New Zealand is facing an elastic shortage just as health officials and politicians are encouraging Kiwis to make their own masks amid warnings of a second wave of Covid-19 to come.
Sales had been at an all-time high since New Zealand was placed into lockdown at the end of March. After the move to alert level 2, elastic has become a hot commodity as businesses turn to making masks to cater for the surge in demand.
Retailers and wholesalers alike are struggling to source the thinner grades of elastic - and the shortage is hardest on small producers which, unlike large manufacturers, don't typically place large orders.
A string of businesses large and small have expanded to manufacture face masks. There's been a flurry of new start-ups while big names including Annah Stretton and Cactus Outdoor have moved to make their own.
Face It NZ - possibly NZ's newest face mask manufacturer, having launched in the second week of lockdown - said elastic had been hard to source since the country moved into alert level 2.
Beckie Wilson told the Herald she had been ringing around her suppliers, wholesalers and shops in an attempt to source elastic yarn without luck. Her business has experienced another surge in orders after last week's recommendation to have either medical-grade or reusable masks ready.
"In hindsight, I should have bulk-bought elastic," Wellington-based Wilson told the Herald.
"All suppliers have said that due to the world essentially being closed, there is no new stock due in."
Wilson said it was impossible to buy thin elastic in bulk at present.
She had enough stock left to make about 200 more masks: "I will start looking into different designs in case I can never get elastic again."
Auckland-based sewing and elastic supplies wholesaler Trendy Trims confirmed there was a shortage of "narrow width elastic" - which had proven incredibly popular with the public and businesses wanting to make their own masks..
"I don't have any problem getting it from about 12mm, but under that size is scarce," Trendy Trims owner Colin Lowe said. "Normally we would do a 3mm, 6mm and 10mm, but all of those sizes are a problem unfortunately."
Before lockdown, Trendy Trims was able to source a good stock of the smaller elastic materials from China and various parts of Asia. It typically imports between 10,000m and 12,000m of elastic per width size per shipment.
Lowe said the business, which supplies retail chains, typically carries six months' worth of stock, but it had sold out of its latest shipment in just six weeks, shortly after lockdown.
Its next shipment was due in next week - but it was not its typical quality.
"We've had to accept another type which we've seen a sample of but we're unsure whether it is going to be up to the same standard ... to keep us going."
Trendy trims supplies sewing centres and retailers such as the emporiums.
The elastic shortage was industry wide - and global, Lowe said.
"With other countries that are badly affected by Covid-19 like the United States, I understand that our elastic manufacturer overseas just can't keep up with the demand for what they want, which means our orders, which are classed probably as small, unfortunately, are getting put to back of the queue."
Australian suppliers were facing the same issue securing stock, he said.
"We didn't think [the shortage] would last this long - it's a little bit frustrating, especially when we can get the other sizes", used for clothing and other apparel.
"We have had the shops constantly asking because they're out as well."
Derrol Lamb, co-owner of Ikes and Geoffs Emporium, said the stores had run out of 3mm and 6mm elastic. It has started to run low on stock just before New Zealand moved into alert level 4.
There had been a renewed demand for it after last week's calls for households to stock up on face masks.
"Elastic is pretty hard to come by, and wholesalers in Australia are out as well," Lamb told the Herald. "I suspect even in China there are going to be issues.
"I think it is going to be a short-term issue. The capacity for making it is enormous, but I guess demand in the short timeframe has outstripped capacity, but eventually it will settle down."
Sewing and fabrics retail chain Spotlight has also been contacted for comment.
Cactus Outdoor director and founder Ben Kepes said the clothing brand had some issues sourcing elastic for its own face masks coming out of lockdown due to the supply chain issues but it was okay now because it had stocked up on raw materials in advance.
Kepes said he was concerned that some face masks on the market were mislabelled as being N95 and made claims of false protection - and that consumers did not know there was a big difference between the protection offered by fabric masks and those that were N95.
"N95 means that 95 per cent of virus and bacteria get blocked, surgical mask level, a cloth mask is just a piece of fabric and has quite big holes in it and viruses are tiny - it might slow down the air flow but it is not going to stop viruses getting through," Kepes said.
"If you're in an environment with lots of Covid around and you're breathing in and there's Covid in the air then a fabric mask is going to offer little protection."
US tech giant Apple is encouraging consumers to use a cloth face mask. It is advising the public not to use surgical or N95 masks because "healthcare workers and other medical first responders need these masks for protection". Its advice comes from the United States national public health institute Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Kepes said Cactus Outdoors sales of face masks had ramped back up after Dr Ashley Bloomfield's warning last week, and were up at levels seen during lockdown.
The business has sold "tens of thousands" of masks, he said.