The Joys And Challenges Of Sewing 498 Masks

Jun 9, 2020

Carol Russell's sewing machine at her home in Kalamazoo
Credit Courtesy photo / Carol Russell

One of the early shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic was the news that frontline workers did not have enough protective gear. Hospitals and other health organizations started asking for homemade cloth masks. Which brings us to our latest story based on your sounds of the pandemic.

“I have been inundated with the sound of my sewing machine during the pandemic shutdown,” Carol Russell of Kalamazoo told WMUK.

Russell has been sewing cloth facemasks since March. That’s when volunteers organized the group that would evolve into the Southwest Michigan Protective Gear Project. Its goal was to help close the mask gap for hospital and other frontline workers.

“I thought, you know what, that is something I could do,” Russell said. “I have a sewing machine, I’ve got a little extra unusual time on my hands, I think I’ll sew a few masks.”

But as volunteer mask-making snowballed, a few turned into a lot.

Russell began with a pattern adopted by the Kalamazoo County health department, sometimes known as the “Phoebe” mask because its design is attributed to the Phoebe Putney Health System in Georgia.

“It is actually a respirator cover, it’s supposed to be a cover for N95 mask but it’s also just good general-purpose mask, usually with elastic over the ears, very easy to wear, very roomy,” she said.

And not too challenging to sew, especially at Russell’s level.

“I used to do a lot of garment sewing,” she said. “I had a job in a fabric store when I was in college.”

“I figured that pattern out pretty quickly. I’d say my first few were not so great, but I watched one of the group people do a little video tutorial and I was like ‘oh yeah, that’s good.’”

Other volunteers were getting to work around Southwest Michigan. The Gear Project’s Facebook page filled with tips, updates, humor, even offers of sewing machines from people who weren’t using theirs. The group hit its 10,000-mask goal in a matter of weeks.  

“And I thought ‘oh good, there we go!’ We got to 10,000 and I had made about 200 at that point and I thought ‘that’s good. My back hurts. I’m kind of tired of sewing. I’m going to put my machine away. And get back to some other things.’  But then, the group said ‘this has gone great, but we need more masks, in fact we’re going to raise our goal to 50,000. And we have a new pattern, we want you all to try it.’”

Russell decided to keep going. The second pattern had pleats, a pocket for filters and cloth ties instead of ear loops. The cloth ties hold up better to the rigors of industrial washing.

They also take longer to make, but Russell welcomes the complexity.

Some of Russell's "Phoebe" masks and a pleated mask.
Credit Courtesy photo / Carol Russell

“I find that the pleated pocket mask is very satisfying to sew,” she said, “since I do know how to do garment sewing and quite often that does have a little bit more intricacy to it.”

“I do a lot of, one step at a time. I don’t make one mask from start to finish but like, I cut a bunch in one day,” she added.

“One of the fun things for me about being part of the mask project has been getting the materials to make them, because at first the stores weren’t open so it was this kind of black market, ‘I have this bolt of old fabric in my basement,’ and ‘oh, I found this stash of bias tape in my basement, does anyone want it.”

“I haven’t bought any fabric, period,” Russell said. “You look at fabric and you think, gosh, was this someone’s Easter dress? Was this someone’s curtains from their first apartment?

Russell says many days she works on masks for two or three hours. As of early this week, she’d made 498 – a number she said would have sounded fantastical to her back in March. Russell plans to keep sewing as demand remains high.

“The volunteer group is providing large batches of masks to all kinds of organizations around town,” she said.

Not just health care organizations, but places like the Kalamazoo Public Library, according to Protective Gear Project co-organizer Megan Maddock. KPL has requested 600 masks from the Protective Gear Project, which has also donated “at least” 1,000 masks to Residential Opportunities Incorporated, Maddock said.

The PGP is still working toward its 50,000 mask goal. As of Tuesday the official count stood at 38,856. Maddock said the actual number is surely even higher, because some masks don’t get counted before they’re donated.