Editor’s note: The CDC is expected to update its guidelines 4/3/20, encouraging community use of cloth masks or face coverings, saving medical-grade facemasks for health workers. Officials continue to recommend reserving surgical and N95 masks for first responders and medical workers.
Throughout history, sewists have been called upon in difficult periods to help with a cause, whatever the need happens to be at the time. During World War II, housewives in Britain were instructed to “Make Do and Mend,” a campaign designed to encourage frugality by refashioning existing clothing and mending worn garments.
When the call goes out, makers respond. In what could be described as a civic immune response, crafters want to help and use their gifts and talents to make the world better. During a crisis, sewists see a need, they post on social media, and begin to take action. But how effective is this system?
Recently, when the call came to sew for the wildlife rescue efforts for the Australian bushfires, sewists around the world took up the cause. Patterns for bat wraps and joey pouches were abundant. With so many helpers from around the world, soon there were too many items to use. Some felt that the money spent to ship all the items to Australia would be better deployed helping workers on the front lines in Australia with other supplies. Other items, like koala mittens, turned out to actually hinder the animals’ ability to recuperate.
With the Covid-19 pandemic, makers are once again looking to help. This time the need is for masks. Facing a shortage of N95 masks, medical professionals don’t have the personal protective equipment they need. Could handmade, nonmedical grade fabric face masks be helpful in an emergency?
What Medical Professionals Need
Medical professionals need N95 masks. An N95 mask is a tightly fitted respirator mask designed to create a seal around the nose and mouth. N95 masks are made to prevent transmission of a certain particle size and to protect the wearer from liquid that could contaminate the face. N95 masks can’t be made by the home sewer.
The World Health Organization (WHO) states, “Cloth masks are not recommended under any circumstances.” The CDC currently only recommends N95 masks for medical professionals. But some medical institutions are asking for any masks they can get. Does that include homemade masks?
According to the WHO, “Most facemasks do not effectively filter small particles from the air and do not prevent leakage around the edge of the mask when the user inhales.” The CDC confirms that a facemask, “Does NOT provide the wearer with a reliable level of protection from inhaling smaller airborne particles and is not considered respiratory protection.”
Many healthcare workers are now reusing N95 masks which would normally be thrown away between treating each patient. Some medical professionals are considering using fabric face masks to cover their N95 mask, potentially extending their use. But doctors fear that reusing a mask could infect patients who did not yet have the virus.
Can Homemade Masks Help?
The debate is on. Are handmade fabric masks better than nothing? Are they worse than nothing as they give a false sense of security? Is donating money better? What if there is no supply of N95 masks to buy? Until commercial production ramps up, is this the best we have, or is it better to spend our time calling our government representatives?
At the moment, there seems to be no specific standard to follow. Providence, a healthcare organization serving five western states, initially asked the public to sew, and even planned to have kits available. Now, however, their website states that “local manufacturing companies have stepped up to rapidly produce masks.” Other hospitals are asking sewists to wait for an approved pattern.
Guidelines from the CDC and a study published in Disaster Med Public Health Preparedness both confirm that properly fitted, washable fabric masks made by healthy volunteers can help reduce transmission. However, the study suggests that a “homemade mask should only be considered as a last resort to prevent droplet transmission from infected individuals, but it would be better than no protection.”
Makers Offering Help
Fashion designer Christian Siriano answered the call to manufacture personal protective equipment. Coordinating his staff of sewists to work from their homes, Siriano is aiming to produce 1000 nonmedical grade masks for hospital support staff and private individuals by the end of the week.
“It’s very important before anyone does anything to help, please make sure what you are making is safe and hopefully FDA approved,” Siriano said, “We must be smart.” Masks should be made from a fabric that can be bleached, and withstand frequent washing.
Patterns now abound for cloth masks that can be made at home. Some sewists are making masks for their own family and friends when they need to go out, and others are donating to hospitals and other health care institutions to use if they have no other option. There are many organizations that are now working to organize the effort, including Joann Fabrics, Relief Crafters of America, Masks for CV19 Workers, and Craft Hope.
Some hospitals are declining donations of home-sewn masks. If you want to sew face masks to donate, check first with your local hospital or healthcare provider to see what donations they’ll accept. One thing most medical professionals agree on: if you purchased N95 masks and have them at home, you should safely donate them to a hospital immediately.
The fact that sewists are being called upon in 2020 to make emergency medical equipment seems remarkable in and of itself. Printmaker and author Jen Hewett is reflecting on this moment as a maker. “I’m in the final stretch of finishing a manuscript about textile/fiber arts and crafts,” she noted, “at the same time that people are being asked to sew masks for healthcare workers. These skills that are often denigrated as silly hobbies for women, this work that is often low paid, are being put into use to save lives.”
Deborah Fisher is a designer of handmade things and object maker. You can find her at the Fish Museum and Circus where she is the docent and ring master of a crazy mixed up cabinet of curiosities, mostly things of a sewing, textile, and ceramic nature, with other odd bits thrown in. Deborah is quite fond of cocoa, daffodils, and cinnamon toast. She lives with her nifty husband, two magical daughters, three cats, and a bunch of chickens on Long Island, NY.
Erin is the textile designer and artist behind the home décor company, Cotton & Flax. She licenses her surface designs for fabric, home décor, stationery, and other clients. She’s also a teacher, writer, and enthusiastic advocate for small creative business owners. She lives in San Diego, California.