Nonmedical grade fabric face mask pattern from MADE Everyday
Photo courtesy of Dana Willard
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.
Thanks for sharing this. I’m currently making masks with a group of crafters for people who request them. The demand is coming in from nurses, people working in nursing homes for both workers and their patients, postal workers, Craft store workers (why is Joann still even open!?, veterinarians, and immunocompromised friends. While we may not be making medical grade masks, we are making masks that can at least stop the spread somewhat and I needed to bust this stash anyhow. Keep on craftin’, friends!
Tara, that’s awesome — thank you for your efforts! I think this is a great use of handmade masks: helping to curb community spread among folks with essential jobs, while prioritizing the N95s for healthcare workers on the front lines.
I’m making some for Relief Crafters of America because they say that they have requests for them. But after my first initial ones, I’m making some for my friend who owns pizza places. I’ll use non-woven fusible interfacing and I’m making enough that at the end of each shift they’ll be able to launder them in their industrial machines (not letting the employees take them home.) If it can help to reduce the spread of it then that will be a good thing. But yes, better to donate actual N95 masks. (A high school classmate found a couple thousand in the school they run that originally purchased to use during the bad fire season. Now they’ve been donated to the local police and hospital staffs.)
A filtration engineer of forty plus years professional experience flatly states “ANY cloth filters better than no cloth.”
Perfection is the enemy of the good. When there is a need for a thousand perfect masks, yet only one perfect mask available, 999 patients are left vulnerable.
Thanks for the reality check! Some is indeed better than none.
That may be true John, but don’t you find it disgusting that the government of ANY wealthy Western country can’t organise the efficient manufacture and distribution of sufficient N95 masks? With all the resources and powers at their disposal?
There was enough lead time to have got this done, there’s just no excuse when the lives of so many thousands of people are at risk, including medical staff and first responders.
Our UK government had no excuse for dropping this particular ball, but it’s rushing to rectify the issue because medical staff have warned it that they’ll refuse to work without them. Our hospitals are not requesting or accepting fabric masks because we’re a first world country and anything less than safe basic equipment is dangerous and unacceptable.
‘Perfect being the enemy of the good’ holds true in creative endeavours or those with less at risk. I’d argue that the preservation of the health and lives of medical staff deserves more scientific rigour.
My husband’s hospital is not using cloth masks. My fear is that people will have a false sense of security wearing homemade masks that are not effective without the N95 ones and put themselves at greater risk by engaging in social activities they should avoid temporarily. The Covid-19 virus is .125 microns, a human hair is 40-120 microns in diameter. There’s not much any fabric can do to stop this tiny and powerful virus.
here’s another resource: i use a small, ethical production facility in MA to sew some of my dresses, so that i can have bigger quantities to sell when i do markets. they’re called Good Clothing Company and they are AWESOME. they are shifting their production over to mask-making and other PPE for medical workers. they’re still not the N95 masks, though i believe they are trying to source the right materials for those, but they will be a more consistent, quality mask, produced in higher quantities so that the N95s can be used for those who need them most. they are seeking donations to pay their workers (many of whom are single moms) and for materials, and can be contacted by those in need of cloth masks: https://requestmasks.com/
I have a daughter who works in a local hospital. When it says cloth masks should not be used under any circumstances, that is not acceptable. A cloth mask is better than a paper mask that is open on the sides and tears sometime during a 12 hour shift. They are only allowed one per shift and have to sign that they received one. As of 2 days ago, they are out of masks. So I am sewing masks for her to wear. NO MATTER WHAT ANY SO CALLED EXPERT SAYS, a cloth mask is better than no mask at all.
My friend who is a nurse, wears a cloth mask over her hospital issued mask to extend its life. I’m sewing some for her as well.
https://www.weneedmasks.org/ is a site that has 2 patterns and organizations which are requesting sewn masks.
I’m creating masks too and have been getting requests from those who are stuck at home but also need to leave on occasion to get food. I’ve also been reaching out to grocery stores and homeless shelters where these may come in handy. I did have my pharmacist reach out as well for some.
No one has addressed washing fabrics prior to making masks. I recently read an article about fabric storage in large warehouses- who knows what creatures have be in and around the bolts. Also, with much of today’s fabrics produced in other countries- who knows what the conditions have been. Then, there is the issue of chemical finishes used on fabrics….. Something to think about in terms of safety, etc.
I understand health care institutions are putting the masks through their laundries immediately on receiving them.
I’m curious to know if people are charging for the masks they’re making?
It seems like as sewists we’re expected to step up and donate our time, and materials. I know that many people are doing just this. I’m happy to donate to people who can’t afford them, but my own business has been hit hard by the recession too, online orders are down, and all my workshops cancelled. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to charge for my time and materials, but also don’t want to be seen as profiting off a pandemic.
For friends or anybody referred by friends, what I do is to let them know the material cost, and they can “pay what they want” on top of that.
If friends are making masks for donation, I do offer free fabric to them.
Thank you for this article. In addition to a sewing business owner, I am also a part-time pharmacist who is continuing to work during this crisis. While it is true that cloth face masks do not protect the individual from Covid-19 or other respiratory illnesses, they may serve a role. The hospitals, clinics and staff are running out of the crucial N-95 masks needed to protect them and their patients. In order to preserve these masks, a cloth mask can be worn over the N-95 and allow it to be used again to see multiple patients. This is only in situations where N-95 must be rationed. Many hospitals, including the University of North Carolina, have asked for cloth masks to be made as a backup only. Of course this is just in case the production of PPE doesn’t meet the demand. At this point, companies are stepping in to supply the market with much needed PPE. Thank you all who have stepped up to help in any small way! We are all in this together! Stay safe
So far I’ve sewn 49 masks for a physical friend and a local hospital who requested them. Some will be used over N95. Some in non Covid situations.
Yikes autocorrect error – physician friend.
People in Hong Kong have been developing a DIY mask since last month. There is a study (by a chemist) to illustrate how we can enhance the effectiveness of a fabric mask with “filter”. Since it is very hard to get our hand on proper filter, he suggested to use kitchen paper towel or 2 pieces of tissues as alternative. He released a report to show the filtration effectiveness and air flow rate based on different material. I think it is a good reference. https://www.facebook.com/DrKKwongChem/photos/pcb.10157951517282158/10157951497602158/?type=3&theater
I think fabric face mask may not be best for frontline health workers, but if everybody wear mask, even just fabric mask, it will slow down the spread and be great help to each other.
I haven’t heard anyone talking about the difference between a simple cloth mask and a cloth mask that can hold an n95 filter insert. It seems to me that mass producing a flat insert would be a lot simpler/faster than making disposable n95 masks (for the companies still operating and doing so). In conjunction, we can get sewers everywhere to make conforming insert-capable cloth masks to hold these inserts. This seems like a really powerful way forward – n95 insert+standardized cloth mask. And in the short term, the insert-capable masks would be a way-less-than-perfect solution by themselves. I don’t hear a lot of talk about this as a solution. Am I missing something? Or maybe the inserts are just as scarce right now?
yes i’ve been wondering about these filter inserts too. i’ve seen lots of mention of making masks “with a pocket for a filter” but no mention of whether these filters are any more available than the N95 masks. the pockets is an extra step/s which i’m happy to do, but makes no sense if there are no filter inserts.
My friend is a trauma nurse practitioner and she requested simple face masks with a pocket. She’s using vacuum cleaner bag and hepa filters.
From what I’ve read, adding an N95 filter in a pocket of a cloth mask does no good. The N95 filters are hard to breathe through and the masks need to be well-fitted to the face. If you add an N95 filter to a loosely-fitted mask, the wearer just ends up drawing more (unfiltered) air around the edges of the filter. I’ve read several studies that said 2 layers of cotton fabric (no interfacing) is recommended.
Wendi, are you willing to share the studies to which you made reference? I am currently making masks and am trying to decide whether to continue with the non-woven interfacing. Thanks.
I am also looking to find out whether or not interfacing is recommended. Please share the studies if you have them. Thanks!
I wanted to help here in the Seattle area, but didn’t want to waste my efforts…and materials, either. So I reached out directly to my own Dr. Turns out they really wanted to of these cloth fabrics, but didn’t know who to ask for help. So we collaborated on what they wanted and I recruited friends to help. They chose the style (basic surgical one) and their plan is to use them over N95’s. They also wanted to have several for each staff member so they can be changed frequently.
We’re requesting that everyone pre-wash them in hot water, NO soap (too many variables with scents, etc.) and dry in hot dryer (no fabric softeners) and package them in ziplock bags.
I encourage everyone that if you want to help, contact your own health care professionals and serve your local community. Every bit helps!!
Thanks for this timely article and discussion. Our county is collecting supplies for first responders and I’m sewing masks. Related to this – I’ve just downloaded a free pattern from Lazy Girl Designs for a surgical or hospital gown – this may be the next thing needed. I’m happy to deplete my stash of fabric and make these needed supplies. My quilt group has debated the issue of whether the masks can be used and we’ve decided to move ahead – if nothing else, sick patients can wear the masks to limit the spread of the virus to others. Be safe and be well, everyone!
Great info here as well 😉
I am making masks for a local group, donating what I can, selling at cost when people offer to buy. And every time I give a mask its final press, I pray that it isn’t needed by a frontline healthcare worker. Cloth masks are better than nothing, and if all they accomplish is helping us remember not to touch our faces, that’s a start.
Can this article be shared or is it only for members? I’d like to post it on my page.
Thank you Abby!
I’m working with a group that works directly with my county health department. We’ve been given clear criteria for the masks and the county has organised a drive up drop off spot. It’s my understanding that there fabric masks will be given to PATIENTS suspected of having the virus. While the fabric masks do little to protect a healthy individual, they are slightly more effective when worn by a sick individual to help stop dispersal of droplets when they cough. So by giving them to patients, it helps conserve more effective protection for the health care workers.
According to my cousin, a RN, PHD of Emergency Medicine, “In case of emergency they are better than not having anything”
I have a few nurses asking, so I am hitting my stash – sent the first out today.
I’m working with two local organizations to provide surgical-style masks. One is a clinic that does PT and hospice care. They’re giving their more effective masks to the hospital and can use the fabric masks I make. The other is a covid clinic set up by our county health department. They said they’ll take anything they can get, and are thrilled to have a washable option – which they say is much better than stashing a disposable mask in a locker to be worn through several shifts. Both told me not to bother to wash them. They’re going to drop them straight into their own machines so they can control temperature, detergent, etc. Just ask to make sure you’re making what they actually need.
The home made is not the issue. Wearing any type of mask is giving people a false sense of security. I work in a hospital and see and hear all the requirements. Then I go out in public and I see the complete opposite. I watched a lady in the grocery store with gloves and a mask on. She constantly touched everything while also touching her mask. Anything that was on the gloves is not on the mask and vise versa. If she did not have a mask on I would suspect that she would not constantly touch the mask on her face. I have then also seen people go to their car and take the mask off with out any hand sanitize and place it on their dash. All that this is doing is continuing to harbor and spread the virus if it is on the items. People think that they are protecting themselves when in reality they are helping to spread it.
Be careful if you mention a pattern for the facemasks or link to a you tube video re: facemasks on Facebook Facebook “unpublished” my business page. I have appealed, but who knows how long it will take since most facebook employees are working from home.
Can N95 masks be safely autoclave? https://youtu.be/0QKnqD7scI4
My daughter is an ER doctor who asked me to make her cloth masks with pockets for inserts. We evaluated every pattern I could find until we found one that works for her purposes. She is given ONE N95 mask a day where before she disposed of them between each patient. I found a manufacturer in FL who is producing very high quality HEPA filters custom sizes to fit in the mask. Our plan is to protect the N95 by inserting it in one of my handmade masks along with one of the custom sized HEPA filters. Between each patient, she’ll put the N95 and HEPA filter into a clean cloth mask. Hopefully this will protect her patients and my daughter more than using the same N95 mask all day long for each and every patient of her 12 hour shift. The handmade masks are all white cotton that will be bleached and laundered every day. It’s not a perfect solution but it’s all I can do to protect her. By the way, the HEPA filters are expensive but they can block larger particles. Also, 1/4 “ elastic I use to construct the masks is in short supply already.
I am a nurse. I work for a healthcare system that has been very proactive during this emergency. They are calling homemade masks “social masks” and the organization does not recommend their use, but allows employees to wear them (with some restrictions). The reason given for discouraging their use is that as time passes with the mask in place, it can become contaminated. If the wearer touches the mask, their hand is contaminated. So the wearer needs to be conscious of this and not touch the mask with hands while wearing it.
I am making masks for my friends and coworkers who request them. I give them 2, so one can be worn and the other laundered. I give them the instructions about not touching the mask. I am puzzled by the claim that the masks don’t help. Anyone who has been directly sneezed on knows that some barrier is better than no barrier.
I have been reading these comments with concern. Your statement that if you have a cloth mask on while being sneezed on will protect you works only if you immediately replace the contaminated mask. The fabric may block the large molecules of the moisture but does nothing to block the micron sized virus molecules. Now, they are in your mask and you go around breathing them in all day? And as you exhale, you breathe them onto someone else? The moist fabric is an incubator.
Yes, the concern is that the mask becomes contaminated. Of course it should be changed if it were directly sneezed on or otherwise became contaminated.
Many thanks for this very interesting post.
Here in Germany we currently have the same discussions around this topic. As everywhere, we, sewists, also receive a lot of requests from local midwifes, dentist and sometimes even from hospitals. Currently they seem to have to decide, if their either work without any mask or at least use a fabric mask. Usually they would use these normal surgeons mask, which also don´t protect against the Corona virus but give the protection they need / they would like to give to their patients. As far as I´m aware N95-masks are used in situations, when they work with Corona infected patients but for all other patient contacts, they would either use surgeons mask or if not available, try to get at least on fabric masks.
In the last days more and more local textile producers stopped sewing their normal products (underwear / shirts ….) and started to produce masks. This is really great and I hope that soon the health care providers are able again to purchase those masks.
Greetings from Germany,
I live in Northern Colorado and have been reading about all the masks us makers have been making. I am a professional quilter and sewist. I decided to call two of the largest local hospitals in my area, Poudre Valley Hospital and Medical Center of the Rockies, and offer handmade nonsurgical masks for hospital personnel. I spoke to the people who head up the departments that order supplies and PPE (personal protective equipment) and both hospitals said though they were appreciative of my desire to offer to make masks, they had no need of them at this time. Both of them took my name and email and said they would contact me if it came to the point that they needed them. I was a bit taken aback by the cool, “don’t call us we’ll call you if we need them” attitude but the more I think about it. the more I think they probably need funds to purchase sterile, clean, PPEs. Before you spend a lot of time making masks that your local hospitals might not be able to use, I suggest you also call your local hospitals to see if these items would be welcome. On the other hand, I might make masks for my friends, neighbors and relatives and give them away.
I commented before as the mother of an ER doctor. I’m updating with new information. If you are looking for real filter fabric, look at this material.
If you use it, you will need to make masks from a pattern like this so that the filter mask maintains its integrity.
I have been working 13+ hrs a day 7 days a week helping to produce N95 material and we are shipping daily from NXT Nano😀