Person of the Week
Sue Lennox: When Masks Are Not for Halloween
Nautical Needles owner Sue Lennox is putting her skills to work sewing protective cloth masks that she’s donating to healthcare workers. (Photo courtesy of Sue Lennox )
It’s unusual to start a newspaper piece with the classic fairy tale opening, Once Upon a Time. But now Once Upon A Time is not a Hans Christian Andersen phrase; it is last month.
And Once Upon a Time is when masks were things that trick-or-treating children used on Halloween. Now, masks are what everyone needs in the ongoing battle against COVID-19. That’s why Sue Lennox is one of the local residents who has been sewing them and giving them to ambulance associations, hospitals, and even assisted living facilities.
At the time she talked with a reporter, she estimated she had made some 500 masks. Now she is also selling the masks to the general public to defray the costs of buying the material she needs.
Sue’s masks are not the N95 face masks that professional health workers need to protect themselves against infection. Even so, she says that the fire chief in one town, who heard about her work on social media, brought her some N95 masks so that she could repair their fraying elastic.
Sue’s masks are made of cloth, the kind the general public is now being urged to wear to help prevent infection of others and even to remind wearers not to touch their faces.
So far Sue has donated masks to, among others, Essex Meadows, the Old Saybrook Ambulance Association, Yale New Haven Hospital, and a number of visiting nurse associations.
Masks aren’t what Sue usually sews. She sews upholstery, drapes, covered pillows, and home decorating items at her business Nautical Needles, which moved from Westbrook to Deep River in 2017. Now she is located in the industrial park opposite Calamari Recycling on Route 156.
“People call here; they are so grateful, you can’t believe it and Sue is hardly getting up from her machine,” says Marki Barrows, one of the shop’s employees, answering the telephone because Sue doesn’t want to be interrupted from sewing.
It was through a Facebook post that Sue first heard that Joann Fabrics in Clinton was giving kits and yardage for people to sew as many as five masks. Sue didn’t want to make just five. She wanted to make far more.
Though she got some donated yardage, she now is purchasing her own supplies. She orders material online, looking for colorful and imaginative fabrics.
“Fun prints, cows, Mickey Mouse, Wonder Woman,” she says.
When she was a young girl learning to sew, Sue says her mother told her she was doing everything backwards. For that reason, her mother sent her to a class at a local sewing machine store when she was in 8th grade. Sue still remembers the orange dress she made there.
“I loved it. I’d wear it now, if I had it,” she says.
To a reporter’s question of whether or not it would still fit, she admits, “Absolutely not.”
After graduating from Westbrook High School, she worked for about a decade for the Lee Company in Westbrook. She then decided to take her sewing skills to the workplace.
“I knew I had to do it then. I was alone, I had no kids; if I didn’t do it then, I never would,” she says.
At first, she went into business with a partner, but it was an inauspicious pairing and after some two years, she bought the other person out. In the beginning, the business was just what its name, Nautical Needles, suggests. Sue only did work for boats. Now, it is a full decorating business, one that not only sews but also does complete home decorating, including making custom furniture.
“I wasn’t fulfilled at first,” she says. “There’s only so much decorating you can do on a boat.”
The need for more room for her expanding business, in fact, was what led Sue to the move to Deep River two years ago. Now she employs some 18 people either part- or full-time.
Sue says that her years of experience help her to assist customers making decorating choices.
“People come in here and they are overwhelmed by all the books [of samples]. If I don’t help, they could run screaming from the store. I do this every day. I know what works well, what will wear well. I can envision things,” she says.
And she adds that she can, and does, tell customers when things are not going to work well.
In addition to the decorating skills she uses for other people, Sue has decorated several homes in Florida that she herself purchased to be used as halfway houses for people coming out of rehabilitation for substance abuse. The houses are managed by her son Adam, who himself has successfully overcome similar problems.
The homes are not state-funded or medically staffed; the idea is to provide pleasant and adequate living spaces for people who have dealt with their addictions and are in the community working. All the residents pay rent.
Sue says the idea for starting the homes came from the kinds of dreary rehab places that she saw when Adam was recovering.
“I thought I could do something that was much nicer,” she says.
The current economic crisis has not yet affected Sue’s business. In addition to making masks, she says she has a six- to eight-week backlog of work. And she thinks the shelter-in-place restrictions may spur a decorating boom.
“The more people stay in the house, they are going to look at the old couch and say that it is not going to cut it anymore,” she says.
Sue’s mother, Edie Riggio, long ago stopped thinking her daughter did all her sewing backwards. In fact, now she works for Sue, and at the moment, like her, she is making masks.
Sue’s masks are available at her shop, Nautical Needles, 500 Main Street, Suite 6, Deep River. The shop is in an industrial park opposite Calamari Recycling. For more information, call 860-399-5754.