THUNDER BAY -- “I’ve always pushed forward to make sure I continued with my life dream, which was to have my own store,” says Valarie Midgley, owner of the Whole Nine Yards, a custom tailoring and alterations shop on Fort William Road.
For many years she worked as a contractor out of her home, and in 2005, she opened her business on Red River Road “with four sewing machines, 400 square feet and myself,” she says. “15 years later, we are 2,500 square feet, with 24 industrial machines and a staff of nine.”
She also started another business, Carefree Clothing, that makes adaptive clothing for people with disabilities. “I started making adaptive clothing when I was 14,” she explains. “My grandmother had Parkinson’s disease, so we saw her struggles. I’d been sewing since I was seven so I was pretty proficient by that time, and my mother and I took my grandmother’s wardrobe and adapted it so that she could continue to dress herself independently.”
Making clothing so that people can be independent, comfortable and maintain their dignity is important to Midgley. At the Whole Nine Yards, she has many samples so that customers can see what fits their needs best, but she can also custom-make solutions to fit every person.
The Whole Nine Yards does “buttons to ballgowns. No job that’s too small or too big,” she says. “We wanted to take alterations to the next level. We didn’t want to be the basement sew-er.” As her reputation grew, she hired more staff, but it was still hard to keep up with all the work that was coming in.
And then COVID hit.
Midgley thought she had to close her business so she laid off all her staff. “It was heartbreaking, especially as I have such a tight crew,” she says. But then things changed quickly.
That Friday she had the idea of making masks. On Saturday she and her lead hand tested prototypes, trying to figure out what offered the best protection, flexibility, and efficient production. On Sunday she put masks up for sale on Facebook, and it blew up.
“We thought it was going to be 200 masks, maybe 2,000 masks. In three days we had orders for over 15,000 masks. All local. Plus a contract at the hospital,” the business owner says. “So on Sunday I called all my girls and said, ‘You got work on Monday.’”
The Whole Nine Yards went into mass-production mode. When wait times for masks went up to a month, they started selling kits with all the necessary supplies and instructions, so that people can make their own, and wait less.
“We sold masks from P.E.I. to Victoria. We had a staff of six, but went up to 12, plus another eight contractors working out of their homes. There were lots of 12-hour days,” she says.
Midgley says she has sold around 50,000 masks so far, and “thousands” of kits. Things have calmed down enough now for her to reopen the store for alterations, but they are still making masks for clients in and out of Thunder Bay.
“This is the last thing I expected but you gotta roll with it, find your positives, and find your strengths,” says Midgley. She knows she is one of the lucky ones, and that the pandemic could have claimed her business as one of its victims, too.
Two dollars from the sale of each mask goes to a local cause. This fall, they were able to donate $1,500 to the Underground Gym. “You have to give back to the community,” she says.