The Ayer Mill was once a gem of American industry, the companion to the Wood Mill and home to the one of the largest textile manufacturers in the United States. It seems fitting that the old American Woolen Co. factory in Lawrence be pressed into service again for products the country needs.

A hundred years ago it was woolen blankets. Today it’s face masks.

New Balance, the maker of running shoes and apparel now occupying the Ayer Mill, recently created prototypes of face masks to protect medical personnel and others from the spread of the coronavirus. The company plans to ramp up production from designs created in Lawrence, drawing in its other factories in Massachusetts and Maine to help.

“Now, more than ever, our communities need our support,” said Anne Davis, trustee of the New Balance Foundation, in a statement.

New Balance didn’t need the coercion of the Defense Production Act, either. Like other companies that have reorganized supply chains, retooled factories and reassigned workers, New Balance saw a need, i.e. a scarcity of protective equipment, and joined the important work of securing the public’s health.

Bauer Hockey, started in Canada and now based in Exeter, New Hampshire, is another. Instead of making helmets and skates, it’s now producing protective face shields. Brooks Brothers, known for its high-end suits, has enlisted its suppliers to make face masks. They include Southwick Clothing in Haverhill, which by restarting its factory will put about 400 local people back to work, according to Mayor James Fiorentini. This is not to mention the suppliers of these companies, such as Dela Inc., a laminate manufacturer in Haverhill that works with New Balance.

They’re doing essential work, and their example is the antithesis of the image of slow-to-the-mark American manufacturers that only got involved because they were prodded. Even General Motors, which has taken a beating in some quarters for not moving quickly enough to change its focus from cars to making hospital ventilators, started shifting resources to the project as far back as March 18, according to The Associated Press.

Not that they do it for acclaim, but it’s heartening to see local manufacturers responding to our collective need.

Recommended for you