started.
Why did you decide to turn your project into a charitable initiative?
It was clear to me that I didn’t want to charge anyone for the masks, especially as some of the fabric had been donated. But I realised that many of the people ordering the masks were keen to support the initiative, so I decided to set up a Just Giving page. People can contact me to order some masks free of charge, no questions asked. But I encourage anyone who can to make a voluntary contribution via my page. All donations go to the four charities that I have selected: NHS, St Mungos, AgeUK, and World Land Trust.
How many face masks have you produced so far and for whom?
I have personally made more than 1,000 masks, and the rest of the team have made 300. We have had demands from individuals, nurseries carers, as well as from some charities. Age UK H&F were particularly grateful as they have distributed our masks to some of their carers.
Dorothée posing with a bouquet received from an Age UK carer
Looking back, what has been your biggest challenge so far?
The first few weeks when we were getting ready were exciting. But we have been victims of our success as the word of mouth has spread quickly. There have been some stressful days when I found myself having to deliver some large orders for 10am the following day. I was sewing for 12 hours a day straight, and face masks were haunting me in my dreams!
What has the experience brought you? And what are your plans for the months ahead?
It is hard work and stressful to respond to unpredictable demand, but I have no regrets. There’s nothing more rewarding than feeling helpful, especially in times of crisis. It has been rewarding as well to improve my technique over the weeks. My friends and customers' reaction has been very positive, so it has encouraged me to set up my own shop on Etsy. I will of course continue to supply communities in need with masks for free, but I have now acquired the confidence, as well as the technical and marketing skills, to start an entrepreneurship adventure.
How do people contact you to order masks?
I invite people to browse through my Facebook page and my Instagram feeds to select a few prints they like. They then contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org to place the order. We deliver on bicycle across SW6 SW7 SW5 SW10 and SW15, or we post elsewhere (with a contribution for postage costs).
Are there any other ways that people can support your initiative?
Contributions on our Just Giving page would be greatly appreciated. All donations go towards charities affected by Covid-19. I also welcome the donations of brand-new or in some cases recycled fabric.