By Mike McCombs
According to John Harris, Harris Pillow Supply has been operating in Beaufort for more than 40 years.
Typically, on a given day, the company’s 30-plus employees produce between 2,500 and 3,500 pillows. Many of the pillows are produced for cruise lines and hotels and many others are sold online. The company also produces pillow inserts, specialty pillows and cushions for furniture.
But roughly three weeks ago, Harris made a change.
The company known for making pillows stopped. And started making surgical-grade cloth masks to help account for a shortage during the current COVID 19 coronavirus crisis.
Currently, the Beaufort facility is producing somewhere between 1,100 and 1,250 masks a day.
When asked what the biggest challenge there was in the shift, Harris laughed. “Apples and oranges,” he said.
“It’s just a different animal, and we had to get some different equipment,” Harris said. “Our people are accustomed to sewing in a straight line, a rectangular pillow case. And these, there are some curves, elastic, just a different animal. We needed to find the right steps and the right people to do those steps.”
Harris has a friend in Cincinnati whose company followed Harris into mask making.
“He showed us how he was making them,” Harris said. “We were able to use some of his ideas to benefit us, and I was able to help him get some business. We scratch each other’s backs.”
Harris still has about 14,000 masks on back orders.
“We can’t fill them as fast as they come,” Harris said.
The company is also trying it’s hand in the surgical gown market, with more than 60,000 on order.
“We have started gowns but not in our plant,” Harris said. “We have two other companies that sew that help us. Sometimes we contract out strictly sewing jobs. We have not started sewing the gowns here.”
Harris has filled orders for masks for numerous local groups and companies. The Yemassee Police, the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, Beaufort County Parks and Leisure and Beaufort-Jasper Comprehensive Health Services, as well as numerous local business, have received masks.
And Harris has shipped them to hot spots where masks were badly needed – Virginia, Florida, Pittsburgh and New Orleans.
While his new product fills an urgent need, Harris admits his motives weren’t entirely altruistic.
“We needed to keep the doors open. That was a lot of it,” he said. “But soon, hopefully the demand for masks will drop and the demand for pillows will start picking back up again.”
No matter how long that takes, Harris hopes to get back to pillows.
“We are not planning on continuing to make masks indefinitely,” he said. “Not at all.”