Every day, after she finishes calls with booksellers, veteran Random House Children’s Books sales rep Kate Sullivan goes upstairs to her second-floor sewing room, checks her social media accounts for orders, and starts making masks. From the small space in her Petersham, Mass., home, Sullivan has sewn more than 1,000 masks since March, using dozens of patterns that feature iconic children’s characters, from the Cat in the Hat to the Very Hungry Caterpillar.
After paying for fabric, every penny goes to the World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit group founded by chef José Andrés, and the pennies add up. To date, Sullivan has made two donations of $1,000 to the hunger relief organization and she is preparing to make another in the coming weeks.
While the proceeds go to feed families, the idea for making masks all began with Sullivan’s day job. “It’s all connected to bookstores,” Sullivan said. In March, she received a note from Emily Crowe, the manager of An Unlikely Story Bookstore & Café in Plainville, Mass., asking for items to donate for a raffle in support of the Book Industry Charitable Foundation.
“I thought I could give her a couple of signed books, or, I’m a quilter and I could give her pillows with Dr. Seuss fabric,” Sullivan said. But once Sullivan started sewing, she couldn’t stop. She began making masks and giving them away, buying licensed fabric designs from children’s books and sharing images on her Instagram account and Facebook page. When a colleague insisted on paying for a mask, Sullivan felt she could not say no, so she decided to donate the proceeds.
As the pandemic continued, she found herself in her sewing room more and more each day, working through the summer without air conditioning, surrounded by stacks of fabric. Many of the requests for masks came from the booksellers she has gotten to know during her 33 years as a sales rep, including the booksellers at An Unlikely Story, which is owned by Diary of a Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney.
Children’s buyer Leo Landry reached out to Sullivan after a call, and said, “Hey, do you have any Wimpy Kid fabric?” Sullivan went looking and soon turned up licensed fabric on Etsy. Landry ordered a dozen masks for the staff. Soon after, Kinney’s assistant reached out and ordered another dozen for the author’s socially distanced summer bus tour.
“It kept happening, little things like that, one at a time, then 10 at a time,” Sullivan said. To date, more than 25 bookstores have ordered masks, along with colleagues from PRH all over the country. Sullivan has also gotten orders from authors, including Amy Goldman Koss and Donna Gephart.
Sullivan learned to sew and knit from her mother at a young age. After her mother passed away in the mid-1980s, Sullivan picked up her quilting tools and carried on the tradition. But she never envisioned taking orders and shipping out masks.
“When you’re a sales rep, you’re representing the finished product already,” Sullivan said. With the masks, she is doing direct customer service, while also managing an entire supply chain, from acquiring the raw goods all the way to standing in line at the post office to mail out orders. “I’m getting fabric from my suppliers, wondering if it’s what I need for my customers, and turning it around for my customers,” she said. “Every step keeps reminding me of my bookstores and what they go through.”
As long as people need them, Sullivan plans to continue making masks, and she is already looking ahead to a post-pandemic world, wondering what else she might make to continue the work, which has given her a deep connection with others during a challenging year. One idea she is considering is scrunchies, but the only thing she is absolutely certain of is that there will be something, and for now, it’s masks. “It’s something small and it’s achievable,” she said, “and it all goes on to help somebody.”