Sewn surgical-style masks to flatten the curve

The theatre I work for, PlayMakers Repertory Company, has canceled the remainder of the season due to the pandemic, but because the university is still open (albeit online teaching only), I'm still employed. Normally, we'd be in tech this weekend for the final mainstage show of the season as well as deep into production on the final second-stage show. Instead of sewing costumes though, I'm sewing masks.

A short video I created for visual learners on how I make the masks.

On March 18th, I read this newspaper article about Deaconess Hospitals requesting sewn masks from the public. UNC-Chapel Hill was three days into the second week of an extended Spring Break, and the theatre was considering a delay of the final show of the season. I wondered whether or not I ought to start sewing masks in case our local hospital asked for them at some point. I didn't though. I was busy reconceiving my graduate level crafts class--ironically, Masks & Armor--for online pedagogy, rewriting the class calendar, learning how to use Zoom for remote lectures and presentations.

On Saturday, March 21st, my partner and I both got a text from his sister Amy, who works as a nurse at a small hospital in Thomasville, GA.

Would you consider making a couple of masks for me? I will purchase them from you. I just don't want to get caught without anything.

Her hospital was running out of vital protective equipment and Amy was already struggling with health issues from a recent surgery. She was definitely in the at-risk category, but was also an RN who wanted to do her job, ideally not without PPE. I started sewing that afternoon and have sewn every day since. I'm taking today and tomorrow off to write this post and catch up on housework, but I'll be right back at it Monday.

I posted this collage to Instagram as I was working on the first batch of masks.

When i shared on a Facebook status that I was sewing masks, a former student who is working as a nurse in a Denver, CO hospital PMed me, thanking me and saying that her hospital was dangerously low on them. She's a palliative care nurse in a ward where COVID-19 positives literally get sent to die. The subtextual anxiety was palpable in her messages. I offered to sew some for her. 

By the time she received my box of masks, she'd convinced the hospital to set up a sewing area for staff to sew their own masks on-site. As a former "Intro to Costume Production" student, she was one of only a few staff who knew how to sew and was teaching her coworkers the skills she learned in our costume shop. While i'm glad that she has the knowledge and the drive to do this, it's disgusting that hospital staff are having to make their own PPE even as they care for the dying and try to save the afflicted.

Yes, I do still care about stripe matching.

I know that there's a lot of confusion online about what masks work best for what professions. There are several styles out there and lots of opinions about what fabrics to use, whether to sew in a nonwoven filter layer, etc. I've been sewing a variation on the pattern provided by Deaconess--a pleated surgical-style mask from two layers of cotton fabric.  I sew mine with ties like the masks on Grey's Anatomy, because every nurse I've sewn for preferred them to ear-loop elastics. At first, I was making my own ties as a double fold binding, but after my batch for the Denver, CO nurses, I located a supplier of 1" twill tape in bulk to use for ties/binding. I went from being able to make 12 masks in a day to being able to make 30.

At this point, i've shipped or dropped off masks to the folx on this list:

Archbold Hospital Center (Thomasville, GA)
Chapel Hill Eyecare (Chapel Hill, NC)
Mosaic Comprehensive Care (Chapel Hill, NC)
Southpoint Animal Hospital (Durham, NC)
Studio G Dentistry (Chapel Hill, NC)
Transitional Health Services (Kannapolis, NC)
Wake Radiology (Chapel Hill, NC) well as a dozen immunocompromised neighbors and friends. In nearly every case, I located them by just asking directly: do you want a donation of sewn fabric masks? I asked my GP, my dentist, the local vet. I contacted the places that take care of me and my family; I want them to be able to continue to do so in good health. If you want to start sewing masks to help flatten the curve but don't know where to start, just email the businesses and clinics where you are a patient or customer. See what they want/need. In my case, everyone wanted the pleated surgical style with ties. YMMV.

If the government or the local hospitals launch an intiative for local stitchers to make medical-grade PPE from CDC-approved textiles, sign me up. But until then, I'll be sewing my way through my enormous stash of quilting cottons that i've been collecting for decades figuring, "Some day the right project for this will come up."

Looks like it has.

My sewing studio and the mask assembly line.


Popular Posts