September 23rd, 2020

Long Branch Seamstress Sews Way to Success

Photo credit: Lisa Helfert

Ever since, back in 2011, Long Branch’s Edelsa Barrios opened her Flower Designs seamstress shop on Flower Avenue, she has done a bit of everything to keep the doors open. 

She made curtains, shortened pants, hemmed skirts, and sewed brand new dresses for graduations and parties. “I did everything my clients would bring me,” Edelsa said.

Then came March 2020 and the Covid-19 emergency.  Deemed non-essential, Edelsa had to shut her doors.   

During her first few years in Long Branch, Edelsa had operated as El Rosal Sewing Coop out of the basement of her current location, 8703 Flower Avenue, site of a computer repair store.  Three years ago, when she changed her name to Flower Designs, she moved into a more cheerful location on the main floor at the same address. The move made her services more visible to walk-in clients.

By May of this year, after months of being shut down, those walk-in clients were rapidly becoming a distant memory. No customers meant no earnings. She couldn’t pay herself. She couldn’t pay her rent.

Edelsa faced a stark choice: either close shop, or re-design her business to adapt to the unprecedented new circumstances. 

She decided to adapt.

She taught herself how to make cloth face masks. She had plenty of fabric left over from previous orders, so she started manufacturing a wide variety of face masks, some in neutral colors, others in pretty patterns and swirls, and with varied thicknesses of layers to suit client needs.

As word of this new local source for quality masks got out, retail sales started to increase. An assistant helped her with ‘wholesale’ orders of usually no more than ten or twenty masks at a time.

Earnings from such sales, though very welcome, were insufficient to make up for the losses incurred by the long shutdown.  What Edelsa needed was capital to scale up, and assistance with expanding her market.

The Turn-around

It was at this point that Maryland State Delegate Lorig Charkoudian, along with staff from MHP and the Long Branch Business League, reached out to Edelsa to offer assistance. Additional help was provided by neighborhood volunteer Angela Neira.

Charkoudian saw to it that samples of Edelsa’s masks made it to the Montgomery County procurement office so they could assess their quality and, potentially, place orders.  Charkoudian also made sure Edelsa got information about state and county manufacturing grants oriented to the manufacture of PPE. 

MHP staff, meanwhile, walked Edelsa through the complicated applications process.

The upshot was that Edelsa received a $7,500 “Maker and Manufacturing grant” offered by Montgomery County and the Economic Development Corporation. The grant is part of the County’s Local Production Fund created to stimulate the local manufacture of PPE.

“It was a Godsend,” said Edelsa when asked about the grant’s impact on her business.  The funds allowed her to scale up mask production by purchasing much-needed new materials.  

Soon afterwards, MHP placed a rush-order for 700 cloth face masks to provide to the residents of a newly-acquired property in Washington, D.C.  The timing was perfect for Edelsa.

In an irony of fate of sorts, Edelsa was in an excellent position to meet this sudden uptick in demand. She had already trained the additional sewers she needed.

From the earliest years of her work in Long Branch, Edelsa had — thanks in large part to the efforts of the nonprofit, Impact Silver Spring — spent time teaching seamstress skills to other immigrant women. Edelsa Barrios herself was born in Guatemala.

Edelsa still teaches sewing classes at the Silver Spring YMCA, even if now online, and, on a volunteer basis, at CASA de Maryland’s Piney Branch Road center. Which explains how Edelsa was able to hire some of her own trainees to expand production.

What the Future Holds

As of late September, 2020, Edelsa continues to rely on masks for most of her sales volume.  But that doesn’t mean everything is rosy, as Edelsa explained to the Discover Long Branch Newsletter.  Whether due to increasing competition or market saturation, mask sales have been steadily decreasing for a while now.

What is more, the ongoing restraints on public life continue to take a toll. With everything from parties to graduation ceremonies mostly cancelled, and no need to dress up for the offices that remain closed, her former clients have less need for her services. As a result, they have been slow to return.

And yet, as the past six months have shown, when crisis hit, her community came to her aid, and, at least in the short term, it made a huge difference.

What about the longer term? Edelsa says she is very much hoping things will soon get back to normal.

Come what may, she says she is committed to continuing her seamstress classes and passing on her skills to the next generation.