Sewing as Fast as I Can

When the pandemic hit and the museum I work at was shuttered temporarily, I decided that I would make masks for medical workers and others who need them. Remember back to those long-ago days three months ago (!!) when frontline medical workers couldn’t get PPE for love or money, and were wearing their N95 masks over and over? So I did some research, trying to find out what style and features the local medical folk preferred–and got a lot of conflicting advice. Finally I settled on a pattern that could be made up fairly quickly, with fabric I had on hand, and started sewing.

I should note that the fabric I had on hand was, some of it, interesting. Almost two yards of fabric with 1930s-40s SF pulp magazine covers on it. A yard or so of what looks like a Candyland game board. An abstract star-scape. You ask a science fiction writer to make masks, you are likely to get interesting, if not downright eccentric, material choices. And then a non-sewing friend provided me with several yards of fabric blazoned with book-reading dragons. Out of deference for all the people who might need masks but are not me, I found some, well, normal fabric in my stash. Not everyone is up to dragons (even if they’re reading).

And there were, um, sourcing issues. Since I only had a little 1/4″ elastic on hand at the beginning of this journey, I ordered a huge spool the stuff. This was just at the moment when other mask-makers had ordered spools of 1/4″ elastic, and after almost a month of waiting, during which time I made masks with home-made ties  (I can make fabric bias tape, but not elastic), I decided it was never going to show up, and I ordered another huge spool of 1/4″ elastic which was promised to arrive within 5 days… and then didn’t. Eventually both huge spools of 1/4″ elastic arrived. I now have enough elastic to last me into the next century or the next pandemic, whichever comes first. It took several weeks to run through the 6 yards of lightweight interfacing I had bought at the outset of my mask-making adventures (interfacing is non-woven and when used between two pieces of regular cotton cloth apparently improves the ability of the mask to screen out droplets and particles–I told you I did research). When I ran out I ordered more, which is somewhere between here and China, making its way to me.

Then a wonderful friend in Minneapolis sent me two packages of Halyard fabric and three rolls of twill tape. Such excitement! Halyard is that blue and white plasticky-papery stuff in which surgical tools etc. are autoclaved. It’s sterilizable. And you can use it to make masks which are nearly as effective as N95 masks for medical practitioners who need protection from coronavirus particles. The rolls of twill tape turn out to work perfectly for ties (making ties out of Halyard fabric, as shown in the photo here, is a pain in the butt, and you can tell them I said so). So until I went through the twill tape, it was my best friend. Just ordered more.

Where do these masks go? Some of the Halyard masks have gone back to the friend in Minneapolis (who is a doctor and has many many uses for them); some have gone to the UCSF Medical Center response team–initially for medical staff, later, as the PPE situation eased up a little, for support staff who still are engaging with the sick every day. And the fabric masks–yes, still making fabric masks–to the Navajo nation, to child care workers at UCSF, to pretty much anyone who asks for them. I’ve just gotten hooked up with a local group that is making masks for eldercare facilities and homeless outreach centers in the city (San Francisco) and other places that need them. What I thought was going to be a few weeks of sewing is turning into a job for the long haul.

I know at least one other denizen of the Treehouse, Pati Nagle, has been making masks as well–she turned me on to “the Meaghan”, an even faster mask pattern, with the result that I’m getting more efficient about my assembly-line technique. I’ve learned to make t-shirt yarn. And really, I’m happiest when I’m learning things.

I’m using some of the time I might otherwise use writing (or playing solitaire or baking sourdough–this is me I’m talking about) but there is nothing so soothing to the heart in troubling times as doing something to help. There are all sorts of things I cannot do, but this I can do, and do with joy.

3 thoughts on “Sewing as Fast as I Can

  1. All of these things. Yes, I’ve learned interesting things making masks, like various ways to make bias tape and what Halyard is and the dangers of making t-shirt yarn (I wore a notch in the handle of my sewing shears, using them to pull the yarn. This was after giving my thumb a rope burn doing it by hand.)

    Playing with lots of different fabrics is fun. The colors, especially, are fun. And making masks is a way of addressing the panicky feeling of helplessness that comes with a crisis as huge as a pandemic. I remember feeling terribly helpless and useless, as a teen, watching a huge forest fire devour my childhood stomping grounds. I wanted to DO something, and couldn’t. So when the pandemic came and that same dreadful feeling came with it, I started making masks. It was something I could do.

    And now, there is a piece of Halyard waiting to be cut into mask blanks. See you later.

  2. I am the proud recipient of a couple of MadMasks. I always get comments on the dragons 🙂 As I’m at risk, I’m likely to be wearing masks for quite some time to come, when I do venture out at all, so I’m happy to be doing so in style!

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