When Manuel Chaves sees someone wearing one, on TV or in the streets, he allows himself a moment to consider his role in the masking of America.
Chaves owns Hudson-based United Stretch Design Corporation, which produces the flat elastic product needed to make the straps for the masks millions of Americans are wearing as protection against the coronavirus.
“When I see people wearing masks it’s a good thing, and bad,” said Chaves. “Good for business, bad for the terrible thing that’s happening.”
His company has 1,175 machines – about 2 feet in diameter – running simultaneously. The demand for the mask attachments has been overwhelming. Chaves sells the product by the yard. “A company in upstate New York asked for 30 million yards,” he said. “I told them I didn’t know any company that could do that.
“The demands are unbelievable.”
United Stretch Design also makes products for face shields that some companies are asking for, including those in the automotive industry. “We’re running every machine 24/7,” said Chaves, including Sundays, which used to be a day off.
His business has come down to this: mass production of flat elastic, which is sent to distributors who then attach the product to the mask. Then the distributor sells the final product to hospitals and other health care facilities across the country. So the little engine that could in Hudson has played a part in many of the masks you’re seeing.
Chaves’s son, Eric, is the company’s operating manager. “Our normal output was 50,000 yards a week, now we’re getting requests for millions and millions of yards,” he said.
The companies that the Chaveses have been working with the longest are supplied first. “We can only make so much flat elastic,” said Eric. “We have over a million yards of material on order. We’re a small business and the orders are pouring in so fast. The days are getting longer. We’re maxed out on space.”
The company has reached out for extra help to keep pace with the demands. Hudson resident Christine Van Nort is performing volunteer office work as the orders pile up. She had previously been bar manager at Bocado Tapas in Wellesley, and plans on returning to the restaurant when the crisis ends.
A number of modern braiding machines that arrived at United Stretch have eased the workload a bit. “We just sent 7,200 yards of 1-inch flat elastic to a company in New York that makes face shields,” said Eric.
Manuel Chaves, 69, grew up in the Azores before coming to America. He wasted no time getting a job. “I moved to Hudson on Friday, July 28, 1967. On Monday, I started working at a textile company. I was 16.”
He worked for the company for 15 years, rising to plant manager before he left to build his own textile plant in Marlborough. He eventually built a new building in Hudson – the present location – where he worked double-shifts running the machines. His mother, Odilia, and brother, Arsenio, helped out. His wife, Eva, runs the office now.
Companies large and small have had to adjust the way business is now done. The new world forces us to wear masks. Who would have thought the coronavirus would steer us to this?
“Everything we make now is for the face masks,” said Manuel Chaves. “It’s been busy, busy all the time. This is a great country, but nothing comes easy.”