Dutchware Gear PPE

The entire seamstress crew folding and bagging gowns for shipping, at Dutchware Gear in Lancaster Monday May 18, 2020.

Walking into a room in his Lancaster city workshop, Thomas “Dutch” Ressler drew attention to a large, flat machine — a laser used to cut fabric, which his employees use to make hammocks and tarps under the DutchWare brand.

Next, he drew attention to the cutting surface, pointing out an outline burned in. It wasn’t the shape of a hammock, but of a fabric pattern used to sew hospital gowns.

That’s because it was used to cut more than 2,000 gowns for distribution to Lancaster General Health’s medical professionals.

It’s a partnership that’s deemed Ressler’s business essential, allowing it to remain open through most of Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 shutdown and to keep his about 30 employees working.

“It’s definitely outside of what we normally do,” said general manager Alex Thomas, who was working to piece together the components of plastic face shields — also cut out in Ressler’s shop.

On top of that, DutchWare employees have been cutting cloth face masks, which Ressler is marketing to businesses. About 85,750 masks have been cut to fill orders from VisionCorps and PeoplesBank.

Ressler did not name the specific companies he’s working with or his exact profits.

‘It was a godsend’

The Lancaster General contract came about as DutchWare was shuttered for a few weeks due to Wolf’s March order that non-essential businesses had to close to curb the virus’s spread, Ressler said.

“It was really looking like the apocalypse at that point,” he said, speaking on the internal dread he felt about closing and putting his employees out of work.

Then a series of unforeseen circumstances put him in touch with Lancaster General officials, who needed gowns.

“LGH Emergency Department nurses, providers and patient-care assistants are using the gowns to minimize the potential risk of exposure,” Lancaster General spokeswoman Mary Ann Eckard said.

A prototype was quickly developed and approved, and Ressler said his workers were called back. Seamlessly, the gowns went into production, he said. Each gown takes a minute to cut and another 16 minutes to sew.

“It’s been a godsend,” Ressler said.

Getting back to hammocks

Ressler told much of the story while walking the grounds of his business, where masked employees worked at sewing machines and placed products into cardboard boxes, filling orders. Others, feared to be more susceptible to the illness, worked from home, he said.

A Paycheck Protection Program loan was secured to cover increased labor costs associated with the health-related workload, Ressler said. The program provides direct incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll. He said a waiver from the state allows work to continue during the shutdown.

In addition to sewing together gowns, employees have continued to manufacture the company’s outdoor gear. The initial closure created a large backlog of orders, Ressler said.

Gown production will continue with orders from assisted living and nursing home facilities, Thomas said.

That work would have been nearly unimaginable when Ressler started his company a few years ago by designing titanium hardware in his basement, he said.

And while he’s happy to be able to provide a needed service during the pandemic, Ressler said he’s “hoping the day comes when we’ll just get back to hammocks.”

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