As we adjust to life in the age of COVID-19, the face mask has become an essential feature of our attire and routine, a means of protecting oneself and others from the spread of the virus.
But throughout the pandemic, many communities have struggled to access adequate protective equipment in the face of global shortages. As the need for masks continues to escalate, many are wondering: how can we provide for a global society in which wearing masks has suddenly become as requisite as wearing clothes?
The solution, in part, is being offered by creative, community-minded individuals around the world who are stepping up to make masks for those in need. These people, many of them volunteers, are supporting relatives, friends, neighbours, frontline workers, and under-resourced groups by transforming the practices of cutting, sewing, and stitching into essential, even life-saving endeavors.
One such volunteer, Carol Davis from Virginia, US, came across a DIY mask-making tutorial in March and posted the video on a community support Facebook group called Looking Out for Each Other: New River Valley, Virginia. She had been hearing about shortages of PPE for healthcare workers in the news and wanted to share a helpful resource for local individuals interested in sewing masks for frontline employees. To Carol’s surprise, her post attracted “an overwhelming number” of comments from people asking questions and offering to help her organise a more structured volunteer group dedicated to assembling and distributing masks. Carol created a new Facebook group, NRV Mask Makers, and began using the platform to communicate with individuals who were eager to serve.
“A core group of about eight folks stepped up to handle different logistical elements,” Carol said. “From there, [the group experienced] exponential growth.”
Since their founding, the NRV Mask Makers have broadened their efforts to produce not only standard masks but also child-sized masks, surgical gowns, and 3D face shields to adapt to the evolving needs of the NRV community.
“We’re learning to be very responsive and creative to what’s happening week to week because it hasn’t been the same in any week,” Carol said.
Due to limited supplies and volunteers, the group initially intended to provide equipment solely to healthcare workers in the NRV area. However, as support for the organisation increased, the group began sending face coverings to communities outside the region. To date, they have distributed hundreds of masks to the Virginia Rural Health Association and over 500 masks to the Navajo Nation.
Members are also helping to supply nearby Grace Episcopal Church’s “need a mask, take a mask” station, located outside of the church’s doors. Here, masks are strung from a clothesline in zip lock bags, with each bag containing a label that specifies the features of the mask within it. The station, and the church’s overall “Cover Up NRV'' initiative, aims to encourage mask-wearing and increase mask accessibility. Several NRV Mask Makers, including Carol, have assembled portable “need a mask, take a mask” stations to bring to various community events. As the Black Lives Matter movement surges in the US, Carol frequents the streets with her mask station, supporting protesters by offering them face coverings as they march.
"I took my portable station to a Juneteenth celebration [hosted by] a local African American organisation,” Carol said. There, Carol explained, a woman wearing a mask she recognised approached her and explained to her that she had received a mask from Carol the month before at a protest. The woman expressed immense gratitude, thanking Carol for providing her with a washable, reusable face covering to replace the paper one she had been using for weeks.
“Sometimes you don’t really know what seed you’re planting when you plant it,” Carol said, having never expected the NRV Mask Makers to grow into a large, hundred-member organisation. “It’s amazing to see the collective impact.”
As the Mask Makers prepared to complete their 10,000th mask, Carol collected quotes from members describing their volunteer experiences. Anne Judkins Campbell, a core member of the group who coordinates mask distribution, said, “The NRV Mask Makers are a remarkable example of how community-spirited, health-responsible citizens have come together to create an important life raft during this pandemic. I am honoured to be a part of this effort.” Another volunteer, Rebecca Shelton, said, “My grandmother sewed for so many people during her life. I inherited her machine, so it feels wonderful to contribute in a way that she would and that would make her proud.”
Smaller than the NRV Mask Makers, but no less impactful, is Sew Outrageous Sisters, a partnership between sisters Mitzi and Mary who are accepting mask orders through Facebook and distributing their products across the US and Canada.
“Mary and I recognised that there was a huge need for masks. We knew how to sew, and we knew we could make a difference,” Mitzi said. “I’m not really sure how it all fell together—fate I would say. We talked about it and before we knew it we were doing it.”
Mitzi deemed the mask-making process “exhausting, overwhelming, and so incredibly rewarding.” After assembling a batch of 90 face coverings for New York City EMTs, she swore she was finished making masks. Witnessing hateful arguments on social media over masks had discouraged her from continuing to sew them, making her feel as though her extensive efforts were being undermined by the divisive opinions of others. When asked why she resumed production, Mitzi said, “At some point, we have to realize that we are here for a reason, a purpose. My purpose during this time is to help as many people as I can, and supply them with as many masks as I can.” Sew Outrageous Sisters, which “started as an idea and blossomed into a beautiful thing,” continues to reach more people every day. “I can’t even begin to fathom the amount of good we have done thanks to those who have purchased masks or donated,” Mitzi said. “It’s truly mind-blowing to me.”
Steph Clarke, the Sustainability Program Coordinator for the Guelph Tool Library in Ontario, Canada also wasn’t expecting to launch a mask-making campaign when the pandemic began. The Guelph Tool Library, a “lending library of tools” available for community use, was forced to close its doors when lockdown measures were enacted in Guelph. To continue serving the Guelph community, Steph spearheaded the Merry Mask Makers project, assembling mask-making kits and sending them to volunteers to sew the face coverings and distribute them to those in need.
“When we were no longer able to access [our] inventory [of tools], we were trying to think of different ways to share and what it means to share during a pandemic,” Steph said. “[We wanted] to uphold the value of a sharing economy in a way that was relevant and meaningful to what [is] currently going on.”
The Merry Mask Makers have surpassed their original goal of providing 1,000 masks for the Guelph community and are already approaching the 1,500 mask mark.
“We’ll continue the program as long as we still have people willing to sew and access to materials,” Steph said.
Members have made masks for summer camps, community gardens and farms, and other local programs to enable those organisations to operate during this challenging time.
“Our volunteers appreciate that there [is] a project they [can] be involved with during the pandemic that is still connecting them to their communities,” Steph said.
Meanwhile, Ingrid Helton, Costume Director for the San Diego Opera in California, has been hard at work designing transparent face masks for the deaf, hard-of-hearing, and others who rely on lip-reading to communicate. When Michael Conley, a deaf employee at a local museum, expressed a need for clear masks to enable him to read lips and facial expressions, Ingrid began crafting right away.
“I did research on transparent masks and started making up different prototypes,” Ingrid said. “I probably went through about 14 or 15 variations.”
She then reached out to local theatre artisans, many of whom had been rendered jobless by the pandemic’s ravaging effects on the performing arts industry. Ingrid and nine other artisans formed the Happy Laugh Masks team, using their artistic expertise to create masks that allow for not only lip-reading but also smiling, an expression essential to human well-being but unfortunately scarce during the pandemic.
Although live operas have temporarily ceased, Ingrid has been channelling her costume designing experience into making masks.
“In theatre, you end up doing a lot of problem-solving and [creating] unusual things [from] unusual materials,” Ingrid said. “I wanted to [make] something that would keep its form but be easy to clean and not wrinkle.”
Already possessing a costume designer’s studio and accompanying tools, she was able to experiment with buying and shaping various kinds of plastic to create her transparent masks.
“My experience designing and building costumes [has allowed] me to offer [this] project a wider range of knowledge and skills,” Ingrid said. “Even though I’m using [new] stitching methods [to make the masks], I’m [still] being creative and coming up with an end result that’s practical but also fun and different.”
When asked how the San Diego community, particularly the lip-reading community, has responded to Happy Laugh Masks, Ingrid said, “There’s been an outpouring of thankfulness but also excitement that there’s something that’s going to make things easier for [lip-readers] in their day-to-day lives.”
Even beyond the lip-reading community, Ingrid’s transparent masks are helpful for teachers, particularly special education teachers who need to appear approachable to their students. As Ingrid’s business grows, her mask recipients share with her how they’ve been impacted by her products.
“It’s overwhelming how grateful people are,” Ingrid said. “People are so happy they’ve been thought of.”