#SewStayHome: What’s it like sewing masks and PPE?

Around the world, sewists are suddenly finding that our skills are in high demand, as governments and health authorities switch to recommending that people wear fabric masks, and hospitals and other institutions put out calls for mask covers, scrub caps, cover-up gowns, and more. Over the years, we’ve all seen the “crafting isn’t a hobby, it’s an apocalyptic life skill” memes, but what does it actually feel like to be called on to make that a reality? We asked a few members of our Sewcialists team to share their experiences and thoughts, from their homes around the world. Some are sewing masks and PPE (personal protective equipment), some aren’t. Either way, we’re all feeling ALL the feelings right now, and we thought it was important to reflect on that.


Anne

Personally, I keep thinking back to the Red Cross campaigns during the two World Wars, asking women at home to make bandages and knit socks and warm clothes for the troops. In fact, Gillian and I wouldn’t exist without those efforts; our grandmother went to a friend’s home in 1939 to learn how to knit for the Canadian forces, and while she was there, she happened to meet a young flight lieutenant who was billeted there. They married the following year, and the rest is history!

Today, in our part of Canada, hospitals are starting to put out calls for fabric masks, for visitors/discharged patients to wear. My local hospital is also asking for scrub caps and for laundry bags for contaminated scrubs, and a Facebook group has sprung up to meet that need. A local fabric retailer is selling kits of fabric and elastic at or below their cost, and volunteers are doing porch-drops of the kits and picking up completed scrub caps and bags.

On one hand, having something useful to sew is giving me a real sense of being able to help the community. I have an autoimmune disease so I really am stuck at home, and this is about the only thing I can do, aside from making monetary donations. And there is that tremendous sense of continuity and connection, with my grandmother and her friends who knit for the troops, and all the other millions of knitters and sewists throughout history who have used their needles to help during crises of all kinds. That is steadying and uplifting, for me, and when anxiety wants to send me into a tailspin, I really appreciate having that industrious work to turn to. It’s also pretty incredible to see the community pulling together — one friend is donating her late mother’s quilting stash to the cause, and colleagues who don’t sew are re-assessing their old bed sheets as potential fabric sources, while in the Facebook group there are sewing machines being loaned, rusty skills being upgraded, and hundreds of caps and bags being churned out for our two local hospitals.

On the other hand… ugh. I’m angry at the authorities, on all levels, who cut budgets and allowed stockpiled resources to lapse. I am freaking out that my fairly basic sewing abilities and the decisions I make about mask designs and fabric combinations might actually be the difference between life or death for someone. (Seriously. I sew once or twice a year, normally. I’ve sewn more in the past month than I’ve sewn in the past 15 years put together.)

I’m pissed off that this expectation that sewists will give freely of our stashes and labour is so gendered — it’s simultaneously recognizing these traditionally female skills as valuable, but also expecting that we will give of them without expecting compensation, devaluing our many hours of work! The news coverage about the sewn donations continues to have a subtext of “isn’t that sweet, the little ladies are helping,” whereas the coverage about 3D printed face shields (a more masculine donation, apparently) doesn’t have that.

It’s not lost on me that nursing continues to be a predominantly female occupation, too, and therefore one that is less well paid. Women (mostly) are being asked to sew PPE for free for other women (again, mostly) who need it because the system they contribute to doesn’t have the resources to protect them.

I’m trying to just keep focusing on the excellent (and free!) health care I’ve received in this community over the years, and how sewing these scrub caps and laundry bags is my opportunity to personally thank the medical staff who have provided it. But I’m also trying to remember to take breaks and to take care of myself in all of this…

Anne is the lead copy-editor with the Sewcialists, and she would much rather be knitting for pleasure than sewing masks and caps and drawstring laundry bags. She’s online at @anniebeeknits.


Meg

It still seems very surreal that it’s come to this, but in some areas, including where I live in Vermont (US), the federal and state governments are recommending that all people, not just health care workers, wear some sort of face covering if they have to go out for groceries or other essentials. The face covering is less about protecting yourself, and more about protecting others in case you are an unknowing asymptomatic carrier of the virus. 

As such, I started sewing fabric masks, knowing that many others don’t have the sewing skills to make one for themselves, and that many who are essential workers (grocery store workers, mail and parcel delivery folks, etc.) are potentially being exposed while working since they don’t have the option to “stay home, stay safe.”  

About half the masks I’ve sewn and donated were made using materials from my own stash, and the other half using fabric purchased by the government in Burlington, Vermont where I live. The city coordinated a Community Mask Initiative and purchased 1400 yards of fabric, worked with local businesses that might not otherwise have been considered “essential,” including a theater, an artists’ guild and several small companies that have cutting and sewing experience, and mobilized local sewists in the community to help sew thousands of masks. The masks are then sanitized by a local dry cleaner and distributed by the city to essential workers.

For me, sewing masks feels good. It feels like an important contribution to my community at a time that I otherwise feel pretty helpless and hopeless. I also felt like the repetitive, mindless nature of sewing so many masks, factory-style, distracted me from my anxieties, at least for a little while. 

That said, after making over 200 masks over the past week or two, while also doing my full-time telework job, I am exhausted, both emotionally and physically, with tense shoulders and aching hands. I think I’ll take a break from mask sewing for a few days… 

Meg is a former Sewcialists editor and when she’s not sewing masks, shares her garment sewing at @cookinandcraftin.


Kerry

In the past 10 days I’ve made slightly more than 100 masks for family, friends, and their families. At first it felt great, like I was doing something about this pandemic instead of letting it happen all around me. Then I started to get upset at the media coverage. I don’t know about you, but when non-sewists find out what I do for a hobby, I get patronizing looks or “isn’t that cute” kinds of statements (unless I’ve made a killer outfit, and then it’s all “YOU MADE THAT?”).

A stack of Kerry's masks in cute Kokka prints.

No, I don’t code or game or run a 3D printer. Yes, I sew practical yet pretty things. No, there is no such thing as having too much clothing/quilts/mug rugs, etc. It’s what I do to relax, and you don’t ask an artist if they have too many paintings, or a gamer if they have too many games.

I’m already tired of being patronized for my hobby. And then a world level crisis comes about that it seems like every government had a plan for and no one actually prepared for, and now people need our help and it’s all “where are the sewists to save me and my family?”

Why? Because of an epic failure in proactive management. Canada has had a plan for almost exactly this pandemic, including spreading of the virus by asymptomatic shedders, since 2006. That’s FOURTEEN YEARS, people. How is it that we don’t have enough masks for the medical profession, and no one ever thought about purchasing reusable cotton masks for civilians to prevent them from “speaking moistly” (as the Canadian Prime Minister memorably described it) to each other?

I mean, I can see how it happened. I spent 19 years as a high level bureaucrat. Everyone has a budget and you have to stick to it and funding the everyday crisis of health care is a lot easier to justify than carving off a percentage for that pandemic that will happen someday.

But 800,000 scientists worldwide got a warning on December 30th about a pneumonia of unknown origin causing deaths, and still no one stocked up on masks; still no one purchased ventilators.

Now it seems it’s up to hobby sewists and people who own 3D printers to put the health care system back to rights? In countries with for-profit health care, this is totally unconscionable. You should all be rioting in the streets, standing 6′ apart from each other. (If there was ever a Canadian-sounding protest, that is it.) For the rest of us, it’s sad, and a sorry commentary on our public health systems.

I love my family and I love my friends, and their families are okay, too, but after I’m done my last batch tomorrow, this mask factory is closed.

Kerry wears one of her own masks, and gives the camera some seriously pissed-off side-eye.

Kerry is a Sewcialists editor from Ottawa, Canada. She is full of rage.


Amanda

I’m not sewing masks.

I love helping. I love that I have this skill that could potentially help people, but, like, honestly I just can’t do it. The amount of information that is out there about what style to make or what materials to use is overwhelming. Couple that with the fact that each hospital/unit/office seemingly wants something different is just too much for me right now.

My family is incredibly fortunate to be financially stable during all of this so we’ve made cash donations. As far as I’m concerned, cash towards making face shields and stocking food pantries is just as good a deed as sewing masks. It also requires far less of my time, which is currently in short supply as my husband is working from home (in the space that my sewing machine is in) and I have to entertain a preschooler and an infant all day! I felt guilty about it at first, but then I realized my first duty is to be a good and present mother. Frankly, I can’t be that when I’m sewing all day. So instead, I’m expressing gratitude daily, and soaking up good weather and time with my kids (in between small panics).

Amanda's kids play in their back yard at a water table.
These kids keep me busy!

Amanda is a tired mom of 2 boys sharing everyday normal life over at @mandabe4r. Maybe someday she’ll find time to finish something and post it on the ‘gram.


Gabby

I put off sewing masks for a long time, because I am angry that I’m being asked to pick up the slack for the United States federal government’s complete and total mishandling of this pandemic. We are currently in the position that each state’s governor is more important than the nonsense edicts we get daily from our own president. I… am in disbelief. Total disbelief.

Aside from my feelings on the politics of the matter, the governor of my state, and the governor of New York (where most of my close friends live) have asked people to wear masks outside the house whenever they need to leave (of course, essential errands only). I am not sewing PPE. I don’t feel comfortable. However, when friends and family ask for a mask, I will oblige, because that is something I can provide EVEN THOUGH IT WASN’T MY FAULT THERE IS A SHORTAGE. Every single medical industry C-suite person needs to feel ashamed of their decisions to deny PPE budgets. It’s not my job to give my time, my fabric, my thread, my sweat, my tears, and my seam-ripping. I already pay (WAY more than) enough for my health care. Where’s that money? Inking the check of someone’s bonus? F*ck that. Capitalists can’t cry Socialist when times get tough. It doesn’t work that way.

Anyway, I’m sewing. I’m sewing more than I have in years. I’ll sew for friends, I’ll sew for family, I’ll sew for friends of friends. Figuring out how to production-line these small, complicated, and fiddly things scratches a brain itch for me. I love being able to make things for people I haven’t sewn for in years, or maybe ever. I like making things that are high quality and well-made, and I feel proud of my effort. On the other hand, I don’t want to have to feel that way about this particular thing. I cry almost every day about my kids having to wear masks just to go in the front yard.

This sucks. But, as needs must, I guess. So, I’ll sacrifice my stash, and make masks that look freaking dope for the people that I love. I understand everyone needs to do what works for them. And as an extrovert, if I can’t see and talk to people in person, the very least I can do is make for them.

Gabby writes Dear Gabby, and is currently venting steams of righteous anger in her basement studio, alongside her iron, pressing more mask pockets for filter inserts. Online @ladygrift.


Charlotte

I’ve decided (so far at least) not to sew masks or scrubs. As someone who isn’t an essential worker, and who can stay at home, it’s easy to feel guilty that I’m not helping in any and every way I am able. However, I also feel that sewing is my hobby, it’s my opportunity to relax and be creative when work is done, and that if I use up all of my sewing time and energy making masks then I’ll end up very miserable!

Instead, I’m going to continue to explore other opportunities to contribute, through monetary donations, supporting local businesses, and through other forms of volunteering. (In the UK, we’ve been asked to volunteer to provide transport and make phone calls for the health service — although the process seems very slow to get up and running.)

Sewing is only one of my skills, so I’m going to explore opportunities to volunteer my other skills, and keep sewing for myself. (P.S. If any voluntary organisations near me could benefit from project management support at the present time, get in touch).

Charlotte is a temporary Sewcialists Editor, who blogs at English Girl at Home.


Emilia

Coming from a country with universal healthcare, free for everything from blood tests to open heart surgeries, and living in another country with excellent coverage and a very affordable national insurance system, I’ve followed the situation in other countries with curiosity and a certain dose of bewilderment. Chiefly, I was quite frankly shocked the public was asked to volunteer time and money to making masks. Why should I have to fix the problems created by a capitalist system that exploit the less fortunate, where a right such a health is taken away from people, and hospitals are run for profit? Sewing masks would not give me a discount if I fall sick. In addition, since having sewing skills seems to be in such a high demand, why should I have to dedicate my own resources, in the form of fabric, notions, electricity to run the machine, wear-tear-swears, and most importantly my time — which is not free either — with no compensation? My point is, if you want to make masks, fine, do it, but be ready to think about the underlying problems. I was reading the newsletter of a fabric store and they wrote something along the line of “this is your time to give back.” But why?

In Japan masks are the norm most of the year, and especially in winter and early spring, when many have allergies, myself included, and the seasonal flu circulates. Wearing a mask is a sign that you care about your community, not just that you are allergic to cedar pollen. I also work in a lab with sterile mice, doing surgeries on animals and handling toxic chemicals, so masks are a necessity for us. Given the shortage, I was asked to make about 50 cloth masks according to precise specifications (sterilization being the most important factor) so that the pandemic would have a minor effect on our ability to perform our duties. And guess what: I was compensated for my time and materials. I also made a few masks for my family, because the weather is glorious and everything is blooming now, and I believe surgical masks should be left to medical institutions in this time of need. I’m not alone in this: many people have started crafting their own cloth masks, from the no-sew version to the elaborately sashiko embroidered ones, and even the government is planning to give cloth masks to every household (memes were endless, let me tell you). A guide on how to make masks even made it to a widely circulated newspaper’s front page a few days ago.

It’s fascinating to me how in this time and age, scientists are often belittled and not listened to and scientific research, both basic and problem-driven, is underfunded. I get that everyone wants to give something back at this point… but maybe giving your money and time to scientists so we can do our job to improve the human condition would be a better way to help than making masks.

Emilia is a temporary editor based in Tokyo. She enjoys looking at tiny brains, growing plants, dressing like a raven, and being opinionated. You can find her @emilia_to_nuno and on her blog.


Sophy

I’m sewing scrubs for my local NHS hospital where I am currently living in the United Kingdom. When I first saw the call for help I thought, yes, finally something I can do from home which makes me feel less of a bystander and more involved in helping. I felt like I could do something when I felt at my most powerless and anxious. I had been told to isolate by my daughter’s Consultant, but it felt to me that few people appeared to understand that it’s not just the elderly who are at risk (the number of times I hear “I asked all the old people on my street if they were ok” — please do check with everyone on your street because not all disabilities and vulnerabilities are visible). So in the midst of feeling scared, worried and judged that I wasn’t doing anything more, I had thought I that this act would be empowering. But my mindset has somewhat changed. 

Sophy's sewing station includes a pattern for scrub trousers, scissors, a measuring tape, and a pile of fabric.

My issues with making scrubs for the NHS are twofold.

Firstly, the organisation of the drive has lagged behind the enthusiasm of home sewists. I ended up spending my own money printing patterns and buying fabric and notions. Although there is now funding and much more coherent planning in place, this has left me feeling rather disillusioned, because it felt to me that the time and energy that sewing takes was not being considered as a donation in and of itself. Taking into account both how much I spent on notions and my labour, these homemade scrubs are a seriously high value item. This is compounded by the media reporting which doesn’t reflect that — it doesn’t reflect the money spent and the skills involved, the dedication and perseverance in setting in sleeves, ironing seams and top stitching pockets. 

Secondly, and more importantly, we should not have to be doing this in the first place. The government has had since January when the full scale of this virus was understood in Asia, through to its arrival in Europe and the devastation caused in Italy and Spain, to prepare and buy in what is actually needed. I had to go into the hospital for urgent tests for my daughter, and when I explained what I was volunteering to do, the nurses there told me no one was allowed scrubs in their department even though they had asked to have them. The nurses (understandably) didn’t want to wear their uniforms home and risk spreading any contaminants from the hospital. When I called through to the administration department to see if I could make specific scrubs for the paediatric staff, they told me that “all staff who policy dictates should have scrubs do have them” but then agreed they did need scrubs to be donated by the local sewing community, although this likely won’t reach the paediatric team I spoke to. The disconnect between political and bureaucratic rhetoric and the reality for staff on the ground is making me so angry. Why should we be volunteering our time, money and skill when we cannot even get an honest and candid admission that mistakes have been made and are still being made? 

I want to help, and hate that doctors and nurses are being under served by those in power; and I do feel pleased and proud that the skills gained from a much loved hobby can be of use in a national crisis. But my emotional load is high at the moment and honestly I think it’s ok to admit that and take a break.

Sophy is a previous editor for the Sewcialists and is locked down in England away from her home in Hong Kong. She shares her makes on sophy_sews_hk, although these are few and far between in these turbulent times!


So, that’s us — our perspectives from around the globe, with the full range of takes. Let us know what you’re doing, or not doing, as the case may be! Are you sewing for the cause? Are you defending your sewing space as the last bastion of normalcy in an upside-down world? Are you a front-line worker who has no choice but to gear up and protect yourself as best you can?

Whatever you are doing, wherever you are, know that you’re very definitely not the only one to be feeling this messy ambivalence, this pressure to help, or this rage at the situation that we’re all in. From all of us to all of you, stay safe and be well.


Dear Reader: Our goal is to build community and make everyone feel welcome. We support crafting as an inclusive and welcoming space for people of all ages, abilities, ethnicities, genders, orientations and sizes. Regarding sewing challenge themes, we ask that you take each challenge as you see it fitting in your life, and express your involvement how you like, at the given time. Our challenges are for the pure enjoyment of participation and the love of community. Extended Mission Page Here.