Local seamstress turns to sewing masks to pay the bills
Ellen Bebe Sztuk is one of those rare people that gets to make a living doing what she loves.
A mother of two living in downtown Santa Barbara, Ms. Sztuk runs Stitch Witch Alterations out of her garage. With just one part-time helper, she’s spent the last decade sewing and repairing everything from cushions to bridal gowns and prom dresses.
“I absolutely love my job and I love sewing. One of the biggest aspects about my business is I have two small children so it’s kept me available to them,” Ms. Sztuk told the News-Press.
Ms. Sztuk was about to celebrate Stitch Witch’s 10-year anniversary in March when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. As the coronavirus crisis swept the nation, she found herself in the same position so many self-employed people have found themselves in.
Business dried up.
“When we got those first orders for business to start to close down and the social distancing started coming through the pipelines I was panicked,” said Ms. Sztuk.
She and her husband both support their family, but he works in the event industry, where everything remains shut down.
As a self-employed seamstress, Ms. Sztuk was unable to qualify for unemployment or secure a small business loan.
“A couple days went by, and I was honestly starting to get just depressed not being able to be out in the shop and thinking, ‘What are we going to do?’ ” Ms. Sztuk recalled.
For a while, things were bleak. Then a friend started sharing the many guides and patterns for making masks on Facebook, and a lightbulb went off.
“I was like, ‘What am I doing? I should be sewing! This is what I do,’ ” said Ms. Sztuk.
Now Ms. Sztuk has turned Stitch Witch Alterations to a full-on mask-making operation. Since she began in late March, she has made more than 1,600 masks, selling some to pay the bills and donating the rest to groups around town.
“I’ve been busy for about a month. I’ve been making masks and it’s good. I love what I do, and I love that I’m able to serve the community, providing a service for people that protects them and keeps people feeling safe and from spreading disease,” said Ms. Sztuk.
Ms. Sztuk makes masks using the CDC guidelines for construction and materials with sizes for children and adults for $10 a piece.
When she first got to sewing, Ms. Sztuk made some adjustments to her design, making them fit more snuggly to the face, and has had to remain creative due to supply shortages across the country.
“People all over the community have been reaching out to each other. Someone would get a roll of 25-yards and would hand out five-yards so people could keep making stuff until they got theirs,” said Ms. Sztuk. “I went a totally different route and started using hair tie elastic, which is good because then it doesn’t pull your hair and I have every color of the rainbow.”
Ms. Sztuk isn’t just grabbing whatever fabric she has lying around and sewing masks. Each one is color coordinated with a variety of different options for men, women and kids.
“Being a seamstress I have a design background too. I’m not just slapping some colors together. Everything is like somebody is going to love it when they get it,” said Ms. Sztuk.
As soon as Ms. Sztuk announced she would be selling masks through the Stitch Witch Alterations’ Facebook account, orders immediately started coming in thanks to her loyal and longtime clients.
“They were like, ‘Ellen! You’re making masks! Of course you’re making masks. How do we get them?’ So that was really good,” said Ms. Sztuk.
“I had a gigantic response from the community.”
Initially, Ms. Sztuk donated a mask for every one she sold, but with the cost of materials high and an explosion of charitable mask-making operations, she’s had to cut back.
Nevertheless, Ms. Sztuk is still sewing up a storm and donating hundreds of masks all over town to organizations like the Transition House, the Westside Clinic and even a whole group of Santa Barbara Unified School District staff who are busy handing out lunches.
“People still call me. I sent out about 25 today that were on donation to people that were going down for a cancer patient’s doctors appointment, and she said ‘I really just want my mom covered’ and I said just take as many as you want and give them out so they have something there,” said Ms. Sztuk. “My intention is to keep people covered.”
When Ms. Sztuk first started sewing, she was making about 120 masks a day. It was a hectic time, but as her orders have slowed she hopes the buzz and momentum that she experienced in the beginning will continue.
“It’s been so crazy going from a humble seamstress to a shipping and receiving person, accounts payable, production manager. The whole aspect of my business just totally changed into a full fledged production,” said Ms. Sztuk.
“I’m super grateful. I put the rent in the box. The rent is paid and I did that for my family. It’s pretty awesome.”
While she is grateful that so many people in the county are stepping up to help sew and donate masks, Ms. Sztuk hopes that locals will remember the many tailors and sewers working to save their businesses during the pandemic.
“People that can afford them should buy them, and people that can’t should be able to get them for free,” said Ms. Sztuk.
If you want to find out more about Stitch Witch Alteration masks and get one for yourself, text or call 805-363-2067 to place your order.