Clutch Move: Baseball Glove Factory Pinch Hits To Make Face Masks For Pandemic | KERA News

Clutch Move: Baseball Glove Factory Pinch Hits To Make Face Masks For Pandemic

May 1, 2020

A small factory 100 miles north of Dallas called Nokona, named after the city where it sits, has a long history. It's made top quality, leather baseball gloves for 86 years and prides itself as the last remaining glovemaker in the United States.

The coronavirus, however, is a game changer.

And Nokona’s executive vice president Rob Storey didn’t want to forfeit that game. So the plant became a switch hitter, so to speak. Its expert leather cutters, stitchers and lacers applied those same skills to making face masks.

"In talking to the local hospital administrator and some of the nursing home administrators, they have somewhat small or limited supplies of the high performing masks," Storey said. "We see ourselves more as supplemental, we’re helping the people that are visitors to the hospital or auxiliary people who aren’t dealing directly with the patients."

While they’d rather be making gloves, employee Connie Broussard welcomed the new assignment.

Connie Broussard sews face masks using her own sewing machine. Nokona's machines have motors too strong and needles too large for cotton. Most have been refitted to sew masks instead of leather ball gloves.
Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News

"When they said they were shifting to sewing masks, I was happy with that because I know how needed they are right now. Most places are running out anyway," Broussard said. "Anything we can do to help the situation, well that’s what we want to do."

But how to do it? Nokona’s sewing machines with powerful motors and thick needles are engineered for leather. Masks are made of lighter, layered cotton and thinner thread. That’s why Broussard brought her own machine from home. The other machines here have been rejiggered by Jim Hancock, Nokona’s resident repair person. He's become an invaluable utility player.

"Smaller needles, then you got to set your timing, set your hook distance, I mean needle bar up and down right. It was a lot easier than I thought it was going to be," Hancock said.

In addition, Nokona took its rookie acquisition, a large Italian digital pattern cutter and reassigned it. Instead of cutting kangaroo and cow hide for ball gloves, it now precision-cuts dozens of printed cotton masks.

Storey says the factory will keep doing whatever it takes to stay alive.

"I'm not trying to hit a home run so to speak on these things," Storey said. "It’s lets help out, keep our people employed."

Nokona Executive Vice President Rob Storey stands in the factory that typically makes ball gloves.
Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News

With many Texas businesses now allowed to reopen, Storey says Nokona will manufacture masks and baseball gloves. The first run of masks sold out immediately online, and Storey has now tripled production.