Irina Protchenko, 68, sings the Ukrainian anthem while steadily working at her sewing machine in a small apartment in central Ukraine. She retired not long ago from a factory in the outskirts of Kyiv, where she spent 50 years tailoring men’s suits and coats for clothing giants such as Hugo Boss and Lacoste.
She should be enjoying a life of leisure after decades of hard work. Instead, she’s sewing flak jackets and balaclavas with her children and grandchildren for Ukrainians traveling east to protect their country from Russian invasion.
“I should be sewing tuxedos for weddings,” not flak jackets, she told CNN. Her sewing machine is pushed against the corner of the living room, surrounded by rolls of fabric, Velcro, and cut-up car floor mats – supplies either purchased by the family or donated.
“The biggest reward will be if one of these flak jackets saves the life of one of our defenders,” Protchenko said as she proudly held up a finished vest. With each finished vest, she counts it as one more victory for Ukraine.
If she works nonstop, she can make as many as 10 flak jackets a day. In the kitchen, Irina’s son-in-law, Evgeny, sits at his own machine, sewing blue and yellow armbands that the Ukrainian security forces wear to identify themselves. He makes as many as 200 bands per day.
This family workshop is part of a lfarger improvised production chain and the brainchild of Vitaly Golovenko. Before the war, he was a lawyer and amateur actor playing out scenes from the first World War, when Ukrainian nationals fought Russian Bolsheviks.
Several days into this modern war, Golovenko said, he asked Irina – his mother-in-law – to help sew body armor when his son’s godfather couldn’t find a flak jacket before heading off to the front lines. Neither had a real flak jacket to base their design off of, so they used videos and pictures from the internet to come up with the form.
The entire operation relies on donations, which have come in the form of fabric, thread and some monetary donations from as far away as Saudi Arabia and Ireland. Everyone working on the project is a volunteer.
The armor plates that go inside the flak jackets come from scrap metal salvaged from old cars by local mechanic Oleg Metla and then welded together by engineer Valery Olretsky.
Golovenko brought the test plates to the shooting range. The first plate they tried was only 6 millimeters thick.
“You can see these bullets didn’t penetrate,” he said “But (a) sniper’s bullet and machine gun bullet penetrated, so we decided on a thicker option,” Metla said.
They opted for 8-miilimeter thick plates. Not too heavy, but able to protect against a variety of Russian ammunition.
Olretsky, 58, received a summons the previous night to deploy. He hasn’t fired a gun in 20 years and his first grandchild is due in two weeks.
“What else can I do? If there’s a war, then I have to defend. It’s scary for everyone, but you still have to do it,” he said, his eyes brimming with tears.
He has spent the past few weeks welding the old metal, hoping it will save a Ukrainian soldier’s life against Russian weapons. Little did he know, one of the vests he helped make may very well be used to save his own life.