For over 45 years, the Sterlingwear of Boston garment factory supplied peacoats to the Navy. Now, after losing that contract — and facing closure — it has been tapped by the City of Boston to make PPE for front-line health care workers during the pandemic.
Located in East Boston, Sterlingwear is the city’s only remaining garment factory. It has sustained itself for decades by obtaining government contracts for the Navy coats, military uniforms, and other items, said David Fredella, chief operating officer and third-generation owner of the company. But in 2017, the Navy canceled its order for peacoats — “They were iconic but [sailors] never wore them,” Fredella said — and the company has since struggled to find a way forward. It stitched together a few contracts with the government, but those ended just before the pandemic.
Peacoats were “a big chunk of our business, that was our bread and butter,” Fredella said. “It was shaky for a while. Trying to make it on commercial work is extremely difficult. To get 150 people sewing again, it takes a high volume of work.”
When the pandemic hit, it only made things harder, he said; Sterlingwear had to close the factory and send workers home for several weeks.
Many of those workers began reaching out to Unite Here, a union that represents garment workers in Massachusetts.
“We’d also been hearing from health care workers who were asking if we knew anyone making PPE,” said Ethan Snow, chief of staff for the union. “The gowns were a huge need, and I thought Sterlingwear could do this. They can make anything under the sun.”
The Greater Boston Labor Council has been seeking to support both a locally owned business and workers through the crisis. The Sterlingwear factory now has a contract with the City of Boston to make medical-grade gowns for first responders and health care workers. The city has already paid $39,000 for 6,000 gowns, according to a copy of a contract provided to the Globe, and a city spokesperson said an additional contract will cover the cost of making 150,000 gowns through June 2021.
“During these challenging times, I am pleased that the City of Boston has been able to support a long-time, locally owned business, while producing needed, high quality PPE to support Boston’s first responders,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement. “We will continue to support our local and small businesses that employ our residents and fuel our neighborhoods.”
Fredella said workers have returned to the factory, where they are taking precautions, wearing masks and screening for temperature spikes. “They’ve always been proud to make uniforms for the military,” he said. “This is something else they can put their pride behind.”