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Earth Sea Sky Produces Protective Face Masks Using Home-grown Merino Filters

Kiwi performance outdoor clothing manufacturer Earth Sea Sky produces protective face masks using home-grown merino filters

Earth Sea Sky is no stranger to making gear that your life might depend on. For decades, the Christchurch-based company has produced outdoor clothing for the world’s toughest environments and has been a go to brand for Antarctica New Zealand and LandSAR. Now it has entered a new market of protective face masks using home-grown merino filters.

Earth Sea Sky multi-tasker Jane Ellis started researching protective face masks just a few days into New Zealand’s Level 4 coronavirus lockdown, when the country’s shortage of PPE gear hit the headlines. 

The company’s long-time outworker, a skilled machinist called Brenda, was keen to help too. From the safety of their own “bubbles”, the pair debated the merits of various designs and fabrics for everything from scrubs to masks and came up with ad-hoc samples. 

Jane says they were well placed to respond when Auckland-based company Lanaco put a call out for manufacturers capable of producing face masks using its merino HELIXTM filters. 

Lanaco has been developing air filter media from purpose bred Astino sheep in Central Otago for about seven years; its filters are used for workplace health and safety purposes and for people to wear in countries with poor air quality. 

CEO Nick Davenport says it seemed like a no-brainer to ramp up production to help address the need for PPE gear. 

“One of our staff members is from Hong Kong and was aware of a community mask programme there which had open sourced a design, but of course the main problem with making your own product is if a mask is just a piece of cloth it does not actually give you any protection,” he says. 

“Our filter technology provides a really, really low breathing resistance plus the ability to capture dangerous particles. We saw an opportunity to help people in New Zealand by releasing as much filter media as we could … and a design for a mask that actually works.” 

The idea was that a community manufacturing programme could provide an option for consumers who could not access products such as the N95. 

“We put feelers out and Earth Sea Sky was one of the first manufacturers to pick it up. They’ve been fantastic to deal with – they totally get it.” 

Jane says a good thing about being a small business is the ability to be nimble and adapt quickly; the downside is how keenly it feel the effects of disruptive events like Covid-19

“We feel a responsibility towards our workers and their livelihoods, so we were actively seeking ways to utilise members of our team who were keen to work. 

“We were contacted by Ryan Jennings from Buy New Zealand Made who said, ‘Hey, here’s an opportunity’, and it sounded like a good fit. We design and make performance clothing, which protects people from the elements. A mask is just another protection layer.” 

Two weeks after the call with Lanaco, Earth Sea Sky’s first Helix.iso™ Masks started rolling off the production line. 

Jane says having the right fabric was key to maximising the masks’ performance. 

“The downside of home-made masks is that many use cotton or merino which retain moisture. We needed a fabric that provided minimal resistance to breathing, dried quickly and was also durable.” Earth Sea Sky sourced a breathable, fast-drying polypropylene fabric using the expertise of its head honcho David Ellis. 

The company is now selling packs of two masks (one to wash and one to wear) for $59.90 and single mask packs for $44.90. 

Each pack contains seven filters, which is intended for a weeks’ supply in an environment where there is close contact with other people throughout the day, particularly those who may be vulnerable or sick. 

Jane says Earth Sea Sky recognised Lanaco’s intention to make its system available to as many in the community as possible, so to make its own masks more affordable, it decided to offer DIY kits containing cut mask pieces, nose wire and elastic with sewing instructions online for $9.90. A pack of seven filters is $25. 

Jane believes Helix.iso™ Masks could be ideal for work environments where close contact with people is required such as physiotherapists, rest home workers and taxi/bus drivers. The masks could also be worn by immunocompromised people during the ordinary flu season or in environments where dust is an issue. 

Lanaco believes its filters provide an adequate level of protection, provided the wearer is not physically exerting themselves. It recommends carefully replacing the filter as frequently as practical and as often as one can afford to. 

Brenda, who produced Earth Sea Sky’s first 600 masks from her workshop before its factory had permission to start up again, says she was pleased to be involved in “something that counts” during lockdown. 

Jane says it is great to have Earth Sea Sky’s team of machinists back on deck. 

“Just keeping our factory workroom ticking over is huge for us,” she says. “I don’t think you can look after your community better than by giving someone a job.”

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